As the world waits nervously to see whether Russia’s weeks-long troop build-up on the Ukrainian border will result in an invasion, ICANN is embroiled in an infinitely more trivial conflict between the two nations.
As well as overseeing domain names, IP addresses and protocol numbers, a decade ago ICANN took over the time zone database that most of the world’s computers rely on to figure out what the correct time is or was.
The Time Zone Database or tzdb has been hosted by ICANN’s IANA unit since 2011, when it stepped in to relieve the previous host, which was being badgered in court by astrologers.
It’s managed and regularly updated — such as when a country changes its time zone or modifies its daylight savings practices — by Paul Eggert of the University of California.
While it’s apolitical, governed by IETF best practice, it occasionally finds itself in the firing line due to political controversies.
In recent years, a recurrent controversy — which has raised its head again this month in light of the current border crisis — has been the spelling of the Ukrainian capital city.
It has long been rendered in English as “Kiev”, but that’s the Latin-script transliteration of the Russian-Cyrillic spelling Киев, rather than the Ukrainian-Cyrillic spelling, Київ, which is transliterated as “Kyiv”.
With tensions between Russia and Ukraine intensifying since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Ukraine has for years appealed to the international community to change its “painful” spelling practices.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2019, part of its #CorrectUA and #KyivNotKiev campaigns, described the situation like this:
Under the Russian empire and later the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Russification was actively used as a tool to extinguish each constituent country’s national identity, culture and language. In light of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, including its illegal occupation of Crimea, we are once again experiencing Russification as a tactic that attempts to destabilize and delegitimize our country. You will appreciate, we hope, how the use of Soviet-era placenames – rooted in the Russian language – is especially painful and unacceptable to the people of Ukraine.
Many English-language news outlets — including the Associated Press and Guardian style guides, the BBC, New York Times and Wall Street Journal — have since switched to the “Kyiv” spelling, though many are still using “Kiev”.
The US and UK governments both currently use “Kyiv”. Wikipedia switched to “Kyiv” in 2020. ICANN’s own new gTLD program rules, which draw on international standards, would treat both “Kiev” and “Kyiv” as protected geographic names.
My Windows computer used “Kyiv”, but the clock on my Android phone uses “Kiev”.
The tzdb currently lists Kyiv’s time zone as “Europe/Kiev”, because it follows the English-language consensus, with the comments providing this October 2018 explanation from Eggert:
As is usual in tzdb, Ukrainian zones use the most common English spellings. For example, tzdb uses Europe/Kiev, as “Kiev” is the most common spelling in English for Ukraine’s capital, even though it is certainly wrong as a transliteration of the Ukrainian “Київ”. This is similar to tzdb’s use of Europe/Prague, which is certainly wrong as a transliteration of the Czech “Praha”. (“Kiev” came from old Slavic via Russian to English, and “Prague” came from old Slavic via French to English, so the two cases have something in common.) Admittedly English-language spelling of Ukrainian names is controversial, and some day “Kyiv” may become substantially more popular in English; in the meantime, stick with the traditional English “Kiev” as that means less disruption for our users.
Because the tzdb is incorporated in billions of installations of operating systems, programming frameworks and applications worldwide, a conservative approach to changes has been used for compatibility reasons.
In addition, the spelling in the database is not supposed to be exposed to end users. Developers may use tzdb in their code, but they’re encouraged to draw on resources such as the Unicode Common Locale Data Repository to localize their user interfaces.
As Eggert put it on the tzdb mailing list recently “the choice of spelling should not be important to end users, as the tzdb spelling is not intended to be visible to them”.
Based on past changes, it seems that “Kyiv” could one day before too long supplant “Kiev” in the tzdb, if the current political status quo remains and English-speaking nations increasingly support Ukraine’s independent sovereignty.
But if Russia should invade and occupy, who knows how the language will change?
This article has been part of an irregular series entitled “Murphy Feels Guilty About Covering Incredibly Serious Current Events With A Trivial Domain Angle, But He Writes A Domain Blog So Cut Him Some Slack FFS”.
The post ICANN stuck between Ukraine and Russia in time zone debate first appeared on Domain Incite.