India is soon preparing to launch the dot-Bharat domain name in Hindi in May with the aim of bridging the digital divide in the country

The move will enable organizations and individuals to register their website addresses in Hindi—and later more local languages—making them more accessible to a large proportion of Indians who aren’t familiar with English.

While experts applaud the move as a first step in the right direction, they maintain that the entire ecosystem—comprising software, hardware and content—has to come together to make the Internet truly inclusive. India currently has close to 100 million Internet users out of a total population of 1.2 billion, of whom 74% are literate, according to Census 2011.

About 11% of the country’s population understands English, while 40% is well-versed in some form of Hindi, according to Census 2001. Most of the big powers, including China and Russia, have had their internationalized domain names (IDNs) for several years now.

When it opens the application process for dot-Bharat next year, the government is expecting the first wave of applications to come from political organizations, Hindi-language news media, entertainment companies and consumer-focused firms. In June, the country received approval to register domain names in seven Indian languages from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), which governs domain names internationally. These are Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu and Gujarati.

“We will test the systems with Hindi first and launch other IDNs in other languages after things stabilize,” said Govind, chief executive officer (CEO) of the National Internet Exchange of India?. He uses only one name.

Once the remaining IDNs are opened up, it will be possible to register websites with extensions such as dot-Hindostan (in Urdu) and dot-Indiya (in Tamil).

The government will give trademark holders first rights on a dot-Bharat domain name to prevent cybersquatting. Such registrations will begin in March before being opened up for everyone else two months after that.

Making the domain name available in local languages won’t be enough, said Manish Dalal, vice-president (Asia Pacific) at VeriSign Naming Services. “The operating system, browser, domain name and the content, everything from start to finish has to be completely in the local language to really break the entry barrier,” he added

VeriSign is the largest registrar of domain names globally, including dot-com and dot-net.

“Today, markets like Japan and (South) Korea have everything in the local language,” Dalal said. “In India, some companies such as Microsoft and Nokia have started supporting the Hindi font, so we are slowly getting there.”

The move is a key part of developing a multi-lingual ecosystem, said Jasjit Sawhney, founder, chairman and CEO of Net 4 India Ltd, a domain name registration company.

“It will be key to bringing the next few 100 million to the Internet and will define how they access content and in which language,” he said. People currently have the option of getting content in local languages, but still have to type the URL in English, he said.

“The other parts of the ecosystem like language keyboards and script sets will also start being available easily,” Sawhney said.

Companies with a large user base in India, such as social networking sites, won’t mind shelling out an extra Rs400-500 to get a dot-Bharat domain name if it helps reach out to thousands of new users, Dalal said.

“This is a long-term play and is the first step in the right direction,” he said. “With all the pieces put together, we will see the Internet evolve in local languages over the next 10-15 years.”

Early registrations are likely to be “defensive” as organizations try to protect themselves against cybersquatters, Dalal said.

The government, which is rolling out various citizen-specific e-governance initiatives, sees local language IDNs as a way of making them more accessible. “For a number of crucial customer-centric applications (such as e-governance, e-learning, e-commerce), sole dependence on a single language (English) may not be sufficient to provide the requisite infrastructural support to all kinds of Internet usage in the present and in the future,” reads one of the government’s policy document on IDNs.

In another move that could have a wide impact, Icann will allow any word to be registered as a domain name extension, or generic top-level domain. These are currently confined to a handful of extensions such as dot-com, dot-org and dot-net.

Once in place, this will mean that domain extensions won’t be restricted to just dot-Bharat and that any word or name can be registered in the native language as a website address.


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