The unequal world of the Internet

Limiting access to non-English users, we may be creating a virtual world mirroring the inequity and alienation around us


Almost 73% of potential online shoppers want to check out available information in their own language. Yet, 57% of all content on the Internet is in English. Photo: Bloomberg
Almost 73% of potential online shoppers want to check out available information in their own language. Yet, 57% of all content on the Internet is in English. Photo: Bloomberg

Connecting, informing and empowering, the Internet holds the promise to be the Great Leveller of our times. However, the way it is evolving around us, it seems poised to become a tool of digital exclusion, creating a world of great disproportion. Limiting access to non-English users, we may be unknowingly creating a virtual world mirroring the inequity and alienation around us—a sad destiny for a technology which could take us towards an equal, non-discriminatory future.

Let’s look at some statistics. Among the world’s 6.5 billion mobile users, only one billion use English. Nine out of 10 Internet users prefer to access it in their own language. Almost 73% of potential online shoppers want to check out available information in their own language. Yet, 57% of all content on the Internet is in English. Meanwhile, 30 out of 50 major world languages are complex, requiring special treatment to be mobile or Internet-enabled.

Take the case of India, home to hundreds of languages and dialects, with more than 900 million mobile connections. On one hand, we have an information overload for those literate in English. On the other, over 500 million mobile users face digital exclusion since digital devices are English-driven, says Reverie Language Technologies. Reverie, which is into language enablement of digital devices, is also one of the mBillionth award winners. About 76% of India’s 1.2 billion population is literate, out of which only under 10% can comprehend English. This means the vast majority is shut out of the English-driven Internet. It also means that 500 million people use their mobile phones to make and receive calls, their lack of English skills keeping them out of the vast possibilities of an empowering mobile web.

Reverie, which attempts to remove language barriers before mobile Internet users, has its finger on the pulse. According to the company, the challenges for non-English users are non-availability and poor quality of fonts, poor user interface and user experience, erroneous text and design rendering which lead to distorted page and information display, lack of standard keypads, cumbersome typing without predictive support, scarce content and applications and poor social media experience.

Unlike India, China has spun its local language Internet experience into a huge revenue-generating case study. At 96% literacy, China is ahead of India, but its English literacy is less than 5%. Both have almost similar rates of mobile penetration, where China claims to have 963 million. However, China’s local language mobile usage is estimated at 856 million, meaning nine out of 10 Chinese use their devices in their local language.

With mass usage in local language and better quality of experience in accessing content and commerce, China’s non-voice mobile revenue is estimated at $10 billion, far ahead of India, where it is just $1.2 billion. Not surprisingly, Chinese mobile service providers earn an average $10.3 from a user every month, whereas in India, it is a paltry $1.35.

Until our mobile users get to enjoy rich mobile experiences beyond voice calls, the Internet will not empower them, and it won’t make business sense for mobile service providers either. Theoretically, high-speed data networks can encourage experience, consumption and production of multimedia content in local languages, side-stepping writing illiteracy with the oral format. Such a development could come through in the future; still, it is critical to have our devices language-enabled to provide better user experiences to our citizens and consumers.

Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of mBillionth Award. He is also a member of working group for IT for Masses at the ministry of communication and IT. Tweet him @osamamanzar

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