UK: Launch Of Arabic Top Level Domain Names Marks The True Launch Of Internationalised Domain Names

Last Updated: 4 September 2012
Article by Rob Deans and Harriet Balloch

On 13 June 2012, details of 1,930 applications for new top-level domain name extensions (strings) were released by ICANN, the body responsible for the management of domain names. Included in these applications are 116 non-Latin script strings, or what are commonly known as internationalised domain names (IDNs). The introduction of these top-level IDNs will make the Internet much more accessible to users who are only literate in Arabic (and other languages which do not use Latin characters), and in many ways, this marks the true launch of IDNs.

With over 200 million native Arabic speakers and over 800 million native Chinese speakers, the impact on businesses who wish to communicate with a global audience will be very significant indeed.  Brand owners should review their trade mark registration and protection strategies to ensure that they have appropriate protection for foreign language versions of their key trade marks.

Applications for new strings

The introduction of new top-level strings is set to expand the existing infrastructure of the Internet from 22 top-level strings (including .com and .org) to many hundreds, including:

  • IDN strings (.com and other top level strings in Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic and other non-Latin scripts)
  • Branded strings (.amazon, .apple, .citi and .mcdonalds)
  • Community strings (.bank, .hotel, .islam and .tennis)
  • Generic strings (.app, .cloud, .music, .tickets, .you and .weather)
  • Geographic strings (.nyc, .dubai and .abudhabi)

Much of the commentary about the introduction of new top-level strings has been focused on the decisions of international brand owners to apply (or not) for their own top-level domains (in the form of .brand).  However, the range of strings applied for covers a much broader range than simply a number of specific brands, with IDNs potentially being one of the areas where the biggest impact will be felt.

Local language strings (IDNs)

An IDN is a domain name which contains non-Latin script characters, such as those used in Arabic, Chinese, Russian or Japanese.  It has been possible to register partial IDNs since as early as 1998, which include non-Latin script characters before the dot, and Latin characters are after the dot (such as 纯水.com). 

This was followed, in 2009, by the introduction of country level IDNs, such as السعودية. (.saudi) and امارات. (.emarat). 

Unsurprisingly, however, the uptake of country level IDNs has been relatively slow, presumably reflecting the fact that, even in the English language, brand owners often prefer to engage with users through top-level (.com) websites, rather than at a country level (.ae or .sa).  In the Middle East, it can be administratively time consuming to register country level domain names, which may also have played a role in the relatively low uptake of country level IDNs. 

The launch of the new IDNs has the potential to shake up the way the Internet is navigated in non-Latin script languages.  For example, a brand owner who wishes to reach an audience across the Middle East, will be able to do so through a fully Arabic website, which includes a top-level Arabic language website address.  Previously, the only option has been to communicate through a website with a .com address or through a country-level, Arabic language address (eg امارات. .emarat). 

New top-level IDNs 

Applications have been filed for top-level Arabic IDNs, including:

  • International Domain Registry Pty Ltd for شبكة. (translation of .web);
  • VeriSign Sarl for كوم. (transliterations of .com); and
  • Suhub Electronic Establishments for موقع. (translation of .site).

Over time, it is reasonable to expect that one of these IDNs will become the dominant leader in the market, with users defaulting to one of these strings when they are looking for a particular website (just as users current default to .com websites).

Of the three entities which have applied to register top-level Arabic IDNs, Verisign has also applied to register in other languages (such as Chinese, Japanese and Cyrillic).  This will be a major investment by Verisign as it seeks to obtain the rights to transliterations of .com in multiple languages.

Impact of top-level IDNs

It appears likely that the applicants of the new top-level IDNs will compete to promote their IDNs with consumers and website operators alike, with over time, one IDN (per language) becoming more dominant than the others. 

In the interim, brand owners will need to decide whether to register domain names for:

  • the specific IDNs that they anticipate will become the equivalent of the .com in each non-Latin script; or
  • multiple IDNs, on the basis that only time will tell which of the IDNs will become dominant. 

Regardless of which strategy is adopted, it is important for brand owners to review their trade mark protection in Arabic and other non-Latin languages.  This protection is likely to become increasingly important as the use of Arabic and other non-Latin languages becomes more prevalent with the introduction of IDNs (regardless of which IDNs are more successful).

Timing and processes

The new strings are unlikely to be launched before mid 2013 because, before the applications are formally approved by ICANN they will first be subjected to a comments and objections phase. 

ICANN is taking steps to protect brand owners by requiring the companies which have secured rights to the new top-level domains to:

  • implement a 'sunrise' registration period to provide brand owners with a window of priority to register domain names before the registration process is opened to the public; and
  • participate in a trade mark clearing house to enable brand owners to record trade marks and receive notifications of proposed registrations of domain names which incorporate their marks. 

With potentially hundreds of new top-level strings available, it is unfeasible for brand owners to secure defensive registrations across all of these new strings.  Brand owners should therefore focus their domain name registration strategy on the top-level domains which are most relevant to their businesses.  For brand owners with a global or regional presence, a focus on IDNs may be appropriate.

Brand owners should also ensure that they are in a position to take effective enforcement action in relation to the unauthorised use of local language translations and transliterations of trade marks.  It is important in this context to note that, in many countries, the registration of an English language trade mark does not automatically provide protection for the corresponding Arabic language mark.

Securing trade mark protection in Arabic and other non-Latin script languages is a key step for brand owners in being able to take effective action to prevent the third parties from mis-using their trade marks in foreign languages, whether as part of a domain name registration, on a website or in some other form.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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