The Internet's main regulatory body is about to undertake one of the most challenging technical and policymaking overhauls in the history of the World Wide Web.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the non-profit body responsible for managing the world's largest computer network, is on the verge of allowing Web users to create website domain names in non-Latin characters.
But even as it opens the door for more users to get online, the proposed expansion of the Internet's naming system has the potential to become a legal and policymaking nightmare. For example, companies who may hold copyrights to their product and corporate names in only a few languages will have to quickly figure out whether that same copyright entitles them first dibs on the company domain name in, say, Cyrillic.
There is plenty of content online written in non-Latin script, such as Arabic or Hindi. However domain names themselves have always been presented in a Latin character set. For ICANN, expanding that set presented huge challenges, both technical and regulatory. Engineers have been running trials on the proposed system for years to make sure it works.
"We're confident that it works because we've been testing it now for a couple of years," Peter Dengate Thrush, chairman of the ICANN board, told reporters at a meeting in Seoul. "And so we're really ready to start rolling it out."
If the ICANN board approves the proposed changes during the Seoul meeting this week, the regulatory body will start fast-tracking certain regions and character sets next month, and the first non-Latin domains are expected to make their debut next summer.
But beyond technical challenges, ICANN must work through complex and varied issues raised by the expansion. For example, there are characters in other scripts that look very similar to Latin characters. That means the potential for phishing scams - in which a user is led to a malicious site whose name looks very similar to a legitimate one - will become that much greater.
The move also has a profound impact on what a character actually means in the online world. Traditionally, online regulatory bodies have shunned the use of domain names containing only one or two characters, said Michael Stewart, general counsel and director of policy management for the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, the body responsible for the .ca domain suffix. "But in Mandarin, for example, two characters can be massively expressive."
If ICANN approves the plan to make the Web more multilingual, by the summer of next year, more than half the world's 1.6 billion Internet users whose native language isn't written in Latin script will no longer have to suffer an online disadvantage. The policy shift also highlights an understanding that the Internet's hottest growth markets are in countries such as China and India.
"As ICANN says, it allows the next billion people to get online in their language," Mr. Stewart said.
The decision to include non-Latin script is part of a wider shift by ICANN to "open up" the Internet. Whereas for most of the Web's 40-year history there were only a few non-country-specific domain suffixes to choose from - such as .com, .net and .org - ICANN's vision allows the potential for everything from .hockey to .toronto.
ICANN has in the past expanded the number of so-called "top-level" domain suffixes, introducing new ones such as .biz. However this new expansion would be exponentially larger, allowing users to apply for any domain suffix they choose.
In a sign the regulatory body is well aware of the wide-ranging implications of its proposed expansion, ICANN has already posted guidelines for those wishing to complain about trademark and other legal infringements.