Page last updated at 11:19 GMT, Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The shifting sands of net debate

By Jonathan Charles
Correspondent, BBC News, Sharm el-Sheikh

Tourist on a beach in Sharm-el-Sheikh
The calm of Sharm-el-Sheikh belies some serious talks about the future of the net

The sand and deep blue sea of Sharm el-Sheikh are a magnet for winter sun worshippers - a place to have serious fun. This week, though, it is also somewhere to do some serious thinking about the future of the internet.

Amidst the swimming shorts and bikinis in this Egyptian resort, on the Red Sea, fifteen hundred besuited men and women stand out.

They are attending the four-day Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a United Nations' sponsored gathering to try to reach a consensus on where the net should be going.

The meeting, of governments, advocacy groups and non-governmental organisations, is happening at a time when the internet is changing as fast as the shifting sands of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Much of the discussion is focussing on the new opportunities which will be opened up by the decision to allow domain names in non-Latin languages.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), a key internet oversight agency, has developed a mechanism for domain names in languages such as Chinese, Korean and Arabic, as well as a host of others.

In fact, Egypt's technology minister, Tarek Kamel, has taken the opportunity, at this meeting, to announce that his country has applied to register an all-Arabic domain name, ".masr".

Business opportunity

Iraqi Arabs
Only one percent of web content is written in Arabic

It will be written in Arabic - the names means ".Egypt". He says: "It's a great moment for us, it'll offer new avenues for innovation, investment and growth - the internet now speaks Arabic."

The great and the good who are gathered in Sharm-el-Sheikh believe that it means a great deal more than that, though.

It should expand content and access in many developing nations.

Yahoo's founder, Jerry Yang, told delegates that there are 300m Arabs in the world but less than 1% of content is written in Arabic.

He also says that there are approximately 325 million internet users in emerging markets but 75% of the world's population still isn't online. For Jerry Yang, it all adds up to a huge business opportunity.

It is not just new languages which are expected to bring fresh openings for companies. At one session that I attended, it is clear that a huge amount of effort is going in to gaining better web access for the 10% of the global population that suffers from some sort of disability.

Enabling disabilities

Many autistic children prefer interacting with computers, rather than humans. Computers are more reliable, their reactions are more consistent
Professor Arun Mehta

Blind campaigner, Gerry Ellis, says that "it's becoming more difficult than ever for the disabled to get access to information" as more and more of it goes online.

There are not enough programmes for the blind and deaf, many websites are too complicated for people with disabilities to navigate.

The IGF, through the Dynamic Coalition for Accessibility and Disability, is calling on companies to do more.

It also makes the good point that if they simplify their web pages, that will help all users, not just the disabled.

Another expert in the field, Professor Arun Mehta is also using computer technology to help children with autism. He's spent a large part of his life developing software which helps those with disabilities.

His Special Kids project (SKIDS) help autistic children to improve their education by recognising pictures and naming the objects which are featured on the computer.

" Many autistic children prefer interacting with computers, rather than humans," he says. "Computers are more reliable, their reactions are more consistent."

It is just one of a myriad of applications which are now being developed with the emphasis on access for the millions who don't currently have it.

Overall, the mood amongst the delegates in Sharm el-Sheikh is optimistic.

The internet is alive and well and as dynamic as ever. Ask anyone here, though, what it will look like in five years ' time and you'll get as many different answers as there are participants in this forum.

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