Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Internet infrastructure and the democratization of the internet

Posted in business and convergent technologies by Timothy Platt on December 24, 2011

The internet has its beginnings in the United States as a government sponsored project (see Meme Tracking as a Crowd Sourcing Killer App for some historical notes and reference links.) That meant, among other things that the basic infrastructure was built in terms of the English language, and the Western European character set that it is traditionally written in. This also means that all of the foundation code specifications and defined term labels were written with English as the assumed language for anyone writing internet-related code, and once again with all code written in that same character set only. And this set the stage for all that followed in the development and elaboration of the internet as new functionalities and their supporting software technology were added in.

When hypertext markup language (HTML) was initially developed in Europe, and for use in non-English speaking countries it is not a coincidence that its tags were explicitly selected with an English language orientation. And as the scope and reach of the internet expanded, and certainly as the World Wide Web democratized its widespread use and participation this character set and language orientation persisted, and even where it could be and was seen as a source of bias and cultural favoritism. The entire world came to use, connect through and rely on the internet as an English language-based resource.

And top level domain systems were developed for designating general categories of site (e.g. .org for nonprofits and .com for commercial enterprises as they variously owned and presented web sites.) And top level domain systems were developed for designating national origins and web site owner nationalities. Every country came to want, need and have its own national top domain (e.g. .gb for Great Britain and .in for India.) These were still all limited to the one character set of origin that the original pre-public United States oriented ARPANET was built upon. And one challenge that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) continued to face as unresolved, even as it advanced shared standards and protocols for internet functionality and growth, was in how best to acknowledge linguistic diversity, and cultural and national differences and sources of uniqueness.

A genuine attempt to open up the internet to cultural and linguistic diversity, and for web addresses as well as site content has been worked towards as a long term goal. As a major step forward in addressing these issues, ICANN approved a new generic top level domain naming system (gTLD) on June 20, 2011. So now an Indian web site can post its content in a non-English language as it has been able to for a long time. It can also represent itself in a non-English and different character set web address complete with top domain name. And keeping with my Indian example its owners can designate the origin and cultural context of their site and their nationality with a recognized national top domain in Hindi and in the correct character set for that showing – and with the entire web address represented in that character set too.

As a matter of underlying technology, the Internationalized Domain Names for Applications standards now define the officially recognized mechanisms for entering a different character set “native language” domain name into DNS using character set translating DNS-standard ASCII character combinations.

Hindi is spoken by more of India’s citizens than any other language and it is the official language for their national government, but English is used as a subsidiary official language, and certainly for business, higher education and administrative purposes. So in India’s case an argument could be made that having two options would address most needs and preferences. But this opens the door to wider ranges of and demands for diversity of inclusion and representation too.

Every state and union territory in India has one or more separate and distinct official languages too and not all of them use the same character set that Hindi does (see Languages with Official Status in India.) And globally, there is a vast diversity of languages and their written forms span a very wide range of scripts and character sets, and significantly differing variations thereof. And this brings me to one of the core challenges that the internet and our increasingly globally interconnected world community faces.

• How can we best balance our collectively shared need for acknowledging and including cultural and linguistic diversity, while still supporting and enabling broad-based openness and accessibility that supports reaching across cultural divides to learn and share?

This can be difficult enough where cultural and belief barriers divide peoples who share a single commonly held language. As an extreme example in play right now in the United States, Tea Party and ultra-conservative activists and their supporters, and Occupy Wall Street activists and their supporters in effect live in alternative realities judging from the purportedly historical and current events foundations they build their arguments on. And even when they each seek out news and information online, they rarely seem to view or even know about each other’s core reference sites that they each use in forming and supporting their opinions, and that underlie their actions. Language differences, and with mutually unintelligible web and other online content, and with mutually incomprehensible web addresses too, simply make it harder to break through these barriers increasing the divisions that separate us.

And as a final note concerning these barriers I cite a two posting mini-series that I added to Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time:

Filter Bubbles and the Limitations of Automation in Selective Search – 1 and
Filter Bubbles and the Limitations of Automation in Selective Search – 2.

When even basic and globally used search engines selectively filter, making content and perspective on the other side of our barriers to connection invisible – and the barriers invisible too as a result, this can only make open connectivity that much more difficult.

• Democratization of the internet and of the global conversation depends on free and open – and effectively connected conversation and in all directions and across the diversity that we all contribute to.

We need to support diversity in order to share it and to connect meaningfully across it. But we need to do both and that means thinking in new ways that support and encourage connection and communications across the boundaries of our differences. And that is one of the biggest and most significant online and in-person challenges that we collectively all face.

You can find this and related postings at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time.

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