In the era when the Internet has become one of the most powerful tools for development, information sharing and amplifying marginalized voices, a staggering 34% of the global population remains unconnected. There is an urgent need to bridge this digital divide and ensure that no communities are left behind, concluded a session titled “When Universal Acceptance meets Digital Inclusion”, organized during the European Dialogue on Internet Governance (EuroDIG) 2023 in Tampere, Finland.
UNESCO organized a workshop on 21 June 2023 to shed light on the importance of multilingualism on the internet and addressed concerns about the low representation of indigenous languages in the cyberspace. Language-related barriers contribute to the exclusion of approximately 15% of the world's population from the global dialogue.
Tawfik Jelassi, UNESCO Assistant Director General for Communication and Information, addressed the workshop and highlighted the Digital Strategy of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022-2032, emphasising UNESCO’s work on the preservation, promotion and revitalization of Indigenous languages worldwide. He noted that that ‘one significant barrier to achieving digital inclusion is the lack of multilingualism in the cyberspace’. According to Jelassi, promoting and using multilingualism is a way to support the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals of quality education (SDG4) and peace, justice and strong institutions (SDG16). He further emphasised the need to expand the context of Universal Acceptance by linking the concept with digital resources, content and tools to ensure equal access and inclusivity.
Sara Wesslin, Skolt Sámi journalist from YLE Sápmi in Northern Finland presented a case study on the challenges faced in the digitalization of Sami languages. She noted that while digital platforms offer opportunities for education and preserving cultural identity, issues arise when providing news and media content in Sami languages. Overcoming language barriers is essential to make news and information accessible to all, including the younger generation seeking knowledge about their culture and living environment.
The workshop also highlighted the slow progress in creating internationalised domain names (IDN) which hinders universal inclusion. It was argued that a new approach is needed to adapts devices, keyboards, screens, tools and programming languages to a multilingual context in order to achieve digital inclusion. Presentations of Steve Poulson of Peloton Project and Marc Durdin of Keyman Initiative asserted the need to invest in intertranslatability and design inclusive language resources and frameworks that would empower individuals of all ages, cultures and languages to fully participate in the digital space.
During the workshop, Marteen Botterman, Director of the ICANN Board, also acknowledged that universal acceptance must include languages beyond English, as indigenous languages reflected culture and diversity. To achieve this goal, investments in infrastructure and services are necessary. He added that while progress has been made with 91 generic top-level domains (gTLDs) delegated in non-Arabic scripts, much work remained to be done. He underscored the need to ensure that all domain names and email addresses function across software applications as an essential strategy for promoting consumer choice and inclusivity. Achieving this result would require collaboration among various stakeholders, including internet providers and private companies.