A significant step was taken on 10 December 2009 towards greater linguistic diversity on the internet when UNESCO signed an agreement with ICANN - the body that assigns online addresses to internet users - to help put into operation the first multilingual domain names.
The cooperation agreement follows the recent decision by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to introduce IDNs, or Internationalized Domain Names, in non-Latin script. Until now, domain names in internet addresses (e.g., .org, .com) were written using characters from the Latin alphabet exclusively. On November 16, in the first phase of the plan, ICANN began accepting requests from representatives of countries and territories around the world for new country codes in Arabic, Chinese and other scripts. Non-Latin script users will eventually have access to internet addresses completely in their own language.
Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, welcomed ICANN’s move to introduce IDNs. “This is a development that UNESCO has long been advocating. The internet must be linguistically diverse so that all language groups can harness its unique potential,” she said. “Through this new agreement, UNESCO and ICANN will work together to bring more people into the information network.”
The President of ICANN, Rod Beckstrom, described the importance of this change to the global internet community: “Over half the internet users around the world don’t use a Latin-based script as their native language. IDNs are about making the Internet more global and accessible for everyone.”
The UNESCO-ICANN agreement covers a variety of cooperation areas so that the new development can benefit as many language groups as possible. UNESCO will notably call upon its network of linguistic experts to help in the process; inform Member States about the new IDNs; encourage involvement of other relevant United Nations agencies; and establish working groups to help developing and least-developed countries participate fully.
UNESCO is a key contributor to the internet governance debate. During the two phases of the World Summit on the Information Society in 2003 and 2005 and the following four editions of the Internet Governance Forum, UNESCO promoted the international community’s endorsement of four basic principles for the creation of “knowledge societies”: freedom of expression; quality education for all; universal access to information and knowledge; and respect for cultural and linguistic diversity.