Internet to speak Arabic: Egypt

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Egypt's communications minister on Sunday announced the introduction of the first Arabic domain, in a step easing Internet access to millions of Arabic speakers around the world.

From midnight (2200 GMT), registration was to begin for the .misr country code top-level domain, Tarek Kamel told the fourth meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

"Now we can really say that Internet will speak Arabic," Kamel said at the opening of the four-day conference, hours before the launch.

The announcement follows a decision by the US-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to end the exclusive use of Latin characters for website addresses, allowing Internet users to write an entire website address in Chinese, Arabic, Russian and several other scripts.

At present, all domain names - the part of the website address after the dot, as in .com and .org - end in letters from the Latin alphabet.

"The voice of developing world must be heard," Sha Zukang, the UN undersecretary-general for economic and social affairs, told the Sharm el-Sheikh conference.

"Good and democratic Internet governance is a means of achieving development for all," he said.

The IGF groups more than 1,500 representatives of government, non-governmental organisations, advocacy groups and the private sector to discuss the future of the Internet.

Under the banner "Creating Opportunities for All", this year's forum is to discuss increasing accessibility, development of local content, encouraging cultural and language diversity, the promotion of safe use of the Internet, means of combating cybercrime, and management of critical Internet resources.

For hosts Egypt, the information and communication technology industry has been vital for the economy, bringing in eight billion dollars of investment over the past four years, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif told the IGF.

Egypt now has 54 million mobile phone subscribers from a population of 80 million, and 15 million Internet users in 2009, Nazif said.

But Egypt's Internet success story has also been marred by accusations of censorship from international rights groups, with several bloggers and Internet activists arrested, often for "security reasons."

Last year, an Egyptian rights group accused authorities of censorship and violation of privacy after a new measure was set up forcing cyber cafes to gather personal information on Internet users.

The measure means that clients at Internet cafes must provide their names, email and phone numbers before they use the Internet.

Once a date is provided, they receive a text message on their mobile phones and a pin number allowing them to access the Internet.

Censorship, security and freedom of expression is also on the agenda of the IGF forum, which was set up after a World Summit on Information Society in Tunis in 2005. Its mandate runs until 2010 but can be renewed.