Launch of the 2017 IDN World Report

MEPs and industry leaders call for enhanced digital language access

Viviane Reding MEP hosted the launch of the 2017 IDN World Report at the European Parliament, in an event organised by EURid and the European Internet Forum.

Opening the remarks, Ms Reding highlighted the European Union’s support for linguistic diversity: ‘The internet should reflect the life of the citizens and ensure the preservation of our diversity, which is the real wealth of the European Union.’  Ms Reding acknowledged that progress had been made to close the gaps between offline and online linguistic diversity, including through the introduction of IDNs. Ms Reding concluded, ‘Linguistic diversity is inscribed in the [European] Treaties and rightly so, because that is the DNA of Europeans, and when it is leveraged it is not only a question of the right of the individual, but it is also a competitive advantage for the economy.’

Emily Taylor, lead author of the IDN World Report presented the latest findings, including a spotlight on the performance of .eu IDNs.  

Language is an access issue, according to Ms Taylor, and while the relationship between language and web applications is clear, the role of domain names in enhancing linguistic diversity can be less obvious.  Domain names sit in the middle of the internet stack, at the point where infrastructure switches over to what is understandable by humans. Names are important to people, names engage people’s emotions.  Domain names also serve an essential function in helping people to get around the internet – people know that wherever they are in the world, whatever network or application they are on, domain name will work, helping people to understand where they are and where they want to go.  

At the current time, IDNs do not work predictably in email, online forms and some browsers. Unless IDNs work predictably in the same way as traditional domain names, there is a risk that people will develop unofficial systems to overcome the blockage in essential functionality, and these are likely to have unforeseen consequences – for example, of fragmenting the single internet, or driving people away from using domain names.  IDNs enable people to navigate the internet in their own language. ‘These are names, they are meaningful, and they accurately signal the language of web content that you find’.  Ms Taylor concluded that the European Union is well placed to support the important work to create universal acceptance of IDNs.

Ms Iris Orriss, Director of International Growth at Facebook shared information about trends in language use amongst European Facebook users, emerging markets and endangered languages.  

Local languages dominate Facebook, and access to knowledge is critical to wellbeing. 88% of Facebook users are located outside of the United States. People in the EU access Facebook in 42 languages.  79% of European Facebook users access in a language other than English, and excluding the UK and Ireland (where English is the mother-tongue), that figure rises to 94%.  In France, only 3% of Facebook users access in English, and 94% access in French. In Germany, 84% access Facebook in German, and 5% in English, with other popular languages including Turkish and Arabic.  

Globally, 60% of Facebook users access in a language other than English, but in emerging markets people tend to access in English.  The key challenge, according to Ms Orriss, is not support for local languages – Facebook supports 107 languages on its platform – but ‘discoverability’.  People in emerging markets may be accessing on second-hand phones, which have operating systems in English language.  Facebook has achieved great progress by adding relevant language sections in very visible selectors, and prompting for language.  Echoing the remarks of Ms Reding, Ms Orriss concluded ‘This is not just the right thing to do. It makes business sense.  When people understand the language, they sign on and engage at a higher rates’.  

Finally, Ms Orriss described a programme at Facebook called ‘Community Translations’, which enables any language community to add their language to Facebook and make it publicly available.  Thanks to community work, Facebook supports nine EU endangered languages: Corsican, Faroese, Irish, Welsh, Friesian, Belarusian, Basque, Breton, and Sardinian – six more are in progress.  ‘More than 40,000 people are accessing Facebook in endangered languages, catapulting these languages into the 21st century and making them ‘cool’ again.’ In closing, Ms Orriss said that there is value in further developing technologies like machine-translation to make content available in multiple languages.  However, ‘machine-translated content is never going to be local content, and local is what engages people.’

Peter van Roste, General Manager of CENTR, the European ccTLD organisation, emphasised that the domain name community had delivered a working technical solution to enhance language access to the internet – a working IDN system.  Mr van Roste made it clear that it is up to others, and not ccTLD managers, to ensure that IDNs work in web applications, online forms and email.  

Algirdas Saudargas MEP highlighted a recent study which he initiated, ‘Language Equality in the Digital Age’ by the European Parliament Think Tank.  According to the report, language technology is increasingly a political issue. At the moment there are two solutions, the use of interpreters or a lingua franca, but technology could be a third solution, and we are in the middle of a technological revolution than the one brought by Gutenberg’s printing press.