The WSIS forum, co-organized by ITU, UNESCO, UNDP and UNCTAD, in close collaboration with all WSIS Action Line Facilitators and Co-Facilitators hosted several guest speakers who shared their perspectives on the current state and possible future of Universal Acceptance (UA). The speakers assessed UA’s current environment and made assessments of its future.
Across the forum there was a clear consensus Universal Acceptance has far to go to bridge the gap between end users, who would benefit from using their local languages online, and the current technological readiness of UA. The forum highlighted how UA needs to progress faster to catch up with internet users’ multilingualism. While Universal Acceptance typically uses email addresses and websites as the grounds for testing server support for internationalised domain names (IDNs), the speakers at the forum noted testing browsers and email addresses are just the beginning of the usage of IDNs.
The benefits of making advances in Universal Acceptance were discussed, and many agreed UA has the potential to go beyond simply being useful to users in their own regions and it could in fact promote multilingualism in the world more generally. However, the potential advantages of UA are met with significant obstacles in the most basic use of IDNs, such as in email addresses and website domains,which partly explains the slow rate of uptake for IDNs. Firstly, the awareness of UA remains low for internet users and, according to one speaker, many graduate computer scientists lack basic familiarity with UA.
This year as more national governments have relied upon the internet to share essential health information online throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the lack of Universal Acceptance to support multilingualism online is increasingly leaving behind those who cannot operate online using their mother tongue language. Arguably, as one speaker pointed out, in this context Universal Acceptance is a basic right for end users.
There have been indicators of Universal Acceptance growing momentum - such as ICANN’s dedicated Universal Acceptance Steering Group - but email providers must better handle Internationalised Domain Names to significantly improve the Universal Acceptance landscape.
The role governments have to play as a key stakeholder in improving UA was also discussed. There is often a gap between the ministries or government bodies which work in the domain name environment and those who address cultural and language diversity. While the government has a key role to play, the problems facing Universal Acceptance adoption can only be overcome through small actions by multiple players, because the domain name system is a distributed system.
When the speakers shared their approaches as to how the Universal Acceptance landscape could be best improved, it was clear that a successful future for Universal Acceptance will require the work of multiple actors. First, awareness of what Universal Acceptance is and what it has to offer is a crucial step for this technology to work well. Speakers also noted the need to better understand the demand of Universal Acceptance in order to make the best progress with UA. Second, pitching the benefits of Universal Acceptance to organisations and network suppliers is needed to prompt the required investments needed to support Universal Acceptance. The next billion users of the internet will likely be majority non-English speakers, so it was suggested that the opportunity to capture this next generation of internet users would be a valuable point to bring attention to when appealing to private companies the speakers hope will invest in Universal Acceptance.
Overall, despite the challenges facing Universal Acceptance, a poll taken by all the forum’s participants and speakers showed the vast majority of participants believed Universal Acceptance implementation to be an inevitability for the future of the internet.
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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