Takeaway: Making the internet accessible to the world

Late last year, Russia began accepting registrations for a uniquely Russian country code: . This two-digit Cyrillic extension stands for Russian Federation.

For years, Russians have been limited to entering web addresses in Latin characters, URLs that ended with extensions like .com or .ru. But with this new country code, Russians will now have the ability to host and visit websites in their own language.

Some have already begun. The Kremlin’s new Cyrillic URL is http://. The leading Russian search engine Yandex can be located at http://, and the address of Russia’s largest mobile carrier is http://. These addresses are fully functional and modern web browsers support them.

Although country codes — such as .br for Brazil and .de for Germany — have been around for many years, this is the first time in the history of the internet that country codes have existed in scripts other than Latin. Non-Latin country codes, officially known as internationalized domain names (IDNs), mark the beginning of a new era of the internet, in which languages are fully represented — not just within web pages, but within web site addresses and, eventually, e-mail addresses.

Imagine if every time you wanted to visit a website you were expected to input characters from a language script different than your native one. This is the internet as it stands today for more than a billion people.

Needless to say, the demand for  has been significant. In less than six months,  has quickly joined the ranks of the world’s most popular country codes, with more than 750,000 registrations. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, one of the chief advocates for the country code, remarked recently: “We taught the world wide web to speak Russian.”

Russia is not alone in wanting to teach the internet a few new languages. This year has seen the long-awaited emergence of not only Russia’s country code, but codes for Egypt, China, India and Thailand. ICANN, the regulatory body in charge of domain names, has given approval to IDNs for 21 countries, some of which are visualized in the map at right, positioned over their respective regions. The regions represented here constitute more than 2.5 billion people, most of whom do not speak English as a native or second language. The regions also represent where most of the growth in internet usage will occur over the next decade.

Note the wide range of scripts over India, a country with more than 20 official languages. Also note that Middle Eastern countries have been early adopters of Arabic country codes; even Iran now has its own Arabic domain. And then there is China, the world’s leader in internet users. Its IDN (in both traditional and simplified Chinese characters) is expected to be available in 2011.

While the internet was designed to be global, it was not initially designed to support all of the world’s languages. For decades now, this limitation has been most evident in URLs and e-mail addresses. These limitations will fall in the years ahead, and in the process, the internet will come to more accurately reflect the people who use it. Today, more than half of all internet content is not in English. Ten years from now, the percentage of English content is likely to drop below 25%.

We’re inching closer to a linguistically local internet, in which users no longer have to leave their native languages to get where they want to go. This is a positive development for making the internet truly accessible to the world.