IGF 2020 WS #271 Multilingualism online: old challenges and new perspectives

Tuesday, 17th November, 2020 (12:50 UTC) - Tuesday, 17th November, 2020 (14:20 UTC)
Room 2
About this Session
A diverse group of experts will discuss the status of the multilingualism in the Internet and the challenges that the Internet users face in using their own language and script.

Organizer 1: Private Sector, Asia-Pacific Group
Organizer 2: Technical Community, Eastern European Group
Organizer 3: Government, African Group
Organizer 4: Civil Society, Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC)
Organizer 5: Technical Community, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Organizer 6: Private Sector, Eastern European Group
Organizer 7: Technical Community, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Organizer 8: Technical Community, Asia-Pacific Group
Organizer 9: Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)

Speaker 1: Maria Kolesnikova, Technical Community, Eastern European Group
Speaker 2: Galila Abdalmonem, Government, African Group
Speaker 3: SYLVIA HERLEIN LEITE, Civil Society, Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC)
Speaker 4: John Klensin, Technical Community, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)

Additional Speakers

Sylvia Herlein Leite who will not be able to join as a speaker for health reasons and will be replaced by Harold Arcos.

Ilona Stadnik will replace Natalia Filina as remote moderator.

Both additional participants belong to the same stakeholder groups and geopolitical areas of the original participants.

The scheduled speakers are:

John Klensin has a wide technical background that includes contributions to the protocols for internationalized domain names and email addresses.

He will provide an overview of the most important issues that are barriers to entry for new people or greater use - local languages, difficulties of translation, writing systems including insufficient rendering of text, difference in culture, etc.

Abdalmonem Tharwat Galila has the experience of Government, working for the Telecom Regulatory Authority in Egypt.

He will speak about Universal Acceptance of Internationalized Domain Names and Internationalized Email Addresses, touching also on the additional problems related to a the right-to-left writing system.

Maria Kolesnikova has the experience of ccTLDs, including that is in non-Latin script, and of an Eastern European country..

She will speak about the user experience in different contexts, for instance about the possible differences between the ASCII .ru and the Cyrillic .рф, but also in relation to social media.

Harold Arcos is the president of an Internet users association in Venezuela.

He will speak about the use of local languages on the Internet and in particular about indigenous languages in Latin America.


Round Table - U-shape - 90 Min

Policy Question(s)

Some of the major policy questions that are related to the implementation of a fully multilingual internet are: - What strategies could be developed to promote (better) Internet access for people who only know their native language or only know their writing system? Do we have a higher incidence of the problem for women and girls, older people, people living with disabilities, refugees and other disadvantaged groups - and if so do we need to adjust policies accordingly? - What is the role of the different stakeholder groups, like the technical community (including device and platform providers), the users, the governments, the business, for achieving multilingualism online? Do they have equal voice in the policy development process? - Can we recommend policy and other industry led measures to drive adoption and usage? Can we create incentives for additional deployment and use, both for applications and use in individual countries and for keeping things interoperable enough to allow and encourage communication across boundaries (not just of countries but of language, culture, etc.)? - Worldwide interoperability of systems using different languages and writing systems requires agreed-upon standards and software and other systems that conform to them. How do we create the right incentives for the development and deployment of such systems? - Are local (national) policies sufficient or do we need global coordination? If we need global coordination, who takes the lead?

The organising team has identified these major issues, challenges and/or opportunities that will be addressed: - Increased use in the Internet of local scripts, local language, local culture, is an opportunity to improve participation of the local communities and to reach out to underserved regions, but does it also present challenges, like a potential risk of fragmentation? How can we measure the benefits of multilingualism and the support of different writing systems in the Internet? How can we capitalise on the benefit while addressing the risks? - Multilingualism has a cost associated. We must make sure that we know all the issues that the operators face for the implementation of multilingual solutions - this will also be input for policy decisions so that, for instance, incentives can be used to achieve results. In part because few of the issues surrounding the topic of the session are completely separate from the topic or each other, additional issues might come up in the discussion. There is no plan to address all of those in the limited time of the session, but it is important to highlight them so that the experts are ready to answer questions - or at least that we have reference to appropriate material ready. Possible questions are: - what is the difference between multi-language capability and multi-script capability (an obvious complication is that in the last century some languages have remained the same but changed their writing system)? - is there a way to distinguish between identical forms, similar ones, acceptable orthographic variation and misspelling - and how does this affect implementation? - what does IDN, EAI, UA mean in the context of multilingualism and what is their implementation status?


