Being online is a big step forward for anyone in today’s world – or is it? Commissioner Xiaodong Lee shares insights on other critical dimensions of the digital divide.

The Internet’s Overlooked Localization Divide

by | Nov 1, 2016 | Insight |

Much has been said about the need to conquer the “Digital Divide” – the gap between those that have access to the Internet and broadband, and those that do not – and it is a laudable goal.  Use of advanced wireless technologies, redeployment of older end user devices, and revised regulatory policies are examples of the methods being proposed to close the digital divide.  There is much to be done.  As an example, China has 700 million people who currently use the Internet, which equates to about 50% of the population of China, and this same percentage roughly holds true for the rest of the world.  This means that to eliminate the digital divide, we’ll have to roughly double the size and access capability of the Internet – a lofty goal indeed!

My concern is that perhaps too much effort is being focused on the digital divide and not enough on what these new users will be able to do once they have access.  

It is estimated that just over 50% of the Internet content is in English, with the next highest being Russian at 6.4%, and the 10th most used language being Polish at 1.7%.  The people who don’t currently have access to the Internet are less likely to speak English, so to make the Internet useful to them, the content must be localized – presented in a language they understand.  Today many websites offer users the option of several languages to see the material, but these aren’t the languages that many current non-users are likely to speak, so a first step is to further develop automatic translators that can convert sites into the users’ mother languages.  Many translation programs currently exist on the Internet, and expanding these linguistic aids to include the more obscure languages could be a first step in addressing the localization issue – but only a first step.

Many of those without Internet access are people of lower economic means, often living in remote areas, and although they can communicate verbally, many cannot read or write.  Providing them access to text pages on the Internet is akin to providing books to people who can’t read.  The access these people need is voice – both for input and output.  The Internet is full of audio and video content, but it will remain unreachable to many people if a keyboard is the only means of accessing it.  Voice recognition certainly exists today, but again there’s the problem of localization.  The new user in rural China will certainly not know English, and often may not even speak Mandarin, the primary language of China.  The diverse languages and dialects that these people speak will be their input, and voice recognition must accommodate this linguistic diversity.  Going a step further, perhaps hand or body signals and movements could be used as input, but again these would have to be correctly detected and interpreted by the access device they are using.  

We can eliminate the digital divide, but providing people access that they can’t use or understand is folly…

Providing an Internet connection to the off-line of the world without caring for these localization issues may make us feel like we’ve conquered the digital divide, but in truth it would be a victory in name only, without any real tangible value for those new potential users.  

Helping the off-line to get on-line in a language they can understand offers them access to vast amounts of information and potential improvement to their lifestyle, but unfortunately it also holds the possibility of danger.  We’ve seen numerous examples of on-line scams that rob people or gather private information, and even instances where technically savvy people lose money to these predators.  Connecting the current non-users, who are often poor or poorly educated, to the Internet without some type of training and on-line safeguards would be analogous to giving a toddler a loaded gun.  Rather than providing these new users with opportunities and informational benefits, the Internet could easily become a pathway for unscrupulous persons to siphon off whatever resources these people might have, driving them further into poverty.  

Providing a safe Internet has long been a goal, and the closing of the digital divide may provide the impetus to make it a reality.  Government policy is certainly needed, but policy alone isn’t enough.  It will require the cooperation of service providers, content providers, and infrastructure owners.  Although this comes at a cost, a safe and secure Internet will pay dividends to all those who helped make it secure, and subsequently create new revenue opportunities.  We can wistfully look back at the early days of the Internet and wish that additional security had been part of the original design.  That didn’t happen, and the Internet is now so ubiquitous that thoughts of starting over with more security is impractical.  Rather, we must develop new technologies to ensure the safety and security of the vast number of networks that make up today’s Internet.  

We can eliminate the digital divide, but providing people access that they can’t use or understand is folly, so access which can be used and interpreted by diverse users is the only real measure of success.  As we bring these new users on-line, we must at the same time ensure their safety and security.  We must ensure that broadband access is a channel for good and not a conduit for evil.  This will take the collective efforts of good people throughout the world.


Xiaodong Lee
Commissioner Xiaodong Lee is the CEO of the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) and has been actively involved in the administration of the largest Internet population in the world…
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