Emily Taylor: Yazid, congratulations on your recent appointment as a Universal Acceptance Ambassador. What made you want to become a UA Ambassador, and what are the implications of a lack of universal acceptance from the perspective of Benin and other African countries? [Yazid Akanho]: I became UA Ambassador by accident. Everything started from an outreach session on Universal Acceptance (UA) that I attended in March 2019. I was really interested in the subject and found it important for my country, Benin, where almost 48% of the population cannot read or write in the official language. The following day, with another comrade from the Internet Society Benin Chapter, Malick Alassane, we decided to do a study on one aspect of the subject called Email Address Internationalization (EAI). A few months later, we presented the results of this study at a meeting of the Universal Acceptance Steering Group at the ICANN meeting in Montreal. It was there that I discovered the role of UA ambassadors. I applied and was selected. I didn’t know how to become a UA ambassador, I just worked on something I was interested in and then that opportunity came to me. I did it because I want the Internet to be able to treat people’s identifiers the same way, so nobody feels disadvantaged by some systems or applications on the Internet. More than 2,000 local languages are spoken in Africa, of which ten are widely spoken. For Benin, Universal Acceptance represents an opportunity to bring more people online, to enhance multilingualism and digital inclusion on the Internet, especially for people who speak and write in our local languages which use a wider character set than is traditionally supported in domain names. We are not talking about content here (this has already been supported for several years), but about domain names and email addresses. Thanks to UA, a barrier will be broken – millions of people could benefit from having an email address and registering a domain name in local languages. Your day job is working for MTN Benin, a mobile network operator. Why is Universal Acceptance of IDNs important for a mobile operator? For content, such as text on website, or video in local languages there is almost no problem today. However, domain names have not kept pace with applications in their support for local languages. That is one of the issues the UASG is trying to solve. And for Benin (like other African countries), where 98% of people who are online are connected through mobile networks, this should be a concern to African operators. Another reason is that UA for Internationalised Domain Names (IDN) will bring more users on the Internet, especially those whose writing systems are not supported by traditional domain names. For a mobile network operator, these developments could bring increased market share and revenue. What would you say is the level of awareness of universal acceptance as an issue, even among your technical circles? Universal Acceptance ensures that all domain names and email addresses are treated fairly, so that all equipment, systems and applications can accept, validate, register, process and display them correctly and consistently. Overall, the awareness of UA among technical circles is low. Sometimes you see how frustrated and surprised people are when they discover the issues for the first time. That is why the UASG was set up — to fill this gap. We need to raise awareness among stakeholders and get them involved, as each one has a role in successfully making the Internet and our information systems UA ready: governments, software designers and publishers, developers, system administrators, and managers among others. Even some of the Internet’s technical giants are not UA ready. While billions people are using their services every day, there are many people who are just rejected because their email addresses are not well processed. While people are fascinated by the issues, few are able to devote time and energy to move the lines and break barriers. Each of the stakeholders has their specific role to play, and it is not always easy to maintain a level of commitment to meet this challenge. Fortunately, there are encouraging signs, with local initiatives starting to show good results. What would it mean for you, and for other African people, if universal acceptance of IDNs was achieved? In Africa, many people cannot read and write in the official languages using ASCII characters. But many are literate in languages that use non-Latin scripts or special characters. UA empowers these people to use Internet in their own languages and preserve their respective cultural identities. The next billion Internet users will come from this category of people. At the moment, 40% of Africa is currently connected to Internet – that’s only 10% of the online population. The greatest potential for new users is therefore to be found in Africa and IDNs are a means of getting them there. Thanks to IDNs, we could have domain names and email addresses in Zulu, Yoruba, Hausa, etc. So UA and IDNs are opportunities to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, improving digital inclusion for Africans.
Emily Taylor is the CEO of Oxford Information Labs. She is an Associate Fellow of Chatham House and is the Editor of the Journal of Cyber Policy and co-founder of ICANN accredited registrar, Oxford Information Labs.
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