VOULIAGMENI, Greece – The organization 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.
Web sites and addresses in languages besides English are becoming increasingly important as Internet usage grows in developing countries where the Latin alphabet is often unfamiliar.
Many believe ICANN should move faster in creating non-English domain name suffixes.
Unwilling to wait, China already has set up its own ".com" in Chinese within its borders, while an Arabic consortium is testing suffixes in Arabic.
Paul Twomey, ICANN's chief executive, said in a statement that final tests and discussions should "reach a resolution by the end of 2007. 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 many languages, and more recently Internet addresses can contain non-Latin portions, but the technology for full addresses is still being developed.
Patrik Falstrom, a Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO) consulting engineer 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.
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 and ICANN Chairman Vinton 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," Cerf said in an interview. "There is testing going on this year to verify that there aren't side effects that are troublesome."
He said policies must be worked out ahead of time "to avoid confusion and abuse."
Experts at this week's Internet Governance Forum, which ends Thursday, have warned that non-English addresses introduced incorrectly could help cybercriminals steal bank account information.
For example, someone may substitute the "a" in the Latin alphabet with the "a" in Cyrillic — two different letters, at least to a computer — tricking users into thinking they are visiting the real PayPal site.
But several African delegates said global diversity would be threatened without cyberspace reform, including the development of non-English suffixes.
Adama Samassekou, president of the African Academy of Languages in Mali, said improving access to technology does little if its users can't use it to communicate in native languages.
"I think that the digital divide is not as important as the linguistic divide," he said. "In every African country there are at least two official languages. Most times, there are three languages at least."