There’s been some hoopla about the 40th anniversary of the Internet (precisely defined from the first Arpanet transmission October 29, 1969). Forty is not exactly a ripe old age. We need to appreciate that the Internet is neither old nor ripe. It continues to grow and evolve. For example, on October 30th ICANN, the custodian of the Internet’s domain name protocols, announced that non-Latin characters are now approved for use. That means eventually billions of people whose native language uses pictograms (Chinese, Japanese) or other scripting styles (Arabic, Hindi, Cyrillic) will be able to type URLs (Universal Resource Locators) in their own script.
Is this a big deal? That will be difficult to measure. The Internet has grown stupendously even with the use of Latin-only characters (mostly in English), partly because English is widely known, and partly through clever workarounds that redirect URLs with native languages. After all, the content of the Web is already written in every language of the globe (and some not of the Earth, like Klingon). Still, there are many potential users of the Internet who will benefit from seeing and typing URLs in their own language.
It may be easier for individuals, but from the technical perspective the change is anything but easy. It’s estimated that over 100,000 non-Latin characters will need to be accommodated by the world’s network equipment, a tricky task especially for the switches and routers that guide the trillions of Internet packets along their way. In fact it has taken years for ICANN and its many constituent organizations to come to agreement that it’s even possible to make the change. It remains to be seen if the explosion of URL characters will lead to new problems with spam and other nefarious Internet messaging.
Those of us who communicate in English have grown accustomed to reading an URL on any message and often but not always divine where it came from. It won’t be long before a large percentage of URLs will become as impenetrable to us as English-based URLs are to most of the world. Symbolically, this is a big change because it is another important signal of the beginning of the end of the American hegemony over the Internet. As a symbol, it will be celebrated and in some quarters despised.
However it is interpreted, it is obviously part of the growth and evolution of the world’s network.