Is There Too Much English on the Web?

Attendees at the UN-sponsored Internet Governance Forum in Athens call for linguistic diversity to guarantee global democratic oversight of the Net

Experts from around the world gathering for the first Internet Governance Forum in Athens have criticised the predominant use of English on the World Wide Web.

"Some 90 percent of 6,000 languages [used today] are not represented on the Internet," said Yoshinori Imai of Japan's Broadcasting Corporation, (NHK), at the UN-sponsored forum.

Adama Samassekou, president of the African academy of languages in Mali, said linguistic diversity is to human society what biodiversity is to nature.

"I think that the digital divide is not as important as the linguistic divide. And that's the one we should be bridging in order to guarantee the democratic governance of the Internet".

Since 1998, Internet domain names and addresses have been overseen by the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, (ICANN), under an agreement with the US Department of Commerce.

At a UN summit in Tunis last November, Washington prevented any changes in the control of the domain-name system, despite pressure by some countries for a global body to manage the addressing system.

But the US agreed to have the Internet Governance Forum convene annually for five years to discuss everything from domain names to spam and security.

"The possibility of worldwide communications via the internet is definitely one of the most positive aspects of globalisation", said Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media, who opened the meeting in Athens.

"However, the internet can only continue to drive democracy and economic development if freedom of expression and the freedom to receive and access information are guaranteed. This is why the European Commission calls on governments and industry around the world not to tolerate public restrictions on internet access or cyber-repression," she said.

Amnesty International also sent a delegation to Athens to emphasize the need for the protection of free speech.

"The Internet Governance Forum needs to know that the online community is bothered about free expression online and willing to stand up for it," said Steve Ballinger, part of Amnesty's delegation.

"We're asking bloggers worldwide to show their solidarity with web users in countries where they can face jail just for criticising the government."

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