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November 1, 2006

The Internet Governance Summit Gets Heated

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In case you’re unaware, there’s a UN summit on Internet governance currently going on in Athens and, if you have any degree of a Web presence, it’s worth paying attention to. The conversation has gotten heated in the past few days, as representatives attempt to tackle a number of big dollar issues, including Web censorship and the dominance of the English language online.

Censorship in China: Net censorship in China once again came under fire, as a yet-to-be-named Chinese official said his main goal in attending the forum was to help “promote openness” in China regarding the Web. Comically, he vehemently denied allegations that Chinese officials censor the Internet for users in any way.

“In China, we don’t have software blocking Internet sites. Sometimes we have trouble accessing them. But that’s a different problem…We do not have restrictions at all.”

Are there restrictions in China? Obviously, it doesn’t take much work to prove that there are, but the official’s statement is moderately accurate. Sort of. The Chinese government doesn’t censor the Web; they merely threaten the ISPs to do it for them. Internet Service Providers are threatened into over-aggressively censoring material on the Internet or risk the government taking action against them.

The official followed up his first troubling statement with this one:

“We do not have restrictions at all [in China]. … Some people say that there are journalists in China that have been arrested. We have hundreds of journalists in China, and some of them have legal problems. It has nothing to do with freedom of expression.”

Eh, remember all this? I’d say their ‘legal problems’ were directly related to free speech.

It’s statements like that which are dangerous, because they deny what’s really going on in the country and impose a distorted sense of reality. It also makes people crazy. And, I imagine, slightly paranoid. If you’re going to tamper with what people read and are exposed to, at least be upfront about it. Otherwise it gets even creepier.

English language dominance: Another hot topic being debated – the English-centric rules of the Web. When Internet guidelines were first established, there was a specification that stated domain names could “only include letters, digits and hyphens”. Obviously, the ASCII-only way of the Web excluded domain names that used Chinese, Arabic, kanji or Cyrillic lettering. The issue at hand today is whether or not this infringes on rights of other cultures.

Of course it does. Not allowing other cultures to express themselves in their native tongue is absolutely infringing on their rights, but in a system as developed as the Web, how do we go about fixing it?

Well, there are actually already attempts in the work to fix the 23-year-old problem. For example, the newly released IE7, FireFox, Safari and other browsers have all been designed to support non-English characters in domains. Unfortunately, this isn’t yet mainstream and we’re seeing that many non-ASCII domains are often being used for malicious purposes. Like last year’s PayPal.com spoof that used a Cyrillic letter “a”.

People will always prefer (and demand) to express themselves in their native language. But, according to ICANN, it will have to be addressed slowly. The organization has been very public with their belief that haphazardly creating domain names using non-English letters could “break the Internet” for good. I don’t know if he’s right or not, but that’s certainly a scary thought.

Either way, as more and more international countries increase their Internet usage, this problem will have to be addressed. And you, as a site owner with an international presence, will need to know how to address your new audience.

As you can see, there’s lots of great debate going on right now in Athens, and it’s important, even to us all the way over here in the States. If your company has dealings or customers in China, you need to know that your content may be blocked if it touches on certain topics. You’ll need to figure out how to work around it or whether China is a market your company really belongs in.

If you’re creating International sites, you need to know the rules for communication. What type of domain should you set up and what kind of characters can it use? How will users be able to search for it?

You need to know the policies that the Internet is based on. Decisions and changes that come from the forum going on in Athens or from similar forums happening around the world, may change the way your company does business on the Web.

If you’d like to stay current on all the on goings of the Internet Governance Forum (and you really should), the IGF site includes session transcripts, as well as web casts.

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