Foreign characters get test run in Web URLs

NEW YORK - The Internet's key oversight agency is on track to start testing addresses entirely in foreign characters by November, but rules for determining which ones to permit likely will take another year or two to develop.

Individuals and companies outside the United States long have clamored for non-English scripts, finding restrictive the limitation of domain names to 37 characters: a-z, 0-9 and the hyphen.

Addresses partly in foreign languages are sometimes possible, but the suffix - the ".com" part of an address - for now requires non-English speakers to type English characters.

The "live" tests later this year are designed to make sure browsers, e-mail programs and other applications will work well with the foreign characters, said Vint Cerf, chairman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

"We've already done the testing in the laboratories," Cerf said as ICANN's general meetings ended Friday in San Juan, Puerto Rico. "We're confident that none of the infrastructure is likely to encounter a problem but you really don't know until you are in the live environment."

Thus, engineers are planning to feed the Internet's domain name directories with nonsensical strings that can be removed quickly should trouble arise.

Even if they succeed, however, more work remains on developing policies on such names.

Officials have to resolve such questions as whether the operators of China's ".cn" should automatically be entitled to the Chinese version of that and ".com," and what happens when a competing organization, such as Taiwan's ".tw" or a private company, wants to claim it.

"I would be doubtful that anything is likely to happen until the first quarter or first half of 2008," Cerf said.

Paul Twomey, ICANN's chief executive, said full-blown rules are likely to take 18 months to two years to develop, although interim policies can be in place sooner.

Twomey also said that the organization is looking to approve additional domain name suffixes in English by mid-2008, provided it meets its target of finalizing approval procedures by early next year.

The new names would be the first expansion for general use since 2000. Names added since then have been limited to specific regions or industries.

Domain names are key for helping computers find Web sites and route e-mail. There are currently about 250 domain name suffixes, most of them for specific countries such as ".fr" for France. General-use names include ".com" and ".net."