Cultural diversity in cyberspace
First Monday

Cultural diversity in cyberspace: The Catalan campaign to win the new .cat top level domain by Peter Gerrand

In September 2005 ICANN approved the first top–level Internet domain to be dedicated to a particular human language and culture: ‘.cat’. This paper describes the history of the Catalan campaign to win the ‘.cat’ domain against political opposition from the former conservative Spanish government and the reluctance of some decision–makers within ICANN circles. While ‘.cat’ creates a precedent for greater use on the Internet of ‘minority languages’, there are significant hurdles for other candidates for language–based top–level domains. The paper discusses the concomitant factors needed to support the greater use of any minority language on the Internet.


History of the campaign for approval of ‘.cat’
Cost of the campaign
The concomitant resources needed to support minority languages on the Internet
Implications for other languages



History of the campaign for approval of ‘.cat’

The Catalan language and nationalism

Catalan is one of four official languages used within Spain, the other three being Basque, Galician and, of course, Spanish. Spanish is the only official language throughout all of Spain’s regions and territories, but Basque, Catalan and Galician are co–official with Spanish within their relevant regions. Catalan is co–official in three autonomous regions: Catalonia (capital: Barcelona), Valencia (Valencia city) and the Balearic Islands (Palma de Mallorca).

Ethnologue [1] estimates there are 10 million Catalan first– and second–language speakers worldwide, including more than nine million in Spain, 100,000 in France (Roussillon), 31,000 in Andorra (where it is the official national language) and 20,000 in Italy (Alghero in western Sardinia). This makes it a more widely spoken language than many of Europe’s better known languages, such as Danish, Finnish, Swedish or Norwegian.

Catalan is a Romance (i.e. Latin–derived) language. It shares tens of thousands of cognates with Spanish but with a grammatical structure closer to French or Italian. It has its own spelling conventions, and has some unique grammatical and phonetic features. It has a literature that goes back to the thirteenth century, and a history that harks back to the splendour of the Kingdom of Aragon from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, when it was a major Mediterranean maritime power with territories from Andorra to Athens — ruled by the Counts of Barcelona as hereditary Kings of Aragon.

Unfortunately for the Catalans, they subsequently found themselves on the losing side in some major European and civil wars. As a result, their language and flag were banned by the ruling Spanish Crown for all but eight years, from 1714 to 1978. Like several other dismembered European nationalities during this period (e.g. the Poles), they kept their sense of national identity alive through the use of their language, their national culture — and an ongoing set of grievances. However since the death of Franco, the enlightened new Spanish constitution of 1978 has allowed for a large measure of autonomous government for Spain’s “historical nations”. This has allowed them to select their own regional language to be co–official with Spanish in their parliament, civil service, courts, schools, universities, media and — as tourists often find, to their bewilderment — on street signs and maps.

A minority of radical Catalan nationalists have campaigned for self–determination — and thereby political separation from the Spanish State — since the 1920s [2]. However they have been a minor political force since the return of democracy in 1978. The major Catalan parties are in fact currently engaged in finessing the terms of their autonomy through renegotiating the Statute of Catalonia with the Spanish government; many of them aim for greater financial autonomy plus a tad more symbolic recognition of their separate national identity, without pushing for self–determination. Unlike Australia and the U.S., where a single ‘nation’ is made up of many ‘states’, Spain is a single ‘state’ that includes several ‘historical nations’.

The mastermind behind the campaign for ‘.cat’

The campaign to win ICANN approval for a top–level Internet domain (TLD) exclusive to Catalan language and culture was masterminded and led by an exceptional individual, Amadeu Abril i Abril. He is a law lecturer at the Ramon Llull University in Barcelona, an attorney–at–law in competition law, IT law and distribution contracts, and has worked for the European Commission’s Directorate General for Competition Policy in Brussels. Whereas most well–educated Catalans are noticeably fluent in four languages (Catalan, Spanish, French and English), Amadeu is also fluent in a fifth (Italian), the result of having carried out postgraduate research in Florence. He is the only Catalan and one of only two Spaniards to have been a member of ICANN’s Board of Directors (from 1999 to June 2003), and was active in establishing the Catalan domain name registrar Nominalia and the CORE consortium of international Internet registrars, both in 1997. He achieved all the above despite having spent most of his 44 years with only 10 percent vision — increased to 20 percent after surgery in 2000 [3].