GOAL 10: Reduced Inequalities


The purpose of the session is to bring together a group of diverse people to share their experience and discuss the policy issues that are relevant to the topic. After welcoming everyone, the moderator introduces the topic, sets participation ground rules and gives the floor to the speakers. The speakers point out the state of the art, the challenges, the suggestions for improvement for the field that they are experts in (about 5 minutes each). The speakers cover the following areas: - Technical aspects related to multilingualism online - Internationalized Domain Names - the perspective of a ccTLD operator - The role of the Government - Local languages in the Internet - the experience in Latin America - User experience in underserved regions The moderator will continue and ask some questions to the panel to address specific policy issues, links with general IGF objectives, etc. Questions are also taken from the audience and from remote with the help of the remote moderator. The organizing team believes that, in particular with possible travel restrictions this fall, it will be extremely important to ensure excellent coverage of the online participation. The audience will be asked to do some “hands-on” exercises, like for instance to try to use some internationalized email addresses, so that they can experience some of the challenges people have when using different writing systems in the Internet. The audience will also be polled via an online tool in order to get some feedback to questions asked. This part will also be organized in a way to ensure proper user experience to remote participants. The rapporteur will close the session listing the main points that will be retained for the report and possible follow-up actions.

Expected Outcomes

The organising team believes that because of the very specific theme raised within the wider area of ICT implementation and its impact on the communities, and because of the wide range of diverse expertise involved in the discussion, the proceedings of the debate itself will be a meaningful outcome. In particular, this session will improve the understanding among the different stakeholder groups of each other points of view. The team will produce a report that will be circulated among the key stakeholders. The expected outcomes from the dissemination of this material are: - to provide an input in local and regional IGF meetings in 2021, as several members of the organising team are involved in local and regional Internet Governance activities; - to propose policy recommendations to the relevant bodies; - to increase awareness about the needs of the communities who do not speak English and who use different writing systems; - to increase awareness within the local communities, in particular in underserved regions, about the possibilities of progressing towards a multilingual Internet, and incentivise their action as demanders of multilingual support. In addition, there are many efforts going on that address parts of the issues that will be covered in this session, often from a particular national or business perspective by focusing on only some of the issues. However, we believe that only taking a comprehensive view we can come to a global solution: this could be an example to all groups working on these issues on how to approach them from a holistic point of view.

We plan to interact with the audience - in person and remote - in two ways. - We will propose some simple exercises, like for instance to try to provide an internationalised email address as input in different web sites. Most of the people in the audience have never tried that, and will therefore become aware of the different obstacles that a person using a different writing system will encounter even for simple operations. - When questions or specific points arise from the discussion we will poll the audience - in person and remote - via a software tool. This will give an anonymous aggregate feedback on how the audience feels about a specific issue.

Relevance to Internet Governance: The issues related to multilingualism and the use of different writing systems in the Internet are only mildly related to technical issues - by now mostly solved - but mostly to implementation policies and policies affecting deployment and use. The complexity of the matter, the cost of deployment, the need for international coordination, call for robust policies and support and a robust governance that is not going to be simple to design and implement. The objective of achieving equal opportunity of access and best use of the contents by worldwide users cannot be left to market forces and needs a governance process. In short, we need to make policy decisions and define governance processes in order to balance the competing interests and priorities. One example among many about the opportunity of influencing market forces is the initiative of the Government of the Indian State of Rajasthan to provide email addresses in the local script for every citizen of the State. This case is referenced in “Optional Documentation”. In order to ensure Universal Acceptance and full multilingualism on the Internet we need to make policy decisions and define governance processes.

Relevance to Theme: There is a huge variety of languages and writing systems - as a matter of fact the vast majority of the world population does not speak English as a first language and has a language that uses a writing system that is different from the Latin alphabet. For example, India, has 23 officially recognised languages not to mention the existence of nearly 1400 other dialects. An Internet that is not multilingual and not accepting different writing systems is a serious obstacle for digital inclusion because it does not provide equal opportunities to users who are not familiar with the globally or locally dominant language and writing system. This happens even in the developed countries where parts of the population, for instance elderly people, who have more difficulties in accessing an Internet that is not sufficiently localised, end up in being marginalised. This exclusion is also reflected in the limitation in the production and fruition of local content in the Internet, hindering also social inclusion, in a world that is becoming more and more connected. Nearly 40% of the world's population (3.2 billion) are unconnected - over a billion of them, for example, in South Asia alone. To bring connectivity to them is just the first step, because they will remain lagging back unless they are going to be able to communicate online in the way that they are used to communicate offline.

Online Participation


Usage of IGF Official Tool.


