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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 November 2006, 13:31 GMT
Tough talk on net language issue
By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website, Athens

The word "Peace" in different languages, AP
More of the world's languages should be used online, say experts
More than 90% of the world's 6,000 languages are not represented on the internet. So what must be done to make the internet a truly global place?

English is the lingua franca of cyberspace, a reflection of the fact that the internet was borne out of the work of English-speaking researchers and promoted by governments such as the United States.

But there is a growing recognition that the internet is failing to reflect the linguistic and cultural diversity of billions of people around the world.

The issue took centre stage at the United Nations' Internet Governance Forum in Athens on Wednesday, at which a panel and audience of experts gathered to debate the next steps for the net.

Adama Samassekou, president of the African Academy of Languages in Mali, said: "Linguistic diversity is to human society what biodiversity is to Mother Nature.

"There is huge part of the world's population that is voiceless because they cannot share that information. The internet is access to information.

"It's also opening up the world to people so that people can create knowledge as well as share it."

He added: "The digital divide is not as important as the linguistic divide and that is the one we should be bridging in order to guarantee the democratic governance of the internet."

Language lab

One of the most contested topics to emerge at the IGF is internationalised domain names (IDN), the project to allow people to use web addresses and e-mail addresses in their native alphabet and language.

The project, overseen by US-backed body Icann, presents huge technical challenges and there have already been warnings from one of the internet's founding fathers, Vint Cerf, that any mis-step could break the internet.

Patrik Faltstrom, who is working with Icann on IDN, said that people had to realise that domain names were identifiers and not keywords.

Chinese language students, AP
China has dozens of ethnic groups
Some people want the net to be adapted so that they could simply type a word in their own script into a search engine and they would be able to navigate directly to a specific web page.

He said: "We have to remember that IDN are really identifiers. No-one will be happy with the identifiers.

"Translation from local scripts might be difficult. We have some issues with right to left scripts and we have issues with Hebrew scripts."

Qiheng Hu, chair of the Internet Society of China, said: "In my country there are dozens of ethnic groups. How can we maintain their cultural traditions, their language, customs and practices?

"IDN cannot resolve the issue of diversity entirely. It is not possible to establish domain names in dozens of ethnic languages so that every ethnic group can use their own language to access the net."

Divina Frau-Meigs, professor of Media Sociology at the University of Paris, said IDN was in danger of becoming a "cumbersome solution".

The plans as they stood would result in many languages and scripts being left out of the IDN project.

"People can't target what is on the net in their own native language," she argued.

Tool time

The issue of "local content" was also central to the discussion; encouraging and promoting different languages on the net and ensuring that everyone could access the content.

Pencil and paper, BBC
Work is under way to make it easier to use scripts to browse
Alex Corenthin, president of the Internet Society in Senegal, said: "We have to find tools which will take into account the linguistic and cultural diversity of people to codify their languages in whichever way possible for their content to be available."

He highlighted the fact many countries had more than one official language and that many people were technically illiterate and therefore cut off from the internet.

Vint Cerf said more work could be done to encourage the use of oral traditions on the net.

"There are people in the world who do not have written languages or cannot read or write and have equal need to access of information.

"We'd like to preserve their knowledge on the network. I wonder if we could work harder to capture oral content on the network?"

Not only were translation tools needed, but also transliterative tools. Some languages in different scripts present problems when words are translated not just in meaning but also in terms of what letters or ideograms must be used.

Nikkolay Vassilev, a Bulgarian minister and chair of the debate, highlighted problems in his own country which had yet to codify how words in the native Cyrillic script should be translated into the Latin alphabet.

The West tends to think of the internet as a predominantly English-language tool
Gail, Seoul

Ms Frau-Meigs called on the IGF, Unesco and the International Telecommunications Union to "look into emerging issue of cultural diversity alongside the new tools: what Icann has developed on one hand, the semantic web".

The semantic web, creating web pages that have content that can be understood by computers, is seen as one solution to the problem of linguistic diversity.

"It is absolutely essential that we should all leave here with something that will be prepared for Rio," she said, referring to the IGF summit in Brazil next year.

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