Beginnings of the campaign

According to Amadeu Abril [4], the campaign for “one TLD for our people” began in 1996, after Jon Postel, the co–ordinator of the Internet’s numbering and addressing allocations prior to ICANN, issued a discussion paper (Postel, 1996) on the future of the Internet domain name system, opening up the possibility of additional TLDs.

A campaign was launched in 1996 to seek a TLD for Catalonia, with Abril one of the participants. The Catalan autonomous (regional) parliament was persuaded to consider a motion to seek .ct as the TLD for Catalonia, and voted unanimously in favour — with the explicit support of all the political parties represented there.

As a consequence, a civil servant from the Catalonian Autonomous Government wrote formally to the Maintenance Agency for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO, at standard 3166 (Country Codes) requesting allocation of .ct, but the request was rebuffed, as Catalonia does not qualify as an independent country, being a region of Spain. The .ct protagonists realized that it would be impossible to get official support from the Government of Spain for a separate country code, as that would be tantamount to accepting Catalonia as being a separate nation state — an exceptionally sensitive issue in Spanish politics over the past 300 years.

Abril remembers that the protagonists then split into two camps: those who would prefer to lose, rather than give up their vision of a separate Catalan nation–state, and “were used to reinforcing their sense of national identity through having someone as the enemy, whether that be Madrid or whoever” and those “who look for a way around the wall.” Abril belonged to the second camp.

Moves to allow new top level domains: The birth of ICANN

In 1996 and 1997 Abril was active in founding the international CORE Council of Registrars and working with the International Ad–Hoc Committee. This Committee was set up by Jon Postel to develop a process for introducing competition into the registration of Internet domain names, once the Virginian company Network Solution’s (NSI) five–year contract as monopoly registrar for .com, .net and .org expired in September 1998 (Postel, 1996).

Unfortunately for CORE, the U.S. White House announced an 18–month moratorium on the process during 1997–98, and finally the U.S. Department of Commerce issued a Green Paper in January and a White Paper in June 1998, leading to the founding in November 1998 of a new, U.S.–registered, not–for–profit entitled the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers or ICANN ( Under a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Department of Commerce (ICANN, 1999), ICANN was mandated to manage the ongoing technical development of the Internet’s Domain Name System, including the licensing of international domain name registries and registrars under a more open and competitive regime. In April 1999 CORE ( became one of the first five international registrars [5] licensed by ICANN to compete with NSI in the licensing of second–level .com, .net and .org domain names.

In November 1999 Abril joined the ICANN Board as a nominee of the Domain Name Supporting Organization, one of ICANN’s key constituencies. From that point on he was able to use his increasingly intimate knowledge of ICANN policies, politics and personalities to guide the campaign for a Catalan TLD.

In 2000 ICANN opened its first selection round for additional gTLDs (generic Top Level Domains), the first move to extend the initial set of eight TLDs (.arpa, .edu, .gov, .com, .mil, .org, .net and .int) created by Postel’s team in 1984 at the birth of the domain name system. This selection round was cautiously described by ICANN as a ‘proof of concept’ exercise (ICANN, 2000).

The Catalan group decided not to take part in this round. “I was convinced we would have no chance,” said Abril. He explained his reasoning:

“There would be a large number of proposals, and ICANN would only choose a small number of gTLDs. All the difficult proposals would be put aside. Anything complex, like .geo, or controversial, like .travel, would not be accepted. It was better to keep our powder dry for the main battle.

Also I was a member of the ICANN Board. This would have put the rest of the Board in a difficult position. Of course I could not have voted on a Catalan proposal, as a conflict of interest. However if the rest of the Board did vote in favour of such a proposal, it would have looked like insider dealing.

