You may want to take a seat. The numbers are depressing.
There are over 337 million Arabs, 17 percent of which are currently using the internet. Only six million have access to broadband. Arabic content is even worse off, with one measly percent of all content online in Arabic, although it’s the world’s fifth most-spoken language. Take for example the volume of content generated on Wikipedia: there are under 125,000 articles in Arabic and over 700,000 articles in Polish, a language spoken by only 40 million people.
The culprit? Oh, the list is endless. From the high cost of bandwidth and equipment to inadequate telecommunication infrastructures, surfing the web is often a slow and expensive experience. Due to outdated education systems, digital illiteracy is rampant in the region, though the average rate of adult literacy is a much more problematic issue, standing at only 76 percent. The language barrier intimidates millions of people who are not even comfortable with their native language, let alone English, the predominant language of the web and technology. That’s not to mention censorship and internet monitoring, which tend to affect the popular use of the web.
Makes you sigh, doesn’t it? Fortunately, it is not all bad news.
According to the Arab Media Outlook, broadband usage in the region is expected to grow at a very healthy annual rate of 25 percent until 2013. Several countries are introducing initiatives to improve broadband quality, make internet access more affordable, and increase the amount of Arabic content online. Internet giants like Microsoft and Google are eying the region, placing Arabic in their top ten languages in need of prioritized attention. In Jordan in particular, the ICT sector is thriving, generating income representing approximately 12 percent of the country’s GDP, according to INT@J.
Due to this high growth potential, the Arab world has become a major part of what is being lauded the “biggest change to the way the internet works since it was created.”
On May 6, 2010, Arabic debuted as the first non-Latin script that supports top-level domains (TLD). The first domain name .misr, the Arabic word for Egypt, is spelled out in Arabic script. You can already visit http://موقع.وزارة-الأتصالات.مصر/, though it might not display correctly if your browser doesn’t have IDN (International Domain Name) support. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the second and third countries to offer their countries’ names in a non-Latin script, obviously also in Arabic. Proposals for suffixes for Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, and Palestine have received preliminary approval and should be activated by the end of the year.
“Right now internet address endings are limited to Latin characters–A to Z,” says Peter Dengate Thrush, the chairman of ICANN, the non-profit corporation responsible for managing the assignment of domain names and IP addresses). He continues, “This is the first step in bringing the 100,000 characters of the languages of the world online for domain names. Arabic is one of the most widely-used on the internet today.” While there is clear evidence that ICANN’s last statement is not true (as one percent of the internet content hardly seems “wide”), this is most definitely good news for the Arab world.
Arabic domains will open the internet to millions of Arabic speakers alienated by the language barrier. They will positively impact the image of the web in the Arab world, as our language is a very powerful and important part of our culture and identity. Many will also be pleased with the ability to express domains and emails in the Arabic language.
Meanwhile, Arab brands have the most to gain, as do international brands with strong presence in the region. Non-Latin domains can open whole new markets, as well as help with search engine optimization and consistency for brands that are currently sinking in waves of different transliterations.
While transliteration confusion might decrease, general confusion will probably become a much bigger issue. Imagine not being able to give your email address to your non-Arabic speaking client, whether he or she lives in Boston or in Amman. That very much defeats the purpose of the internet, which currently brings people together. It is definitely worrying that such “globalized” decisions may lead the World Wide Web to morph into a mess of localized “internets” based on scripts and languages. This decision also makes it easier for cybercriminals and cybersquatters to be, well, criminals and squatters. Powerful and valuable brand names like Al-Jazeera and Coca Cola should register the non-Latin counterparts of their websites as soon as possible, to get ahead of the curve and avoid problems with cybersquatters down the line.
The benefits somehow outweigh the drawbacks, especially since most of the latter are more functional issues, as opposed to conceptual. Time and improved information infrastructure will certainly help eliminate the impracticalities.
Yet, the real question remains: Will Arabic domain names increase internet usage in the Arab world as well as help in improving Arabic content?
I personally doubt it. The sad state of Arabic content online is not an issue of Latin web addresses. It’s an issue of cultural decline that has been plaguing our civilization for a very, very long time.
[Written by Roba Al-Assi. Originally published as “Hyperlink: Does the Internet Now Speak Arabic?” in Venture, July 2010]
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