Why can’t diacritics be used in Czech internet addresses?

At his office in downtown Prague, Jan Hájek describes his company’s unusual services. They sell experiences, zážitky in Czech, and the name of their firm is zážitky.cz. The odd thing is that to get to their internet site you have to use either the address zazitky.cz or zážitky.com. The former, like all domain names ending in .cz, does not allow an important feature of the Czech language: diacritics (such as the ‘little hook’ on the letter ř). But why not?

Illustrative photo: archive of Radio Prague
Jan Hájek is a strong advocate of Czech diacritics being allowed in web addresses ending .cz.

“Once we are speaking Czech and the Czech language is naturally with diacritics, then why shouldn’t the domains be like that?”

Has the fact they can’t use diacritics in their Czech web address cost zážitky.cz business?

“Well, it’s hard to tell, because I don’t have any statistics about people trying to type in a diacritic domain in their web browsers. But I know there are a lot of people who are not fully IT-knowledged, IT-based, and they are starting to use the internet, and they will probably not understand why they can’t insert the name as it looks in advertisements.”

The body which oversees the Czech internet (all sites ending .cz) is called CZ.NIC. Its young director Ondřej Filip explains the arguments against diacritics.

“Such addresses wouldn’t be used widely, globally, so foreigners couldn’t type those addresses into web browsers, couldn’t send email to us. And also [that would apply] if a Czech person is in a foreign country and is in some café and would like to access his pages or addresses or something like that.”

Are there any drawbacks to not using diacritics in domain names?

“It’s a hard question, because it really depends how you feel the internet should be. People who would like to introduce IDN [which allows diacritics] say the internet and the usage of computers should be natural. And for Czechs it’s natural to type those diacritics, those special characters. Now if you see some commercials for some portals, some services, they usually put diacritics into the domain names and they expect you to translate it, to cut those signs off and use it without.”

That is the case with the firm zážitky.cz. Czech internet users wishing to visit its site will – based on prior experience –simply remove the diacritics automatically, without thinking about it.

But what about the idea that today all Czechs are used to writing without diacritics – in mobile phone text messages and emails. Jan Hájek.

“I think the times are changing. You are right that SMS is typically a non-diacritic thing. But we used to write without diacritics in the ancient times of the internet. Now I think at least half of emails and even instant messaging is with the special characters, and I think that is just going to rise. So one day we will find out that there is a need for IDN domains, I mean domains with diacritics.”

That is one of the key terms in this area: IDN or Internationalized Domain Name. It is a system which allows letters with the diacritics required by many languages or characters from non-Latin scripts. A few years ago web browsers like Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox were updated to allow IDN.

A number of top level domains (which associate all the sites that end in certain letters, such as .com and .eu) have introduced the IDN system. Among them are the top level domains in some countries neighbouring the Czech Republic, including Germany and its sites ending .de. Ondřej Filip again.

“Germans are a good example. They can use umlauts now and the same applies for the Austrians. The Polish, for example, were a little bit more radical – they didn’t just allow Polish characters but also other characters, like Greek, Arabic script and so on. But in general we can say it’s not so widely used, and usually European states support just their own special characters.”

So why hasn’t the Czech top level domain – with nearly half a million websites ending .cz – signed up? After setting up a website to start a debate, Ondřej Filip’s CZ.NIC held a poll on the subject, their second.

“We were really very interested how the discussion started will affect public opinion, because we made the same sort of survey two years ago. Surprisingly the users decided that they really don’t want IDN, and their opinion against was stronger than two years ago.”

Ondřej Filip
In fact, 81 percent of organisations which took part in the survey said they didn’t want to bring it in, as did 66 percent of members of the public. Because of this widespread opposition the whole issue has been put on ice.

For his part, however, Jan Hájek questions the way the poll was conducted.

“I think if we as CZ.NIC, which I’m a member of, changed the question a little bit and asked, would you like to have IDN and this is how it’s going to work, they might reconsider their decision. At the moment the survey is just asking about something called IDN. I don’t want to underestimate their knowledge, but I think most people are not aware of what it means, how it’s going to work and how it will not be dangerous for them or how it will be beneficial for them.”

CZ.NIC director Ondřej Filip says they have the option of repeating the survey in the future – and advocates a cautious approach.

“If we start up IDN it’s very hard to decide to cancel it. That’s not possible. Without the introduction of IDN we have the option to repeat [the poll]. And I think that people’s willingness to have IDN will change in time, because our neighbours have IDN, and some other domains that are commonly used in this country have started or will start using IDN. So I believe that their opinion can change in the future.”

So, all things considered, will it be possible to use diacritics in web addresses ending .cz in five or ten years’ time? Ondřej Filip.

“It’s just my personal opinion, because the company hasn’t done any analyses of that, but I really think Czechs will be conservative, and will not allow diacritics in domain names.”