Also — my eyesight was then [in 2000] at its worst. I did not have the energy, the personal resources to contribute.” (Abril, 2005)

Abril underwent surgery for his eyes in mid–2000, which increased his vision to a new peak of 20 percent, enabling him to abandon the thick pebble–glass spectacles, with a higher–magnification central peephole lens for reading, that he had worn since he was a child. “It was better to wait for the next round.” (Abril, 2005)

ICANN’s first selection round

In November 2000 ICANN selected seven new gTLDs (.aero, .biz, .coop, .info, .museum, .name, .pro), introducing the new category of ‘sponsored TLDs’ such as .aero, .coop and .museum. A ‘sponsored TLD’ (sTLD) is subject to eligibility conditions imposed by a sponsoring organization, licensed by ICANN to manage the registration of domain names under that sTLD, under broad powers delegated by ICANN. By contrast an ‘unsponsored TLD’ (uTLD) — such as .com or .biz or .name — is subject to eligibility conditions fully controlled by ICANN. A sponsoring organization “should address the needs and interests of a clearly defined community (the Sponsored TLD Community), which can benefit from establishment of a TLD operating under a policy formulation environment in which the community would participate” (ICANN, 2003b).

ICANN published a Request for Proposals for new sTLDS on 24 June 2003 — Abril’s last month on the ICANN Board (ICANN, 2003a). The Catalan group was well prepared.

Transforming .ct to .cat: ‘From the passport to the dictionary’

Back in 2001, Abril had canvassed the idea of redefining the Catalan interest group:

“What are we? A nation? A region? In the Internet we are a community of interest. After all, the main means of communication in the Internet is via the written language.” (Abril, 2005)

Abril and others then sought to develop a formal association, Associació puntCAT (the Association for dotCAT), whose members would be all organizational entities (not individuals or commercial corporations) supporting Catalan culture. This would need to be global in reach, extending beyond the traditional Països Catalans (Catalan lands) in Spain (Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands), France (Roussillon), Andorra and Italy (Alghero in Sardinia). Its chief and foundation supporter would be the ultimate authority on Catalan language and culture, l’Institut d’Estudis Catalans (the Institute of Catalan Studies)—the Catalan equivalent of the French or Spanish royal academies.

Associació puntCAT (hereafter called puntCAT) was founded on 23 November 2001. More than ninety additional supporting organizations were mobilized around the world, extending as far as the Casal Català (Catalan Club) of Melbourne, Australia.

Abril recalled that:

“Vint Cerf and others in the ICANN community tried to tell us it was too difficult. But we have passion; we want solutions. And the Catalan culture will be around when ICANN is long forgotten.” (Abril, 2005)

puntCAT sought a non–confrontational way of gaining support. According to Abril,

“Our clever solution was ‘to change the passport for the dictionary’.”

“Language was to be the most important element in the argument. The .ct as a political concept would have excluded Andorra, Roussillon, Valencia, etc., whereas .cat, as a language–based cultural concept, is inclusive. Our clever solution was ‘to change the passport for the dictionary’.” (Abril, 2005)
And ‘cat’ is the international code for Catalan, following the ISO Standard 639–2 for three–letter codes for human languages.

The arguments for .cat

Abril recalled the informal discussions he had held with ICANN staff and directors.

“ICANN asked: ‘Why do you need a Top Level Domain?’ It is true that a lower level domain would have technically sufficed. But you need a goal. You need something to aim for. A TLD puts you in the top league. You are not then just a regional team. Prestige and glamour are important for sustaining a living language. You don’t like being in the second league. It is important to demonstrate that Catalan, with its ten million speakers, is a top–division language.

Secondly, it was a matter of identity. A TLD is important for the self–esteem of people feeling that they are Catalan. For Catalans in the nineteenth century, a critical step was having our own literature — and later in that century, our own newspapers. In the early twentieth century a critical step was having Catalan schools, because without the schools our language would have died out. Then the next battle was to have radio and TV channels in Catalan. Books, newspapers, schools, radio and TV are still important. But in the twenty–first century the Internet is also important.

Thirdly a TLD gives visibility to the language. Seen from Reston or Seattle you are on the map. They think: Oh, we should also publish a version of our software in Catalan. It enables the rest of the world to see that we exist. And all this without moving borders, without fighting anyone.

Fourthly it gives us the opportunity to aggregate our cultural activities in the Internet.” (Abril, 2005)

The .cat application

In March 2004 puntCAT submitted a formal application to ICANN for a .cat sponsored TLD (Associació puntCAT, 2004). The ICANN reaction, according to Abril, was “Oh God — tell me it isn’t true!”

