Can Non-Western Language Internet Addresses Solve The Digital Divide? The Case Of Arabic Language

By Wagdy Sawahel for Intellectual Property Watch
Arab information technology experts have welcomed a recent development in internet governance that could allow the use of Arabic script website addresses, saying it will help to protect Arabic culture, remove the language barrier and reduce the digital and knowledge gap between the Arab world and the developed countries. However, they raised some intellectual property considerations as well as technical and cyberspace security concerns.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) at its board meeting in Paris on 26 June approved a proposal to introduce domain names written in scripts such as Arabic, Chinese and Cyrillic. The present system only supports 37 Roman characters and allow applicants for new domain names to self-select their name so that choices are most appropriate for their customers or potentially the most marketable (IPW, Internet and Communications Technology, 1 July 2008).

This will open the door for an expected flood of new top level domains (TLDs) – the suffixes on the end of website addresses. The new names will not be limited to words and names in the Latin alphabet and the web addressing system will not be limited to a range of 21 TLDs to choose from such as .com, .net and .org, along with national domain codes for each country, such as .ae for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Upon approval of the implementation plan, it is planned that applications for new names will be available in the second quarter of 2009.

Introducing Non-English Domain Names: the Double-Edged Sword

Experts have welcomed the new development as a vital step towards preserving cultural and linguistic integrity of non-English speaking nations and as a tool for empowering them to come online and tap the power of the internet, but raised some technical concerns concerning cyber security and possible errors and confusion.

“This is going to be very important for the future of the internet in Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Russia,” ICANN Chairman Peter Dengate Thrush said in a statement.

Speaking to Intellectual Property Watch, Amin Kalak of the Tunisia-based Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO), who is coordinator of Arabic Open Source Dictionary project, said, “This decision will ease people’s digital language access in an increasingly on-line world as improving access to internet does little if its users can’t use it to communicate in native languages.”

Kalak added that this issue is not only tied to cultural identity, but also has critical importance in bridging the digital divide as web sites and addresses in languages besides English are becoming increasingly important because Internet usage grows in developing countries where the Latin alphabet is often unfamiliar.

Kalak pointed out that China already has set up its own “.com” in Chinese within its borders, while an Arabic consortium is testing suffixes in Arabic.

Kalak, however, has raised some technical concern as the technology for full addresses is still being developed and countries using one language must agree on how the script will be officially presented on the internet. The concern is that differences in the way certain numbers and letters are written could prevent people from gaining access to global sites, give rise to fraud, or even help cybercriminals steal bank account information if non-Roman addresses are introduced incorrectly.

“Arabisation” of the Internet

The Arabic language is one of the top six languages used in the United Nations and is the mother tongue of over 300 million people in 22 Arab countries.

About billion people use Arabic script, but only about 35 percent of them speak Arabic as Arabic script has been used to represent languages such as Farsi, Urdu, and Sindhi. In the wake of Islam’s reach into Asia, the Perso-Arabic tradition, and the Perso-Arabic script had a major influence in parts of South Asia, Central Asia and even as far as Western China.

Islam Mamdouh Ahmad, a system analyst’s assistant at the Research and Information Division of Royal Scientific Society in Jordan told Intellectual Property Watch, “Although local web content is growing, users who are not equipped with English-language literacy are still barred from accessing the internet as the internet world is currently an English-centric one, with basic services such as e-mail address and domain names that still require English language input.”

Ahmad said that this new language-based internet development will serves as a supporting step for building the society of information, reducing the digital and knowledge gap between Arab countries and developed nations and would drastically increase the internet dissemination rates in the region.

“While many Arabs use English or French as their preferred language on the internet, the majority of Arabs use Arabic as less than 10 percent can speak English in the Arab world,” Ahmad pointed out.

Ahmad said that “Arabic-language internet is still in its infancy as internet usage is lower among Arabic speakers than any other major language, with about 30 million Arab internet user making only 8.5 percent of the total Arab population but a critical mass of users is emerging as Arabic is the fastest growing major language on the internet and its use has increased by 940 percent between 2000 and 2007.”

According to Ahmed, Arab countries constitute 5 percent of the world population but only 0.5 percent of the web pages in the World Wide Web are written in Arabic, In addition, Arab internet users represent 0.9 percent of the world users and average internet penetration in the Arab world is only 2.6 percent.

However, Said Elnaffar, assistant professor at the College of Information Technology at UAE University told Intellectual Property Watch, “Besides granting access to knowledge and information to the public through the overcoming of the language barrier, other barriers such as internet prices and censorship must be dealt with if the Arab world is to be a knowledge-based society in which all of its organisations and people can participate.

According to a 2008 report commissioned by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Bahrain and carried out by Teligen, a UK communications consultancy, due to a lack of competition among internet service providers, high speed internet users in the Arab world pay on average six times more for their services than users in Europe do, a hindrance on the penetration of broadband internet in the region.

Looking Ahead Through an Intellectual Property Lens

Elnaffar also raised a number of intellectual property considerations saying “it remains to be seen how Arab countries will deal with legal ownership or IP rights protection over the domain name in cyberspace which often do function as trademarks.” Elnaffar added, “Can Arab countries provide a safe and reliable trademark protection system in cyberspace the same way it is protected in other forms of media, such as print, radio, and television?”

World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) statistics showed a 25 percent increase in “cybersquatting” complaints – the registering of domain names with another party’s name or trademark – in 2006 to the highest number of cases since 2000. Elnaffar said that IP protection problems is expected to increase after applying the new Arabic system as WIPO cited the “evolution” of the domain name registration system – which is creating ample opportunities for the anonymous registration of names without regard to potential intellectual property rights of third parties – as the main cause for 2006 high increase in cybersquatting (IPW, Internet and Communications Technology, 13 March 2007).

Elnaffar concluded by saying that “although the answers for such questions are not easy and we have to follow ‘a wait and see approach.’ I think Arab countries should start thinking of developing such protection system[s] including standards for a domain name registration system and a uniform dispute resolution policy for infringement of individual or organisations’ legitimate intellectual property rights relating to domain names.”

Vision of the Arab Internet Future

Arab states have demonstrated the most improvement in technology-readiness of any other region in the world, according to 2008 Global Information Technology Report which determine the best positioned countries to compete in the information-intensive twenty-first century economy. The report shows that Arab states have risen significantly in the rankings of 127 nations. Egypt, at position 63 in the study, climbed 17 places from the 2006-2007 report – the biggest jump in the sample. Bahrain, Jordan and Qatar leapt six, four and 11 places respectively. Oman and Saudi Arabia, new to the report, entered at positions 53 and 48 respectively.

However, Zakaria Maamar, assistant dean at the College of Information Technology of Zayed University, UAE told Intellectual Property Watch “a series of factors are working together to hold back the development of a vibrant Arabic-language internet; that hinder the development of information societies. Without sufficiently attractive, engaging, and informative Arabic content and applications, it will be difficult to promote Internet use and adoption in the Arab world.”

Maamar added “In a bid to increase excess to knowledge, Arab states also need low-cost, high-speed internet access to enable higher education and research institutes to benefit from the scientific and technological knowledge available to the rest of the world.”

Wagdy Sawahel may be reached at


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