Canada has prided itself on its multiculturalism, bilingualism and willingness to not just tolerate, but accept the cultures, conventions and customs of various other backgrounds. In following with this tradition, the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), the organization that governs .ca domains, has proposed implementing French characters into .ca domain registrations. This change could have serious implications for Canadian domain owners, businesses, and trademark holders with a vested interest in their specific online domain name.
Allow me to first present some basic domain information for context. Top Level Domains (TLDs) are all mandated by The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Some examples of TLDs are .com, .org, .edu and .biz. Beneath TLDs come the ccTLDs; country code Top Level Domains. These include .eu, .de, .uk, and so forth. Many counties have specific domain extension, such as the .ca here in Canada has its own authority that operates underneath CIRA. There are usually specific criteria that need to be met before a ccTLD can be registered. CIRA requires that the domain owner must be a Canadian citizen, corporation, property owner, or have some other ownership within Canada. CIRA is proposing that, along with many other countries, Canadians should have the ability to have Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs). IDNs are domain names that contain at least one character in a language-specific script or alphabet. Examples of these are Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Latin, Arabic - or characters with diacritics, such as French. IDNs themselves have been around for more than ten years; though it was only two years ago that ICANN approved the creation of IDNs for country code Top Level Domains. It has taken since then for CIRA to propose the integration of IDNs for the .ca domain extension. On September 20th, CIRA opened a public consultation to receive feedback regarding the integration of IDNs and the implications for current domain owners. Their proposed plan is to move ahead with the registration of IDNs in two phases.
The Sunrise Period
The Sunrise Period is a proposed 12-week period that would provide current registrants the opportunity to register any IDN variant combination of their existing domain names. To borrow the example provided by CIRA in their official documentation outlining their proposed IDN policy, the existing owner of preside.ca would have the opportunity to register all variants of their domain (préside.ca, prèsïdë.ca, prësîdê.ca, etc.) during the Sunrise Period before anyone else can attempt to register these domain variants. Current registrants may choose to register any and all variants that they choose; there will be no automatic assignment of IDNs for either current or future .ca registrants. At the end of the twelve weeks, the Sunrise Period would end and the Landrush Phase would commence.
The Landrush Phase
The Landrush Phase will immediately follow the 12 weeks outlined in the Sunrise Period and would allow any eligible party to register an IDN that was not previously either applied for or registered. CIRA is expecting high volumes of domain registrations during this phase and have outlined that, in the instance where more than one party applies for any given domain name, the name would be allocated on a random basis. This Phase will also last for 12 weeks. At the end of this phase, IDNs will be made available to the general public on a first come, first serve basis. In an attempt to be both fair and objective, as well as cover all significant topics, CIRA has opened forums that address four of the major questions and concerns surrounding these proposed changes. They are outlined below, along with some opinions and potential issues that have been brought up.
1. Does the proposed Sunrise period unfairly favour existing Registrants over trademark owners? Should trademark owners be provided further rights protection?
Some issues being raised on this particular point are regarding the trademark office and the concern that they no longer closely monitor trademark infringements; rather, it is the responsibility of the trademark owner to report and follow up on any concerns. Also, because the trademark office prohibits the registration of one business name that is similar to another with only diacritical differences, CIRA should follow that same policy to protect trademark holders and business owners. There are also concerns about cyber "squatters" who may purchase domain names with diacritical marks and confuse prospective clients of the original domain name and attempt to sell those IDNs to the original company for exorbitant sums of money. While most commenters seem to agree that IDNs would improve the culture and experience for French businesses and companies by allowing them to register accurate domains for their business names, the major concerns regarding trademark infringements, cyber squatters, and phishing scams seem to be most prevalent within this discussion forum.
2. Are CIRA's objectives appropriate? Is there anything that you would suggest be added or removed?
In regards to CIRA’s objectives to keep Canadians connected, there are concerns that these domain extensions with actually do the opposite: places divisions between French and English Canadians and the rest of the world. In this viewpoint, going ahead with the proposed place will hurt everyone but the registrars, who will be capitalizing on businesses that are registering every possible variant of their domain (at the regular cost of a new domain registration) in order to keep their interests secure. A proposed solution for this method would be to have an automated process that prohibits the registration of a domain that only different from a current domain in diacritical characters. CIRA currently has this policy with matching provincial variants. For example, it is currently not allowed to register domain.bc.ca if someone else already owns domain.ca. This solution would work the same way, so that if someone attempted to register domaîn.ca it would be listed as 'unavailable'.
3. Given CIRA’s mandate and existing Policies, Rules and Procedures, have we left out any issues that need consideration prior to developing a draft policy on the launch of IDNs?
In the issue of fairness to current CIRA registrants, it is theoretically a good idea that all current registrants will be able to first register any diacritical variants they so choose before the general public has a chance to do so. However, commenters are voicing opinions that mainly state that only the registrants of the original domains should be allowed to register any and all variants with diacritical characters. Moving forwards, CIRA could possibly implement a policy that allows all new domain registrations to have IDNs that are open to any other person that would like to register the variant.
4. Do you have any other comments or concerns about any other elements of the proposed launch?
Concerns that do not necessarily fall under the other three categories can include potential problems with DNS, accessibility and the search engines. If CIRA takes the suggestion that all previously registered domains have the diacritical variants protected and held for them, there are concerns as to how this would work. If the goal is to include the Francophone community, would all possible variants be redirected to the existing domain? If so, what implications does this pose to DNS settings? Accessibility is another concern. Previously mentioned above, perhaps rather that connecting Canadians, this policy will only serve to divide Canadians amongst themselves, as well as separating them from the rest of the world. Would we potentially see a rise in ‘bilingual’ keyboards that facilitate typing French properly? Furthermore, how much business would be lost to French companies with redirection errors and typing confusion? Lastly, and potentially most disconcerting, is that there is not much information on what effect these diacritical characters will have in the search engines. Engines like Google presently typically treat special characters as equivalent to their unaccented versions. Coupled with the likelihood that the average English speaker neither owns a French keyboard nor knows the keyboard shortcuts for the characters on their current keyboards, these sites will likely only be accessible by the Francophone community. While there is a high degree of uncertainty regarding this policy and it’s currently unknown how much input from the public CIRA will take into consideration in their final decision, CIRA has done their part to involve the public and give advanced notice of their intentions. The potential solutions to problems raised by those participating in the forums seems endless and CIRA will undoubtedly have their work cut out for them in terms of wading through the comments and finding actual problems and viable solutions that benefit the greater good. One thing is for certain, though: the implementation of IDNs WILL have a significant impact on Canadian, whether they are domain registrants, business owners, or trademark holders.