And indeed the ICANN Request for Proposals (ICANN, 2003a) of 15 December 2003 did not appear to anticipate or encourage proposals for language–based special interest groups. The term ‘sponsored TLD’ is so broadly defined —

“The proposed sTLD must address the needs and interests of a clearly defined community (the Sponsored TLD Community), which can benefit from the establishment of a TLD operating in a policy formulation environment in which the community would participate.”

— that ICANN approved .xxx as a new sTLD [6].

The selection criteria put emphasis on demonstrating “broad–based support from the community it is intended to represent.” puntCAT was able to demonstrate 68,000 individual messages of support, as well a supporting membership of over 90 affiliated Catalan cultural organizations from around the world. The proposal drew on Abril’s experience with the CORE registry to meet the selection criteria for a sound business model (to ensure financial stability) and for a sound technical strategy (for operational stability). But Abril stresses that the application was an extensive team effort, drawing upon active support from numerous Web designers, technical advisors and translators as well as from banks and governments.

puntCAT’s formal application to ICANN for .cat defined its community of interest, or in ICANN’s terms the Sponsored TLD Community, as follows:

“The .cat TLD is intended for the Catalan Linguistic and Cultural Community, i.e., for those identifying themselves and/or their activities with the promotion of those areas in the Internet.” (Associació puntCAT, 2004)

The application cited studies showing that Catalan was between the nineteenth and twenty–third most common language used on the Internet — but dispersed over many ccTLDs and gTLDs (Associació puntCAT, 2004; Mas i Hernàndez, 2003).

The .cat registry would be controlled by Fundació puntCAT (puntCAT Foundation), to be created as the successor to the Associació puntCAT, and which would be

“a non–for–profit, non–partisan [organization], representative of the whole community. Participation to the policy–making procedures and election of the Trustees will be open to all registrants, in a structured way that will prevent any given sector of activity or special interest to prevail in the long run. It is not a pre–existing entity from that community trying to evolve into new fields of activity, but a platform created by the community itself for the sole purpose of collectively managing the .cat TLD.” (Associació puntCAT, 2004)

The application provided a list of 67 supporting Catalan cultural institutions, federations, centres, professional associations and learned societies, from Europe, North, South and Central America — even the Catalan (radio) Broadcasting Society of Melbourne, Australia [7].

Political interference — and support

The .cat application was submitted in time for the ICANN deadline of 16 March 2004 — five days after the tragic Madrid train bombings, and two days after the Spanish national elections. These elections brought a change of national government, in part because of the outgoing Aznar government’s attempts to gain political advantage by blaming the bombings on the Basque terrorist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), contrary to rapidly leaked advice from its national police force that the massacre was the work of an Al Qaida–like Moroccan group.

The political drama continued. ICANN advised Abril that the outgoing Spanish government was against the .cat idea. Apparently the Aznar government, supposedly operating purely in caretaker mode, had sent an emissary to Washington to attempt to persuade the U.S. Departments of State and Commerce to block the .cat application. But Abril realized that with the change of government “we had a chance.”

As a lawyer, Abril was well aware that the Spanish constitution requires the national government to

“Proteger a todos los españoles y pueblos de España en el ejercicio de los derechos humanos, sus culturas y tradiciones, lenguas e instituciones”
i.e. “protect all Spaniards and all the peoples of Spain in the exercising of human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions.” [my translation; italics used to add emphasis]

Abril commented: “In the new government, the Spanish Secretariat of State for Telecommunications (including Internet policies) was moved to the Industry, Tourism and Commerce portfolio, which by good luck was headed by a Catalan, José Montilla Aguilera. Not a native Catalan, he’s an immigrant [8], but he’s a Catalan–speaking Catalan. He was the first politician to understand the major difference between the .cat community language proposal and a new ccTLD (country code TLD) proposal. So he said no to .ct but yes to .cat.” (Abril, 2005; confirmed in La Vanguardia,, 2004)

Through Montilla’s help, puntCAT was able to gain a formal letter of support from the Spanish Government as well as another from the Government of Andorra. “ICANN had asked us for these letters of support because they are the only two governments where Catalan is an official language either at a regional level (Spain) or at a national level (Andorra).”

