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Experts Warn Internet 'Internationalization' Will Increase Cyber-Squatting

  • Nikola Krastev

Starting next week Internet users around the globe will be able to see addresses in their native languages.

But experts caution that there are pitfalls on the road to the truly global Internet.

After seven years of negotiations, the U.S.-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) voted on October 30 to introduce a new multilingual address system capable of reading Asian and Arabic scripts.

ICANN assigns the suffixes for country domain names, the last letters in an Internet address, such as .ru for Russia or .tm for Turkmenistan. The domain names themselves are managed and controlled by the country's Internet regulator.

ICANN's decision has been hailed as one of the major technological developments since the Internet was invented in the United States some 40 years ago. ICANN says web surfing now will become easier for millions of people around the world who are not familiar with Latin characters or do not want to use them.

But some Internet experts warn that the introduction of new rules means ample opportunities for cyber-squatters -- those who register popular domain names in order to sell them later for a profit to legitimate owners, or people who will create malicious software or websites to engage in illegal activities.

Peter Wood, chief of operations at First Base Technologies, a London-based Internet security testing firm, explains that the introduction of non-Latin-based addresses can present cyber-squatters with an opportunity to register domain names that may look like the real thing but are not.

Wood tells RFE/RL that some Latin and Cyrillic characters look very similar and that popular domain names with Latin characters may be specifically targeted within the Cyrillic domain-names system.

"The Cyrillic character will have a different [computer] value but still appear the same. It's possible for someone who has got a criminal motivation to register a domain name that looks like, say '' and yet it actually doesn't say '' It says 'example' but the 'a' in the middle is a Cyrillic 'a.' So it is actually a different character," Wood says.
Any country can put restrictions on who can register a domain and for how many years

It also presents an opportunity, Wood says, for someone to set up a website that masquerades as legitimate -- for example one that processes financial transactions -- and trick visitors to believe that they are on the real website.

Big multinational companies are aware of the possible domain-hijacking problems in non-Latin domain systems and are taking countermeasures.

Those measures, however, are not foolproof and still can be abused by cyber-squatters who react faster than the legitimate owner to register a popular domain name in a non-Latin language.

It is, as Wood explains, more like a cat-and-mouse game when the company has to rush and register all possible permutations of its brand name in a foreign language and characters.

In many countries there are well-developed legal frameworks to provide protection to owners of recognizable brand names on the web.

Weak Web Law

But in countries with weaker Internet legislation, legitimate owners of brand names cannot always count on the local law to protect their rights.

"Most if not all of the domain-name authorities will not want to get involved in legal issues. And as a result it becomes just a matter of who has the most money or who can win in court," Wood says.
Domain names will be available in non-Latin scripts

Andrei Vorobyev from the Russian Network Information Center, the official authority that assigns the .ru domain, says Russia now has more than 2.5 million domain names with the .ru suffix.

According to Vorobyev, Russia will start to register top-level domain names in Cyrillic characters on November 25.

In order to prevent cyber-squatting, Vorobyev says, Russia will employ a bidding system in the application for domain names.

Jeff MacGurn, senior solutions engineer at Covario, a San Diego-based Internet marketing company, tells RFE/RL that his firm is aware of the potential for domain-name hijacking in foreign languages and characters.

His firm, he says, is advising clients in Japan, China, and Russia to identify nonbrand terms that have good search volumes in their respective languages and to register those as fast as possible.

"As more and more domains become available, we are seeing this activity happen more and more. Cyber-squatters are trying to register the actual brand terms and they're also registering common misspellings of those domain names that look like the brand terms. We see this is becoming more and more prolific," MacGurn says.

While a domain name can be registered in minutes for less than $10 in the United States, registration in other parts of the world can cost hundreds of dollars and waiting periods can last weeks.

Christopher Laursen, the director of the European Domain Center, tells RFE/RL that rules for registration vary significantly from country to country.

"Any country can put restrictions on who can register a domain and for how many years," Laursen says.

He says that domain registration as a rule becomes more expensive in less-developed countries.

"Normally domain names are more expensive in the countries where there are restrictions and that also means that there is a lot of manual handling of documentation," Laursen says.

"For instance, in Germany it is all automated, basically. But in other countries, for instance Iran, it can take weeks to register a domain because the local administration has to go through these documents that we have to deliver to them."

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