ICANN warns mistake on non-English Web addresses could 'permanently break Internet'

The organisation that oversees global Internet functions warned Wednesday that a mistake in a creating more Web addresses using non-Latin letters could "permanently break the Internet."

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, made the warning at a U.N.-organized conference on the future of the Internet.

A more multi-lingual Internet is a key issue at the forum, with future Web growth predicted in developing countries where the Latin alphabet is often unfamiliar.

"ICANN expects that these final tests and discussions will reach a resolution by the end of 2007," CEO Paul Towney said in a statement. "But this is no simple task. If we get this wrong we could very easily and permanently break the Internet."

Web sites have long been available in non-Latin alphabets, and more recently Internet addresses can also contain non-Latin portions _ but the technology for full addresses is still being developed.

Patrik Falstrom, a consulting engineer with Cisco Systems Inc. who is working on the project, said the venture is riddled with difficulties.

"We have 6,000 languages in the world. So should we register the name of countries _ like Greece _ in all 6,000?" Falstrom said.

He said a current universal system of world scripts compiled for online use is being revamped for assessment in about two months.

Falstrom warned that fragmentation of the Internet _ possibly through countries adopting separate language-based systems _ would destroy the Web's basic usefulness. If that happens, people in China and the United States might reach entirely different Web sites if they type in the same address, or a browser might not recognize the address at all.

"I think the risk is very low," Falstrom said. "But if we had fragmentation it would be really, really, really bad _ the result (of entering an address) you would get depends on the country you are in. Just think of the trademark infringement issues."

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf said "live testing" on fully non-Latin addresses would begin later this year.

"The ability to enter the entire domain name in a particular script, we're not there yet. There is testing going on this year to verify that there aren't side effects that are troublesome," Cerf told The Associated Press.

"We have to make sure we have fully worked out policies for this before we begin the process ... to avoid confusion and abuse."

Experts at the forum have also warned that mixed use of alphabets in Internet addresses could allow cybercriminals a greater opportunity to post imitation Web sites that are typically created to illegally collect personal banking details.

The debate on Internet language use and available content prompted several African delegates to express concern that global diversity would be threatened without cyberspace reform.

"I think that the digital divide is not as important as the linguistic divide," said Adama Samassekou, president of the African academy of languages in Mali.

"In every African country there are at least two official languages. Most times, there are three languages at least," he said. "So what does diversity mean to us Africans? We need to be able to share knowledge, because this new society leaves people isolated, marginalized. There is a huge part of the world population which (is) voiceless."