In Italy, Catalan is recognized as an official language at the municipal level at Alghero in western Sardinia, but is not recognized at the national level. In any case Abril, having lived in Italy, thought it would be a waste of precious resources to try to win official support at their national level: “We could have spent three years trying to climb through the bureaucratic maze of Italian politics and got nowhere.”

ICANN’s response

In May 2004 ICANN Chairman Vint Cerf and ICANN Board Liaison member John Klensin visited Barcelona as part of INET 2004, and participated in a public meeting to discuss .cat. According to Abril, both Cerf and Klensin were at this time resistant to the notion of an Internet community being defined by language and culture, for the purposes of a sponsored Top Level Domain. At this meeting Klensin asked:

“What happens if the last speaker of say, Dogonian, comes out and asks for a .dog TLD?” (Abril, 2005)

ICANN’s Independent Evaluation Panel produced its report on ten new sTLD proposals in time for ICANN’s Board meetings in December 2004 and January and February 2005. They decided that the following five proposals passed all of ICANN’s selection criteria: .cat, .jobs, .mobi, .travel and .xxx [9]. At its February 2005 meeting, the ICANN Board empowered its President and General Counsel to enter into negotiations with puntCAT on .cat (ICANN, 2005).

Abril remembers: “Then ICANN started worrying about the precedent implied in approving .cat — what would come next?”

The chair of ICANN’s General Domain Names Support Organization since 2003, Bruce Tonkin, commented to me that

“one of the reasons that many in the ICANN decision–making process were slow to approve the .cat proposal was because it was seen as a precedent that may have encouraged the formation of a TLD for a minority group that may be associated with terrorism.” [10]

Abril was not asked about ETA or Al Qaida, but he was asked by members of the ICANN Board: “What if we received a proposal for .nazi or for .islam?” His response was simple: “Say no.” (Abril, 2005)

He was then asked: “But doesn’t .cat create a precedent for thousands of minority languages, all wanting a TLD?”

Abril’s response was:

“You can set thresholds, to meet ICANN’s goal of financial viability for a registry. How many minority languages are spoken in more than one country? Of these, how many are written languages? Of these, how many have at least, say, five million speakers? [Catalan is credited with 10 million speakers as a first and second language.] You might find perhaps 15 languages satisfying those criteria. That is not too many to introduce as language–based sTLDs.” (Abril, 2005)

Some ICANN directors were apparently concerned that UNESCO might fund 5,000 new cultural sTLDs. To which Abril’s response was: “What is the problem if someone pays?” (Abril, 2005)

Outside the ICANN Board and staff, but influential in ICANN decision–making circles, were individuals of high technical expertise in the Internet but of remarkable cultural myopia. Here is an egregious example:

Paul Hoffman’s blog for 7 April 2004 (at

“The proposed new TLDs are: ...
.cat — Probably a bad joke. As anyone who has watched ICANN knows, the ‘s’ part of ‘sTLD’ will likely evaporate in a few years if the sponsor can’t make money. Witness the strict rules that ‘.name’ was originally under, that then turned into mush. Anyone who believes that the folks sponsoring ‘.cat’ really only intend it for Catalonian probably don’t know ICANN’s history or think that the sponsoring agency have never heard of cat–lovers. Give these folks their second choice (.ctl) and see if they just evaporate.”

The ICANN Board considered the Independent Evaluation Panel’s report between November 2004 and its formal meeting on 13 January 2005, and on 18 February voted in favour of .cat, and instructed their staff to negotiate a contract with the puntCAT Foundation (ICANN, 2005). But they refrained from publicising their decision.

By the end of July 2005 the contract between ICANN and the new Fundació puntCAT had been negotiated and was finalised. But at the same time ICANN’s CEO, Paul Twomey, told the Board that he needed to consult the Spanish and Andorran governments to be sure of their support for .cat. According to Abril, Twomey wrote to them in August; both governments replied by early September confirming their stated positions (Abril, 2005).

As a result ICANN made public its decision approving the new .cat TLD in September 2005 [11].



