Protecting Digital India: Getting Local Languages Right Online Avoids User Confusion, Usability Issues and Online Criminal Exploits

By Tina Dam

As our world gets more digitized, it is increasingly important to get all languages and scripts implemented correctly online. In India, this is especially complicated due to the large number of languages and scripts included. When done right, it’s an opportunity to conserve the Indic histories, cultures, and ways of communicating, and create an Indic space online that is welcoming and safe for all Indians. If mismanaged, significant problems arise including: confusion, lack of trust in authorities, and malicious or fraudulent attacks where users unwittingly give out personal information, expose company sensitive information, compromise private communications and/or lose money. These issues are difficult, time-consuming and in some cases impossible to reverse. Experience and expertise with Indic languages is critical to preserving the advances India has made with online languages.

It is much simpler for people to read, understand and recognize content in their own native languages compared to the traditional “English” internet. While lots of sites have local language content, not many yet have local language addresses.  The address space is what guides people around the internet. Online addresses in local languages are referred to as IDNs – Internationalized Domain Names.

There can be many reasons to make IDNs available in a country. One example is local laws requiring the government to provide all services in all official languages. Such a law would also require online addresses in every official language. Another example is promoting and conserving culture of which an important part is language and scripts. It is a big responsibility and an important job. Governments should be applauded who establish local language addresses carefully and with use of the correct professional, technical and linguistic expertise. We can lose important parts of our history and culture when the digital world gets smaller. Doing IDNs right is part of closing this gap.

Nearly 10 years ago the global internet tech community approved the process for enabling IDNs at the top level of an address and today we have global implementation rules and technical protocols to follow to make it work in a standard way across the world. Despite these rules personal experience remains key.

India is perhaps the most difficult country to manage IDNs. With the 22 official Indic languages and several of them co-sharing characters, the task is significant. Yet, following nearly a decade of work by government and private partners, local languages are available at the address level of .IN (India’s “country code domain”) for 15 languages in 7 scripts.

The successful launch and management of “IDN” names requires several steps: Implementing technical protocols and requirements in the registry system (i.e. the directory of all the names and IP addresses), creation of sufficient policies for languages, scripts, variants between them, reserved names (of official or cultural importance), registration, and acceptable uses, implementing these policies in the right way, with extensive testing to confirm proper behaviour and managing them on an ongoing basis, including issues such as making sure marketing and training for domain/address resellers is done correctly. And it goes on.

There are so many tasks behind the scene that users often do not (and should not need to) see. These are highly technical tasks that require years of experience (which is rare and held by only a few people worldwide) in what is still a relative new field of IDNs.

Some common pitfalls include:

Usability – at the applications layer; a training and a development matter: Developers of browsers have ensured that today’s versions can handle IDNs. Each browser implements IDNs slightly differently, which gives a slightly different user experience, but all IDN capable browsers accurately navigate to the desired site. However, other application software does not and, while work to get there is in progress, this needs to be dealt with locally in-country. It is urgent to make IDNs usable for users.

User Confusion – domain registrations, uniqueness of IDNs, equal language treatment: The Indic situation requires dealing with 22 languages in 13 scripts, and includes significant overlap between them, visually confusing characters (which may be valid and equally important across several of the languages), non-empty spaces, bidirectional writing and more. This makes it extraordinarily difficult to preserve the uniqueness of an online address (interpreted as unique both by computer encoding and user visual).

If two or more addresses online look the same but are not it creates user confusion, as user expectations are not met when, for example, clicking a link. It requires the development of tables and domain registration policies to manage these “variants.” With 22 languages of equal importance, it is necessary to avoid favoring one over the other by launch timing, protocol over-rides, or other adjustments.

Malicious attacks: User confusion can be time consuming and annoying for users, and it undermines trust of both the internet and the authorities who manage it.  However, it is even worse if this confusion is leveraged for malicious or fraudulent attacks. This is when domains are registered with malicious intent to trick the user into going to a fraudulent site instead of e.g. their bank. After the user logs in on the bogus site, the criminal has the login access to the users real bank online and can steal funds and personal or private information. Similar situations can occur for companies, organizations and official authorities. Opportunities for creating such addresses become larger when IDNs (basically meaning languages and scripts) are not implemented and managed correctly.

In summary, the implementation of IDNs (Internationalized Domain Names) is essential for bringing the rest of India online.  However, proper implementation requires that an experienced team manage the work—a team experienced in Indic language IDN’s.  Failure to maintain properly experienced resources creates risk for India and all Indians who access the internet in local languages—including risk that their “local” internet fails completely.  Given the importance of Digital India, the IDN implementation should be given the highest priority.

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