A 30-page Report by the 12-member Emoji Study Group (ESG) of ICANN’s Country-Code Names Supporting Organization (CCNSO) has reiterated a number of problematic issues that were highlighted in a previous ICANN report on the emoji question.

Emojis are pictorial symbols that help to lend emotional context or liven up otherwise dry, or ambiguously intentioned, text exchanges. Like Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs), emoji domain names use the international programming standard Unicode, which is converted, via a process called Punycode, into an American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) domain name.

The ICANN Security and Stability Advisory Committee (SSAC) already advised against the suitability of emojis as domain names in a Report released in 2015, leading ICANN to ban their use in gTLDs. In this advisory Report, the SSAC recommended that the ICANN Board reject any TLD (root zone label) containing emoji and, more generally, strongly discouraged the registration of any domain name that includes emoji in any of its labels. The SSAC also advised the registrants of domain names that contained emoji that such domains may not function consistently or may not be universally accessible.

The SSAC's advisory Report pointed to the ambiguity and lack of standardization for emoji as constituting the major obstacle to their wider use, noting that many are visually similar and can be difficult to distinguish, especially when displayed in small fonts or by different browsers.

This has not stopped a growing number of ccTLD Registries (namely .AZ, .CF, .FM, .JE, .GA, .GE, .GG, .GQ, .ML, .ST, .TO, .TK, .UZ, .VU, and .WS.), which are not subject to ICANN regulations, from offering emoji domain names that can be used, for example, as HTML anchor text (i❤.ws), thus mitigating browser compatibility issues.

The recent ESG Report, which was 18 months in the making, revisits some of the concerns the SSAC expressed in its Report, notably with respect to the lack of standardisation for emoji. It points out that, although the Unicode Consortium began providing character code charts that show a glyph or representation for each emoji in 2010, this body: “is not a designer or purveyor of emoji images, nor is it the owner of any of the color images used in Unicode emoji documents and charts, nor does it negotiate licenses for their use.” As such, individual operators using emoji are free to represent them pictorially in any way they choose, which leads to quite marked differences in their representation.

An additional complication highlighted by the Report is that not each emoji has a one to one correspondence with a unique Unicode code point and that, in some cases, several emoji can be amalgamated into a single new emoji by using a Zero Width Joiner (ZWJ). On top of this, skin tone modifiers can be used. The Report notes that, in February 2019, there was a total of 1,719 emoji excluding skin tone modifiers.

The Report mentions other inconsistencies, such as the use of emoji that already have Unicode Basic Latin block codes (for example, the question mark and exclamation mark) and the listing of country flag emoji based on the ISO 3166-1 standard, but with no clear protocol for same.

The ESG Report concluded with three main recommendations, namely:

1. Dialogue

There should be “a full and frank dialogue with ccTLDs accepting emojis as second level domains should be continued and fostered.” and notes that “this dialogue, however, will only succeed if all relevant parties participate.

2. Define and communicate consistently what is and what is not an Emoji

Whilst referencing the latest version of emoji, as documented by the Unicode, the Study Group recommended that, due to the inadequacies of that resource, the issue of definition of what is and what is not an emoji be further explored by the broader community.

3. Identification of cc’s and others accepting Emojis in second level domains

Acknowledging that the ad-hoc methods the group used to identify ccTLDs that include emojis it recommended that “ICANN and the broader community consider clearly delineating what it considers emoji and develop systemic methods to identify (cc)TLDs who include emoji (however defined) as second level domains.

It will be interesting to see whether ICANN pursues these recommendations and whether this latest Report dampens the fervour of emoji domain name enthusiasts.