Cost of the campaign

Amadeu Abril has estimated the cost of the .cat campaign as about €150,000 (about US$180,000) over 18 months. This included the $45,000 non–refundable ICANN fee, legal fees and travel, but not the considerable pro bono contributions of the puntCAT contributors. It also includes the cost of the premium for the $1 million letter of credit required by ICANN, and provided by the Catalan savings bank La Caixa, which was borne by puntCAT members (Abril, 2005).

Implementation of .cat

The .cat registry is expected to be ready by January 2006. Its registry platform will be provided by CORE, who provide the same registry service to the .aero and .museum sTLDs, at a commercial fee. The .cat name servers will be provided by the Catalan Supercomputer Centre (CESCA, at, and by the Spanish, Andorran, German and Swiss ccTLD registries, as well as by the ISC F–root name server in California — free!

Domain names under .cat will be registered at the second level e.g., for the Fundació puntCAT. Will there be much demand for these names outside Catalonia? Haven’t Valencian nationalists attempted to differentiate their language from Catalan?

“Seventy percent of all Valencian schools have already applied for domain names under .cat. And one of puntCAT’s five directors will be Valencian.” (Abril, 2005)

Will the Catalonian Government (Generalitat de Catalunya, at — which currently uses the domain name — want the domain name “What we want most is”, replied Amadeu Abril i Abril.



The concomitant resources needed to support minority languages on the Internet

Gaining higher visibility through use of a top level domain (TLD) is not, of course, sufficient to promote the increased use of that language.

Factors facilitating Internet usage in a particular language include:

  • the availability of high–speed (broadband) Internet access at affordable prices for the relevant users;
  • the availability of a human–computer interface in the target language from the operating system used (e.g., Windows, Mac or Linux);
  • the availability of the most popular office applications in the target language;
  • the availability of powerful search engines that can both search discriminately and report back in the target language; and,
  • (for comprehensiveness) the ability of the Domain Name System to support all characters of that language.

In their home base of Catalonia, the Catalans have most of these bases well covered.

Broadband access to the Internet in Spain in December 2004 had an average penetration of 8.4 — seventeenth in the OECD Broadband rankings (OECD, 2005) and is rising. However the Generalitat has taken steps to provide affordable broadband access to 100 percent of Catalan households, including remote dwellings in the Pyrenees. It has committed to funding 60 percent of a public–private joint venture that will roll out broadband network infrastructure throughout Catalonia and make it available to all carrier resellers at reasonable wholesale rates. This pragmatic solution is supported by all of the elected Catalan political parties (Grau, 2005; Generalitat de Catalunya, 2005).

In the mid–1990s the then Catalan government paid Microsoft close to US$500,000 to fund the development of a Catalan interface to the Windows 98 operating system, even though this interface was not bundled with the standard Windows suite, and arrived late to market (La Vanguardia, 2005). In 2002 the then Catalan government joined with the Andorran and Balearic Islands governments to pay Yahoo to provide a Catalan interface to its portal, for a cost of €600,000. This has apparently not met the sponsors’ expectations (La Vanguardia, 2005)

Successive Catalan governments have subsidised the production of a Catalan/Spanish/English dictionary on digital media in successive editions since 1993. However the major search engines Alltheweb and Google did not seek subsidies to provide Catalan language interfaces or Catalan–specific language preferences, and have had these features since the 1990s.

The current Domain Name System will not allow any of the special characters — á é í ó ú à è ò ç ü — all used within standard Catalan spelling (as well as in other continental European languages) to be used within Internet domain names. The long–awaited International Domain Name system, capable of supporting characters and ideograms used in any of the ISO–listed world languages, has yet to be finalised by ICANN. This limitation is irritating to those wishing to accurately incorporate Catalan placenames, surnames or other proper names having these special characters within URLs or e–mail addresses, but it has not held back the creation of Catalan language Web sites or use of e–mail in Catalan.



Implications for other languages

There are reportedly more than 6,800 human languages and dialects in use today [12], each one providing both a means of communication and a sense of cultural identity, including a distinct historical context, for its speakers. But of course the numbers of speakers of these languages varies hugely. Only 122 of these languages have more than one million speakers, 83 more than five million, and only 60 with more than 10 million speakers (Associació puntCAT, 2004).

Most of the 100 most spoken languages are also extensively read and written, providing access to distinct literatures, histories and other cultural resources, as well as providing (for the more fortunate readers, writers and speakers) the ability to participate in relevant economic, administrative, religious and judicial systems, as well as within relevant communities.