1. Key Policy Questions and related issues
What is the role of the different stakeholder groups, like the technical community, the users, the governments, the business, for achieving multilingualism online?
What are the initiatives that can be taken to favour interoperability of different languages, in particular the less used ones?
Is the production and fruition of local content in the Internet affected by the lack of support by Internet infrastructure and content providers, as well as social media, of local languages and local writing systems?
2. Summary of Issues Discussed

We have addressed the issues of multilingualism in the Internet from different points of view. Points of agreement include:

  • translation is sometimes insufficient, in particular when dealing with interaction between "minor" languages;
  • social media are targeting the broader population and therefore might even amplify the problem for minorities, but the rise of local social media could better address the development and promotion of local languages and scripts;
  • favouring multilingualism on the Internet requires broad actions from different stakeholders;
  • there is still a lack of understanding about the differences between languages and writing systems;
  • multilingualism on the Internet cannot be achieved only with the implementation of technical solutions - although technical solutions are a prerequisite;
  • developing multilingual capabilities on the Internet is a huge task and requires co-ordinated efforts by multiple stakeholders.

There have been no real disagreements, but from the debate it was clear that different speakers were attaching a different priority to different aspects.

The audience has been polled about their mother tongue and related script - or writing system - and how this relates to their Internet presence. Most people are comfortable with the current situation, but the overarching question is if the IGF participants are a representative sample of the global population.

3. Key Takeaways

This issue affects primarily users, who will have limitations to their user experience and ultimately their ability to produce and access local content on the Internet - they should take the lead and put pressure on the other stakeholder groups to provide the necessary solutions and collaborate in raising awareness.

The replies to the poll show that there is confusion among the participants even about languages and scripts. This suggests that much has to be done still about raising awareness of the different aspects of multilingualism and about education of the different stakeholders.

This is a complex problem and the solution depends on multiple actions by multiple stakeholder groups, including for instance governments to promote multilingualism, social media and other platforms to support local languages and scripts, civil society to raise awareness and promote local contents.

The Governments have a special role, because they can create digital policies and also promote partnerships with the private sector to address these issues.

Actors acting globally - like International Organizations - can play a key role, also providing guidelines for local Governments.

6. Final Speakers

John Klensin has provided an overview of the most important issues that are barriers to entry for new people or greater use - local languages, difficulties of translation, writing systems including insufficient rendering of text, difference in culture, etc.

Abdalmonem Tharwat Galila has spoken about Universal Acceptance of Internationalized Domain Names and Internationalized Email Addresses.

Maria Kolesnikova has spoken about the user experience in different contexts, in particular in relation to her experience with the ccTLDs .ru and .рф, but also in relation to social media.

Roberto Gaetano has spoken about some initiatives to promote local languages on the Internet in Latin America and Italy.

7. Reflection to Gender Issues

In the discussion about the barriers to Internet access at large mention was made to social and cultural barriers which includes denial of access to women and girl child access to technology. However, this topic has not been thoroghly discussed and the team believes that it should be part of a follow-up work - maybe for the next IGF - that could also address the different use of language that women make in certain cultures, for instance when related to the social role that they have in a stratified society.

8. Session Outputs

Internet still being far from being a truly Inclusive platform universally and the paucity of Multiligualism is one of the many barriers to Access to Internet for hundreds of millions of people - see also the BBC article The many languages missing from the internet https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200414-the-many-lanuages-still-missing-from-the-internet.

Time may have come for not just adding scripts to the Unicode one after the other, but to consider the importance and relevance of a particular language/writing system in the global/regional scheme of things, so that further development of the language/writing system such as content building and usage can progress in a more meaningful way.

Multilingualism has an impact on SDG 4 - Inclusive and Equitable Quality Education - because the digital divide, especially amongst the poor, also has to do with not having access or sufficient access to educational material in mother toungue languages/writing systems.

Multilingualism has an impact on SDG 5 - Gender Equality - Besides the points made above under "Reflection to Gender Issues", increasing ability to communicate, create and get information in local language and script helps fighting imbalances in the society, including Gender Inequality.

Multilingualism has an impact on SDG 9 - Infrastructure - because the language is an impediment to some network expansion. See also the final report on IGF 2020 provided by Diplo Foundation: https://dig.watch/events/igf2020/final-report - Section Development, Internet Access.

The result of the poll conducted during the session are herehttps://www.mentimeter.com/s/9d61b54e9269f3140927468b44474ebf/d9e1a5852…


9. Group Photo
IGF 2020 WS #271 Multilingualism online: old challenges and new perspectives
10. Voluntary Commitment

To bring together the voices of the minorities whose languages are at risk of being forgotten or that cannot appropriately produce fruition of local content on the Internet not only to the global IGF, but also for the regional and national IGFs.

To work actively in the IGF as well as in the IETF pushing multilingualism issues.

To work with or without internationalization and keeping IDN working and making them better if there are technical issues.

To focus more on contents than on the technical issues.