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Legal Update

"Internationalisation" of Chinese Domain Names

1 December 2009
Mayer Brown JSM Legal Update

Summary

ICANN has recently introduced top-level Internationalised Domain Names to allow non-English reading Internet users to have access to Internet addresses completely in their own language. For the Chinese speaking community, it means Chinese domain names will soon be Internationalised and this will make the Internet more easily accessible as they will be able to establish their Internet presence and surf the web by using pure Chinese. Chinese domain names will hence likely be more popular in the years to come.

Full Update

"Internationalisation" of Chinese Domain Names

After years of discussion, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers ("ICANN") has decided to introduce top-level Internationalised Domain Names ("IDNs") by allowing Internet users around the world to establish and use domain names fully represented in their native languages and scripts such as Chinese, Korean, Arabic, etc. This was announced at the ICANN's 36th Annual Meeting on 30 October 2009 and is widely perceived as an incredibly big step forward in making the Internet more accessible to everyone, especially for billions of non-English readers all over the world. This text below will focus on Chinese domain names only.

Since the inception of the world wide web, a domain name has traditionally consisted of a combination of any Roman characters among the 26 English letters "a" - "z", numbers 0 - 9 and hyphens. However, domain names comprising Chinese characters are not a recent invention. Chinese domain names have in fact been open for registration since around November 2000. The US company, Network Solutions, introduced Chinese domain names with ".COM", ".NET" and ".ORG" extensions whilst some other companies also offered the registration of Chinese domain names with extensions like ".TW" and ".WS". In China, the China Internet Network Information Center ("CNNIC"), the state network information centre of the Mainland China, also introduced Chinese domain names with ".??" (meaning ".China")/ ."CN" extension - by registering a ".CN" Chinese domain name, the registrant automatically obtains the equivalent Chinese domain name with a ".??" extension (inclusive of both traditional and simplified Chinese versions).

Citing the CNNIC's figures, over 90% of the PRC government authorities and Mainland universities and over 50% of the largest 100 local enterprises in China have already registered their own Chinese domain names. That said, Chinese domain names are naturally only popular among Mainland Chinese users and their use is still relatively limited as of today for the following reasons:

  • Most of the existing web browsing software and applications do not fully support Chinese domain names. To access a website by its Chinese domain name, a Chinese software has to be downloaded from CNNIC and installed in advance.
  • Most of the DNS, WWW, FTP and email servers (except for those operated by domain name registries and Internet service providers in Mainland China) do not automatically recognise Chinese domain names. In most cases, a conversion of the relevant Chinese characters into punycodes (i.e. a simple set of codes which can be globally recognized) will be required.
  • Many non-Chinese search engines have not done any web crawling on websites operated under Chinese domain names. An internet presence with only Chinese domain names is hence less attractive than using the traditional English domain names.

Following the introduction of IDNs, ICANN will accept requests from representatives of countries and territories around the world for new domain name extensions that represent their country name and are made up of their own native or official language in non-Roman characters, from 16 November 2009 onwards ("the Launch Day"). This is known as the ICANN's IDN ccTLD Fast Track Process. With the full support of representatives from the IT and Internet industry, e.g. Microsoft, Baidu, Alibaba, Firefox, Tencent, CNNIC applied for ".??" as an IDN on the Launch Day. According to CNNIC, the major web browsing software like Microsoft Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Firefox will offer full support to the IDN version of Chinese domain names ("Chinese IDNs") whilst the search engine giants like Google and Yahoo! have also started collecting and recording information of websites operated under Chinese domain names to prepare for the future proliferation of Chinese IDNs.

CNNIC's application for Chinese IDNs will likely be approved by ICANN in the first half of 2010. Once this application is approved, Chinese domain names will be Internationalised, i.e. officially become one of the global standard host identifiers and enjoy the same status as the existing English or Latin based domain names. In theory, an Internet user will soon be able to simply type the Chinese IDN at the URL address bar of his or her browser and have direct access to the designated website anywhere in the world. Such greatly enhanced usability however depends very much on the support from the hardware and software developers.

According to CNNIC, existing Chinese domain name registrations will be synchronised with the Chinese IDNs. In other words, the owner of a Chinese domain name under the existing system administered by CNNIC will automatically get the same domain name under the IDN version.

The Chinese Internet community expects that the use of pure Chinese domain names and email addresses will become more popular not only in China but also among overseas Chinese readers. Whilst the positive impact of the Internationalisation of Chinese domain names remains to be seen, the speculation of future popularisation of Chinese domain names has caused a boom in Chinese domain name applications in recent months. Regrettably, many of these domain name applications consist of the Chinese names of famous enterprises and Asian celebrities such as Andy Lau and Jay Chow and are clearly made in bad faith. Rights owners are encouraged to take active steps to deter such cybersquatting activities and safeguard their trade marks, trade names, right of name and other intellectual property rights over the Internet.

Our IP/IT Practice Group has extensive experience in handling domain name registrations, transfers and disputes for our clients which mainly consist of Hong Kong listed companies, Fortune 500 companies and Asian celebrities. More importantly, we have achieved successes for our clients in enforcement actions against bad faith domain name registrations and in recovering them from cyberquatters. If you require any assistance on domain name issues, please do not hesitate to contact us.

For inquiries related to this Client Alert, please contact:

Kenny Wong ( )

Alan Chiu ( )

Learn more about our Hong Kong office and Intellectual Property practice.

Visit us at http://www.mayerbrownjsm.com

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