The Internet is serving as a cost–effective means of communication by e–mail or blogging in any of these languages, given the power of the underlying Unicode standard to encode, store and transfer all the characters used in all the known languages of the world. However the visibility on the Internet of many of the ‘top 100 living languages’, and the cultural diversity they manifest, is not obvious to the average Anglophone Internet user. To what extent are these languages used on public Web sites?

Measuring the usage of human languages on the Internet is a very inexact science, but Table 1, based on work by Guinovart (2003), shows the relative proportions of 45 languages identifiable by the search engine Alltheweb amongst the 729 million Web pages it had crawled by 26 March 2002. Regrettably the current Google and Alltheweb search engines only offer up to 36 language choices, which makes it impossible to repeat the experiment to get more up–to–date snapshots of the Web in the same languages.


Table 1: Languages on the Internet
Source: The numbers of Web pages found by the search engine Alltheweb on 26 March 2002 in 45 distinct living languages. Based on Xavier Gómez Guinovart’s Table 1 (Guinovart, 2003, pp. 76–77) but with rounding of page numbers to three significant figures & translation from Galician into English. The figures for English and the four official languages of Spain have been emphasized in bold.
% total
% total
All the above


ICANN’s approval of .cat provides a precedent for other single–language communities, if they so wish to apply for their own sponsored Top Level Domains (sTLDs). And they need not be restricted to minority languages.

If ICANN maintains the same evaluation criteria for future sTLD proposals, then the following criteria will be significant hurdles:

“3. ... Proposals will receive a higher score the more value that would be added to the DNS by launching the proposed sTLD, and the more it is clear that a top level domain name is required to achieve the stated objectives.” (ICANN, 2003b)

This criterion would make it very difficult for a language community whose language is already associated with a country name and hence an existing country code, e.g., Italian with Italy (.it), French with France (.fr), to be assigned a new TLD, give ICANN’s desire to minimise the release of new TLDs, even if an argument is mounted for a country–independent global language.

“4. ... Given that choices need to be made, all other things being equal, greater weight will be given to sTLDs that will serve larger user communities and attract a greater number of registrants.” (ICANN, 2003b)

This criterion will make it difficult for language communities with fewer than one million users to get a high score.

Lastly ICANN’s requirement for a non–refundable fee of US$45,000, to fund the costs of their evaluation, plus the additional much larger costs of a campaign for selection, will be a deterrent for the smaller and poorer minority language communities.




The history of the campaign to win .cat clearly began as an expression of traditional Catalan nationalism, as shown by the initial preference for a country code .ct that had no chance of being accepted by the ISO Standard 3166 or by ICANN. Having been thwarted on that choice, the more astute protagonists developed the idea of ‘changing the passport for the dictionary’, putting aside any frustration with current political boundaries in Spain for the goal of achieving a truly global cultural focus in cyberspace for Catalan. Whereas support for .ct would have necessarily been limited to the region of Catalonia, the .cat concept was enthusiastically supported by 68,000 Catalan–speaking individuals and 98 organizations worldwide.

But the last hurdles to be faced were the cultural ignorance of some key individuals in the ICANN decision–making processes, and the sensitivities of ICANN Board members to the known sensitivities of the U.S. Government, which has the ability to veto ICANN decisions. The same political sensitivities and cultural limitations will face other language communities wishing to use the .cat precedent to win sponsored Top Level Domains for their own global language–based culture.

Winning a Top Level Domain will not be sufficient to promote much greater use or visibility of a ‘minority language’ in cyberspace. There are a number of important concomitant resources needed to promote the use of any language on the Internet. It is significant that the Catalans have covered all these bases through appropriate policies and investments. End of article


About the author

Peter Gerrand is both a PhD student within the Spanish/Catalan/Galician and Media Studies Programs at La Trobe University, and a Professorial Fellow in telecommunications at the University at Melbourne, Australia.
E–mail: pgerrand [at] gmail [dot] com



I am grateful to my two doctoral thesis supervisors for their valuable feedback on an early draft of this paper: Dr Roy C. Boland, Professor of Spanish, and Dr Peter B. White, Media Studies Program; both at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

This paper would not have been possible without the time generously given me by Amadeu Abril i Abril in Barcelona, and by Dr Bruce Tonkin in Melbourne, in briefing me on key aspects of the campaign for .cat and on the ICANN decision–making process since 2001, respectively, in which both have been active participants. For helping me gain a deeper understanding of Catalan language and culture as an entrée to studying the modern history of Catalan nationalism, I am grateful to my Catalan tutor at La Trobe University, Victoria Gras, and to my hosts in Barcelona, Catherine Perelló and Prof. Miquel Serra.



