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Speaking your language

Media current
Source: Broadband Commission Report 2012, page 63

Yesterday, the Broadband Commission published its 2012 report. Top of the pops on its highlights document is the news that by 2015 Chinese will overtake English as the predominant language of the web.

This is a big change. In 2010, UNESCO’s Assistant Director General, Janis Karklins, warned:

“The Internet needs to become more inclusive and diverse with regards to languages. There are approximately 6,000 languages in the world, but 12 languages only accounted for 98 % of Internet webpages in 2008. English with 72 % of webpages is the dominant language.”

This year’s report tells us that English now represents 27% of Internet web pages, a huge swing towards multilingualism. There are 285 languages recognised by Wikipedia; Facebook is available in 70 languages. Amazingly fast progress on Internet content.

That’s content. What about addressing? As the web becomes more linguistically diverse, can the Internet’s navigation system remain predominantly English speaking? Internationalised Domain Names (IDN), which allow users to find their way around the web in their own language, have developed from relatively slow beginnings, and are starting to become more widely available.

Many challenges to widespread deployment of IDNs – they are still not consistently handled in web browsers, in email, or in popular applications (for example, you can’t create a Facebook account with an IDN email), and there is limited awareness by industry and end users alike. That said, some countries have seen good uptake of IDNs already.

The World Report on Internationalised Domain Name (IDN) Deployment, a collaboration between EURid and UNESCO will be published next month, and is summarised in the Broadband Commission Report. As main author of the IDN study, I have spent a lot of time this year trying to figure out why Internationalised Domain Names have been so successful in some countries (eg Russian Federation and Republic of Korea), and not in others.

Building on research by the Internet Society, UNESCO and the OECD, which finds a remarkable correlation between the development of network infrastructure and growth of local content, the World Report on IDNs suggests that a combination of country factors on the one hand, and factors relating to the way that the country’s domain name registry is run on the other, combine to give a score for “IDN readiness”.

Country factors look at cultural and linguistic homogeneity, the number of language speakers in a country, the extent to which there are local language versions of popular applications or sites (eg microblogging, social networking, retail), and infrastructure. The link between infrastructure and content is surprising at first, but thinking it through – the faster your Internet connection, the more attractive it is to go online, send emails, shop, watch videos, or create content.

The other factors which we think affect the uptake of IDNs in a country or region relate to the way that the country’s domain name registry (ccTLD) is run. Factors such as price, and registration rules have their part to play, but a crucial element is whether there is a network of local registrars, who provide all sorts of Internet services to people in their own language.

In this way, the country’s domain name registry has an important role to play in fostering the right environment for multilingual content.

It’s in the nature of the Internet that fixing problems requires the collaboration of multiple actors, and IDNs are no different. Policy makers, industry and the technical community all have their part to play. But looking at the growth in multilingual content, it makes sense to suppose that there will be a market demand for multilingual web navigation too, if it is user friendly, consistent and reliable.

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