SEOUL - A global regulatory body Friday approved a new multilingual address system which it said would open up the Internet to millions more people worldwide.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) announced an end to the exclusive use of Latin characters for website addresses.
In future it will be possible to write an entire website address in any of the world's language scripts.
With the introduction of "internationalised" domain names (IDNs), scripts such as Chinese, Korean or Arabic will eventually be usable in the last part of an address name -- the part after the dot, as in .com and .org.
At present, technological restrictions mean all domain names end in letters from the Latin alphabet.
"This is only the first step but it is an incredibly big one and a historic move toward the internationalisation of the Internet," said Rod Beckstrom, ICANN's president and CEO, in a statement following a six-day conference in Seoul.
"We just made the Internet much more accessible to millions of people in regions such as Asia, the Middle East and Russia."
At first, IDNs will only be allowed on a limited basis involving country codes such as .kr for Korea. Eventually, their use will be hugely expanded to all types of Internet address names.
ICANN chairman Peter Dengate Thrush said the introduction of IDNs follows years of work and study. "To see this finally start to unfold is to see the beginning of a historic change in the Internet and who uses it."
Beckstrom said the change signifies that the Internet belongs to everyone, no matter what language they speak.
"The Internet is about bringing the world together and this will facilitate that effort."
Thrush has described the new measure as the biggest technical change to the Internet for 40 years. It was approved a day after the 40th anniversary of the Internet's birth in a computer experiment by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles.
ICANN says more than half the world's 1.6 billion Internet users use languages with scripts that are not Latin-based.
The first applications for IDNs will be accepted by November 16 and the first is expected to be operative by mid-2010.
ICANN, a non-profit body formed in 1998 by the US government, was last month given more autonomy after Washington relaxed its control over how the Internet is run.
Copyright © 2009 Agence France Presse. All rights reserved.