The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which coordinates the Internet’s global system of unique identifiers (URLS, domain names, etc.), has announced (ENG) that it will soon be possible to register domain names with non-Latin characters, including the Cyrillic alphabet.
At a conference in the South Korean capital, Seoul, the corporation’s CEO and President, Rod Beckstrum, remarked, “Of the 1.6 billion internet users today worldwide, more than half use languages that have scripts that are not Latin-based.” He adds that this change is very much necessary also for future potential users as the internet continues to spread (a video of the conference is available on ICANN’s website; read the announcement here).
On the one hand, this story isn’t new. Back in December 2008, the Ukraine started distributing the domain names .Укр and .БЛОГ for only $12. This was followed by Bulgaria, whose domain service Register.bg, announced two months ago that any company which wants a .bg domain name will be able to register a Cyrillic address as well. Meanwhile, Russias domain service webnames.ru began registering versions of .CC, .TV,.COM, .NET and .SU in Cyrillic.
And let’s not forget neweurasia itself, which since 2005 has been using Cyrillic in much of its blog URLs. Of course, none of this represents a total “Cyrillization” of domain names, but it is to point out that using the script isn’t that revolutionary.
On the other hand, it does have some dangerous potential to break apart the global online community. Since Russia has been a major player in the drive toward the “de-Latinization” of the internet, we need to ask whether the Russian government realizes this or not.
In 2008, as part of a Kremlin drive to promote Russian as a global language, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called for Russia to be assigned an Internet domain name in the Cyrillic script (RUS). Yet, Russia already manages two domain names: .RU and .SU. The latter was originally created for the Soviet Union and is still in use. In fact, during the first quarter of 2008, .su registrations increased by 45%! (ENG)
So, what has been behind Medvedev’s push? He’s concerned that Russian, once the main language throughout the Soviet Union, is losing ground to local languages and to the creeping influence of English. He sees defending Russian as a matter of national pride. Indeed, he sees it as his personal and political priority as president.
He may have good reasons to fear. There is no doubt, of course, that Russian’s influence is still big. Not only is it the language of commerce in the region, but Russian TV channels are the most popular amongst the people of the region.
However, since independence, the five Central Asian republics have been attempting to make their own languages trendy among their formerly Russianized populations. In pursuit of this goal they have adopted laws, established special language commissions, and in the case of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, have translated the alphabet into Latin (read a 2007 report by neweurasia‘s Arseny on the plans to Latinize Kazakh here).
We should view this in a larger context: I think that since the Russian-Georgian War from last year, the Kremlin has come to accept the Caucasus as an increasingly “lost” region and has decided to refocus its efforts back upon Central Asia. The spread of “Cyber-Cyrllic” would therefore be a critical step in psychologically attaching the region to Russia.
Personally speaking, for the above reasons, and for one other reason, I’m doubtful whether the expansion into non-Latin domain names is wise. The Americans have a saying: if something isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Introducing new characters and spellings, whether Russian, Chinese, or Hindi, will bring chaos into the existing structure.
Indeed, I can foresee the potential for the move to create zones of inaccessibility, linguistic cantons — call them “sub-nets” or “e-ghettos” — isolated from the larger international online community. We should be trying our best to avoid recreating the CCCP as the CCCR (the Cyber-Cyrillic Club of Russia).
However, for the time being, I doubt the “cantonization” of the internet will actually happen. With the notable exception of Uzbekistan, the region wants to integrate into the global economy. That means one thing: English. We know this, which is why most Central Asian governments, companies, and bloggers, use English on their websites. Russian can only serve to integrate the CIS. At best, this would offer only limited growth; at worst, co-dependency.
The influence of the global economy can be felt especially among the youth, who are using the Latin alphabet when SMS’ing each other. Indeed, we find it more comfortable to use. Consider also the case of neweurasia itself, a very youth-based citizen media network. We have pioneered the use of Cyrillic in our domain names, yet, a great deal of our work conversations take place in English. Moreover, many of our bloggers actively desire to write in English because it attracts a much larger international audience.