The Arab street is now officially on the internet superhighway. As of Friday, domain names can be registered in Arabic language script– to date they’ve been written out in English language translation or transliteration. Local newspapers have heralded the new Arabic language websites as a "milestone in internet history," one that had long been advocated by the Arab League, then pushed forward by the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
The change comes to a Middle East that is already substantially wired, with a young, tech-savvy population that is shaping the modern Arab world. Communities of web developers are clustering in Jordan, Lebanon, and Dubai. Bloggers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia are pushing the boundaries of self-expression, with far more freedom than they’d have in print (exercising it, however, has landed many a blogger in jail). Twitter users have flourished in English and Arabic, drawn from the total of 60 million netizens across the Middle East, according to Internet World Statistics.
"It has become everyone’s life – even the parents now, if they want to keep their kids of the streets they bring computers to their homes," said Wael Attili, 31, who runs a web-based animation studio Kharabeesh and its associated YouTube channel.
"There’s a massive change from two years ago to now, especially with the iPhone, smart phones…all these things are making a difference. Now mobile operators have special offers for phone service with facebook, that you can check your account through the cell phone. They do it knowing there’s a huge market."
Dr. Baher al Hakim, who’s earned a following on Twitter as @DrBaher, left his successful dentistry practice in Syria to open shop in Dubai, developing web applications and social media strategies. On Friday he was skeptical the new Arabic domain names would have a significant impact.
"Everyone has gotten used to accessing websites by typing in English domain names. It’ll take 4-5 years for people to start using the Arabic, and I’m not sure it will lower the barriers to participation," he said. What was keeping millions more Arabs from logging online was not the language issue but the lack of access and infrastructure; power cuts are routine in many Arab countries, and internet access has barely reached rural communities.
Al Hakim also worried that Arabic language domain names would cut off Arab users from the rest of the web.
"It feels like it’s going to isolate the Arabic web rather than facilitate it. Once you have Arabic domain names it would be nearly impossible for English speakers to access those websites. You just won’t be able to log in," he said. Arabic characters, which unlike English are written from right to left, need special software to use on Western keyboards.
He also says it will create a closed community. Arabic domain names, he says, would make possible new web-based hideouts for those who want to create a closed community–potentially dangerous, given what analysts describe as a sprouting of extremist websites and growing use of social networking tools to recruit violent jihadis.
Attili, the digital animation developer in Jordan, shrugged off the impact of new Arabic language domain names. He is more worried a wave of cyber-squatters will scoop up premium sites in translation.
"My company name is written in Latin, now someone might get the Arabic name before me," said Attili.
"There’s going to be a race, people starting to register Arabic domain names for famous brands, to sell them for a high price."
I asked my Twitter followers, a good number of which are in the Middle East, what they thought about Arabic domain names. @Elsalameen, a Palestinian living in Washington, DC, was a big fan, saying, "People who don't speak english well, but could learn a lot from the internet will benefit most."
@JPierre of Egypt, who describes himself as a ‘Father, Husband, Engineer, and Geek,’ was outright dismissive.
"I feel they are pointless. Won't make any impact and will just create more confusion. I hate them since they were an idea."
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