1. Grimes and Grimes, 2000, p. 699.

2. Balcells, 1996, p. 87.

3. Abril’s formal biography can be found at, accessed at 11 November 2005.

4. I interviewed Amadeu Abril in Barcelona on 21 September 2005 on the history of the Catalan campaign to win a TLD for their language and culture, and confirmed all the quotations above by e–mail on 3 November 2005. I have also checked key events against data on the ICANN Web site at and with Madrid and Barcelona newspapers, and consulted other correspondents who were actively involved in ICANN’s decision making processes during this period.

5. One of the other four was Melbourne IT, for which the author was CEO from 1996–2000.

6. “ICANN Approves .xxx Sponsored Top-–Level Domain Application,” at, accessed 30 December 2005; and, private communication to the author from Bruce Tonkin, 10 November 2005.

7. The list of supporting organizations had grown to 98 by 26 October 2005, when the Associació puntCAT dissolved itself, to make way for the Fundació puntCAT (Abril, 2005).

8. The term ‘immigrant’ in Catalonia is used to describe Spaniards migrating to Catalonia from the rest of Spain, particularly the large numbers from Andalusia, as well as the smaller numbers from abroad. José Montilla Aguilera was in fact born in Cordoba, and moved to Catalonia at the age of 16, where he received his tertiary education and has since had a strikingly successful political career successively at the municipal, regional and national levels.

9. Private communication to the author from Bruce Tonkin, 10 November 2005.

10. Ibid.

11. See the ICANN Board resolution of 15 September 2005 at, accessed 30 December 2005.

12. Grimes and Grimes, 2000, p. 846.



Amadeu Abril, 2005. Interview with the author, 21 September 2005.

Associació puntCAT, 2004. “New sTLD RFP Application: .cat,” at (March), accessed 21 November 2005.

Albert Balcells, 1996. Catalan nationalism: Past and present. Translated by Jacqueline Hall with the collaboration of Geoffrey J. Walker. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Generalitat de Catalunya, 2005. “El Govern dóna el darrer impuls al desplegament d’infrastructures de telecomunicacions”, 30 August 2005, at, accessed 30 December 2005.

Oriol Ferran Grau (Subsecretary for Telecommunications, Generalitat de Catalunya), 2005. Private communication to the author, 20 September 2005.

Barbara F. Grimes and Joseph Evans Grimes, 2000. Ethnologue. Volume 1: Languages of the world. 14th edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International.

Xavier Gómez Guinovart, 2003. “A lingua galega en internet” (Galician language on the Internet), in Ana Bringas and Belén Martín,:Nacionalismo e globalización: lingua, cultura e identidade, Universidade de Vigo (Spain), tábola 1, pp.71–88.

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ICANN, 1999. “Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. Department of Commerce and Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers,” at, accessed 30 December 2005.

La Vanguardia, 2005. “Operación .cat,” La Vanguardia (Barcelona, 17 September).

La Vanguardia, 2004. “El Gobierno no pone objeción al dominio ‘.cat’ ante una consulta de la ICANN,” (The government does not object to the ‘.cat’ domain, in response to ICANN), La Vanguardia (Barcelona, 4 November).

Jordi Mas i Hernàndez, 2003. “La salut del català a Internet” (The state of health of Catalan on the Internet), at (2 September), accessed 30 December 2005.

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Editorial history

Paper received 28 November 2005; accepted 15 December 2005.

Copyright ©2006, First Monday

Copyright ©2006, Peter Gerrand

Cultural diversity in cyberspace: The Catalan campaign to win the new .cat top level domain by Peter Gerrand
First Monday, Volume 11, Number 1 - 2 January 2006

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