Multilingualism on the Internet and other key learnings from WSIS+10

Pat Kane | Mar 14, 2013

Recently I joined a number of world leaders, policy makers, NGOs and other groups at the first World Summit on the Information Society review event, WSIS+10. The discussions focused on how we can all make progress toward achieving a truly multilingual, open Internet for everyone and establishing a knowledge-driven society. Hopefully, some of the key learnings will help shape the next review event in 2014 and also encourage a continuing dialogue about how to lower the digital divides that prevents so many users around the world from navigating the Web in non-native scripts and languages. There were many interesting workshops, seminars and interactive sessions happening at the meeting, but I wanted to share some thoughts about a special panel I participated on regarding Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs) with Janis Karklins, Baher Esmat, Minjung Park, and Christine Arida, hosted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

During the session, we discussed the challenges and opportunities facing multilingualism on the Internet, and specifically around IDNs. Today, IDNs have the potential to help make the Internet accessible and language-agnostic by enabling more end users to navigate the Internet in their preferred script and more companies to maintain one brand identity in many scripts. This is why IDNs have generated considerable attention since their introduction in 2000, but adoption worldwide remains a hurdle that we are all working to overcome. IDNs are far from being ubiquitous and trusted, and there is still a ways to go in getting IDNs accepted and embraced globally. For instance, one of the views I shared on the panel was that consumers and small-medium businesses around the globe trust domains in their current state (mostly ASCII) more than they do all localized script domain names. Regional consumers may trust IDNs more, such as Korean consumers trusting IDNs more than Chinese consumers, but there is still a concern that IDNs are not ubiquitous and present rendering challenges in scenarios involving email clients, Web browsers and mobile applications, to name a few. The recent EURid/UNESCO World Report on IDN Deployment 2012 showed an interesting correlation between how improvements in user experiences can drive adoption of IDNs. For instance, 82 percent of respondents believe email support is one of the key challenges to adopt IDNs.    

The composition of the world’s Internet population has seen a dramatic change over the last two decades. In 1996, two-thirds of the world’s Internet population was in the U.S. Today, Asia Pacific is the largest region with more than 40 percent of the online population.Thus, the need to make the Web more multilingual and improve the rate of IDN adoption has become critical. Coupled with the exponential growth in the total number of mobile devices shipped globally and we’re looking at a very different picture than we were in the 20th century. This makes the conversation that much more important because the more languages we have represented in the digital world, the better our chances are at reaching the initial targets outlined at the first WSIS summit in Geneva nearly 10 years ago.

We believe general adoption of IDNs won’t happen unless the user experience is enhanced in email clients, Web browsers, mobile applications and popular applications (i.e., Facebook, Twitter). We also believe that the entire IDN ecosystem -- content developers, applications developers, standards bodies, registries and registrars -- need to work together to make IDNs as trusted and ubiquitous as ASCII domain names.

Surely, changes to an ecosystem as expansive as the Internet won’t happen overnight, but the future of IDNs is bright and undoubtedly cannot be ignored. As an integral player in the process, and registry operator for more than one million IDNs, we are working with the entire ecosystem to support the campaign to build greater awareness and adoption of IDNs. By internationalizing key identifiers of the Web, together we can work to localize content and make it accessible to any individual of any background. Now that the groundwork has been laid, it’s time to make the Internet a truly multilingual Web.