And as an Arab with international connections, Fattal is well-placed to accelerate a task which has eluded technicians and linguists for the past decade - enabling Arabs unfamiliar with the Latin script to use the internet in Arabic alone.

Under the present system, inherited from the time when the only members of the internet community were four US universities, all the addresses on websites must be written in English or other languages using exactly the same characters.

Even the humble umlaut, the two dots written over German vowels, is a recent addition to the domain name system, confined so far to registries of names run by German-speaking countries.

Extending reach

Fattal, chairman of the Multilingual Internet Names Consortium (MINC), says he is determined to change that and turn the internet into a truly global instrument for communication.

"There are two ways to create this multilingual internet," he says.

"Either we teach English to over 4.5 billion non-English speaking people distributed across the world, or we incorporate the world's various languages and language variations into the internet's infrastructure."

Elevating Arabic to equal status with English could revolutionise internet usage in the Middle East and lead to an explosion in the number of sites offering Arabic content.

"Either we teach English to over 4.5 billion non-English speaking people distributed across the world, or we incorporate the world's various languages and language variations into the internet's infrastructure"

Khalid Fattal,
Multilingual Internet Names Consortium, chairman

"What Khaled says is true, because if you only speak Arabic, why would you be interested in the internet?" said Paul Verhoef, a vice-president at the International Corporation for Internet Names and Numbers (ICANN), which runs the .com register.

But in the case of Arabic, an alphabetic script which conveys at least four major languages and is widely used in more than 30 countries, a long-term solution could take another five years to implement, according to Charles Shaaban, a member of the MINC board and an expert on the subject.

Elusive consensus

The Arab internet community has partly itself to blame because more so than its counterparts in the Far East, it has wasted several years in disagreement over which characters are essential and how to map them into computer code.

The process is more complicated than it might appear because apart from the basic characters, the Arabic script also contains a set of optional diacritical marks which can be crucial.

Fattal's favourite example is the theoretical domain name qran, which could mean either "marriage" or "the Quran," depending on whether the "a" has a line on top.

David Maher, chairman of the Public Interest Registry, who registers websites ending in .org said: "The Arab interest groups including governments and professional organisations are still having serious disputes about the proper Arabic letters. They have not been able to agree on a standard."

Shaaban agreed that coordination between so many players has been a problem.

"You have 22 Arab countries, all of which would like a say. At the same time there are other countries who use the same Arabic script - Farsi, Urdu and Pashtun. So it does need more cooperation between them," he said.

Overhaul stressed

The bigger obstacle, he said, was the world's reluctance to overhaul the whole internal address system so it can handle the thousands of characters used in non-English languages.

The current route server system uses the computer code known as ASCII, which has a very limited character set.

A temporary solution is to programme computer terminals so that they translate website addresses into a form the global internet understands.

Fattal said that given enough funding, say $ 6 million, his organisation could produce tangible results within nine months.

Shaaban is less optimistic. "A good solution would be to have direct characters in the route itself, which according to the Internet Engineering Task Force would take another five years."