Skip to main content

Workshop Report — Towards a Multilingual Global Internet: Avoiding the Risk of Fragmentation

1. Title: Towards a Multilingual Global Internet: Avoiding the Risk of Fragmentation, Athens, 31 October 2006, 15h30 – 19h00

2. Organizers and Panelists


  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
  • Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)
  • National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of Egypt (NTRA).


3. Discussion

The workshop provided the framework for dialogue on the multiple aspects linked to the development of a multilingual cyberspace and on solutions for avoiding the fragmentation of the Internet. Speakers from governments and the private and academic sectors participated in the discussion on how to create a truly multilingual Internet both from the content and the technical point of views. The workshop was structured in four sessions.

Opening the workshop, Elizabeth Longworth, Executive Director, Office of the Director-General, UNESCO, underlined the importance and the richness of languages and both peoples’ and individuals’ identities. The great success of the Internet has created a strong pressure for all languages to be represented. Therefore, all stakeholders need to work together to avoid that isolated language islands develop in cyberspace.

Egyptian Minister Tarek Kamel pointed out that language barriers are major obstacles to a truly global Internet up-take and called for multilingual e-content initiatives. For example, Arabic language e-content could better reflect the contribution that the Arabic culture has made to the global community.

Vinton Cerf, ICANN Chairman, highlighted the technical challenges underlying the development of a multilingual Internet and IDNs. It is vital to include non-Latin scripts in the domain name system. The technical community has made considerable progress in integrating non-Latin scripts in the DNS system.

The issue of representation and metadata and the importance of an open architecture that would enable linguistic diversity were addressed by Bob Kahn who introduced “Handle”, a system for describing digital objects and establishing a transferable digital object architecture.

The need to create conditions for providing e-content in all languages was pointed out by the panelists of the first session presenting perspectives from the five regions of the world. For Adama Samassékou, ACALAN, the African continent needs to take up the challenge of languages disappearing in a rapid pace and the “World Network for Language Diversity” could be a good instrument for international cooperation to ensure a greater presence of contents and a stronger language diversity. He also underscored the importance of interoperability for Africa. Advances in solving problems related to the Arabic domain main system were presented by Ayman El Sherbiny from ESCWA describing an interesting involvement of ESCWA in providing a frame for addressing the issues in a coordinated and effective manner. He also suggested establishing a global fund for IDNs..An experience on the use of browsers in Asia was presented by Kangsik Cheon , Native Language Internet Consortium (NLIC), South Korea, who also referred to a set of statistics on languages used in the region and the use of browsers in local languages. According to Augusto Gadelha, Chairman, Brazilian Internet Steering Committee, technology is not anymore a hindrance for multilingualism on the Internet in Latin-America and the Caribbean. In particular, UNICODE standards provide a basic platform for script encoding. The European situation with its many languages and different scripts was described by Cary Karp as a microcosm reflecting many of the issues facing the global community worldwide. He presented the approach of the Swedish government to deal with complex socio-linguistic realities that required complex technical solutions during recent elections.

In the second session on “Multilingual content”, solutions for providing content in local languages were discussed by Louis Pouzin. John Paolillo presented a UNESCO research study with statistics and problems related to the complex issue of measuring language diversity also stressing ‘linguistic biases’ when measuring languages on the Internet.

In the third session on “Multilingual applications” several developments were presented, including a live demonstration of “iEmail” by Sheldon Lee, an e-mail system that is interoperable with the global system. Solutions for IDN implementation in Firefox were demonstrated by Neil Harris.

The last session “Internationalised Domain Names” focused on the Arabic Domain Names pilot project by Christine Arida from Egypt; the challenges facing Indian IDNs in a country with 22 official languages, representable in 11 scripts, by Pankaj Agrawala; the outcome of the first IDN test completed in October 2006 (End-user software showed difference in conversion of Unicode to Punycode) conducted at the .museum IDN lab, in association with Autonomica, by Ram Mohan.

All speakers stressed that users need consistency of applications; domain names must remain unique and unambiguous; the interoperability of the TLD system has to be maintained, “future-proof” solutions must be assured, and multistakeholder initiatives should be promoted.

Claudio Menezes and Axel Plathe, UNESCO, and Paul Twomey, ICANN, drew the meeting to a close by underlining the importance of continuing the dialogue on these matters as well as the need to increase the Internet richness and heritage through using IDNs.

4. Inventory of events and actors related to the issue under discussion

ICANN; UNESCO, ITU, other relevant UN institutions; UNICODE; academies of languages; standard setters, networks of experts/community of practices; academia, research institutions; user communities; etc. Several events to educate and inform the various stakeholders on IDN related issues have been organised. Please refer to the organizations respective websites for a calendar of the events.

5. Possible follow-up

Keeping in mind the importance of having an interoperable, secure and stable Internet, continued dialogue, awareness raising initiatives as well as IDNs tests are the best way to ensure that Internet fragmentation risk is avoided and that IDNs are efficiently implemented to meet the needs of an increasing number of stakeholders. Among the proposed scenarios, Adama Samassekou suggested the creation of an international working group on multilingualism in the cyberspace.

6. Useful links

More Announcements
Domain Name System
Internationalized Domain Name ,IDN,"IDNs are domain names that include characters used in the local representation of languages that are not written with the twenty-six letters of the basic Latin alphabet ""a-z"". An IDN can contain Latin letters with diacritical marks, as required by many European languages, or may consist of characters from non-Latin scripts such as Arabic or Chinese. Many languages also use other types of digits than the European ""0-9"". The basic Latin alphabet together with the European-Arabic digits are, for the purpose of domain names, termed ""ASCII characters"" (ASCII = American Standard Code for Information Interchange). These are also included in the broader range of ""Unicode characters"" that provides the basis for IDNs. The ""hostname rule"" requires that all domain names of the type under consideration here are stored in the DNS using only the ASCII characters listed above, with the one further addition of the hyphen ""-"". The Unicode form of an IDN therefore requires special encoding before it is entered into the DNS. The following terminology is used when distinguishing between these forms: A domain name consists of a series of ""labels"" (separated by ""dots""). The ASCII form of an IDN label is termed an ""A-label"". All operations defined in the DNS protocol use A-labels exclusively. The Unicode form, which a user expects to be displayed, is termed a ""U-label"". The difference may be illustrated with the Hindi word for ""test"" — परीका — appearing here as a U-label would (in the Devanagari script). A special form of ""ASCII compatible encoding"" (abbreviated ACE) is applied to this to produce the corresponding A-label: xn--11b5bs1di. A domain name that only includes ASCII letters, digits, and hyphens is termed an ""LDH label"". Although the definitions of A-labels and LDH-labels overlap, a name consisting exclusively of LDH labels, such as"""" is not an IDN."