Currently, English is the language of the Internet, but this could change if leading agencies are able to forge universal standards towards building a multilingual cyberspace.
The International Telecommunication Union, UNESCO and ICANN organised have workshop on this subject during the second Internet Governance Forum (IGF) taking place in Rio de Janeiro this week.
The Internet is a key factor in developing a more inclusive and development-oriented information society, which stresses plurality and diversity instead of global uniformity. Multilingualism is a key concept to ensure cultural diversity and participation for all linguistic groups in cyberspace. There is growing concern that hundreds of local languages may be sidestepped, albeit unintentionally in the radical expansion of Internet communication and information.
The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) recognized the importance attached to linguistic diversity and local content, with UNESCO given the responsibility to coordinate implementation of the Summit Action Line.
"The discussions at this multilingualism workshop — combined with our current evaluation of Internationalized Domain Names — are going to help ICANN keep moving toward full implementation of Internationalized Domain Names," says Paul Twomey, ICANN’s President and CEO. "ICANN is in the midst of the largest ever evaluation of IDNs at the top level."
Following the evaluation of Internationalized Domain Names by ICANN, Internet users around the globe can now access wiki pages with the domain name "example.test" in the 11 test languages — Arabic, Persian, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Russian, Hindi, Greek, Korean, Yiddish, Japanese and Tamil. The wikis will allow Internet users to establish their own sub pages with their own names in their own language; one suggestion is: example.test/yourname.
Domain Names, which are currently mainly limited to characters from the Latin or Roman scripts, are seen as an important element in enabling the multilingualisation of the Internet, reflecting the diverse and growing language needs of all users.
"ITU is fully committed to assist its membership in promoting the diversity of language scripts for domain names," says Dr Hamadoun Touré, Secretary-General of ITU. "This workshop represents an important opportunity to strengthen the need for cooperation with relevant organizations, such as UNESCO, WIPO and ICANN among others to ensure Internet use and advancement across language barriers."
The Plenipotentiary Conference of ITU, which took place in Antalya, Turkey in November 2006, recognized the need to make Internet content available in non-Latin based scripts. Internet users are more comfortable reading or browsing through texts in their own language and a multilingual Internet is essential to make it more widely accessible. The WSIS outcomes also focused on the commitment to work towards multilingualization of the Internet as part of a multilateral, transparent and democratic process involving governments and all stakeholders.
UNESCO, joined by both ITU and ICANN, seeks to convene all major stakeholders around the world towards an agreement on universal standards regarding language issues in cyberspace. Such issues are far broader than the single issue of IDN’s as they extend to standards for fonts and character sets, text encoding, language implementations within major computer operating systems, content development tools, automatic translation software, and search engines across languages. Ultimately, equitable access to information can be only achieved if we resolve language barriers at the same time we build communications infrastructures and capacity building programmes.