Multilingualism is an important aspect of the promotion and development of cultural diversity on the Internet. If the Internet is to be used by all within society, content needs to be accessible in more languages. A report released by the UN Broadband Commission in 2015 reveals that only about 5% of the world's estimated 7100 languages are currently represented on the internet. It also notes that the use of the Latin script remains a challenge for many Internet users, in particular for reading domain names.
Multilingualism is strongly related to local content. Having more languages on the internet means that more locally relevant content is being made available. If online content is provided in local languages (by governments, companies, etc.), this gives people incentives to get online, as ‘users’ of content. At the same time, allowing people to express themselves online in their own languages encourages them to become generators of content. As such, the availability of local content can contribute to making the internet more inclusive and to bridge the digital divide, through its potential to attract more people online, both as users and generators of content.
The promotion of multilingualism requires technical standards that facilitate the use of non-Latin alphabets. One of the early initiatives related to the multilingual use of computers was undertaken by the Unicode Consortium – a non-profit institution that develops standards to facilitate the use of character sets for different languages.
In their turn, ICANN and the IETF took an important step in promoting Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs). IDNs facilitate the use of domain names written in non-Latin alphabets such as Chinese, Arabic, Cyrillic and others. As of January 2015, IDNs have been introduced in several countries and territories as equivalent to their Latin country code top level domains (ccTLDs). For example, in China, 中国 has been introduced in addition to .cn, while in Russia, рф has been introduced in addition to .ru. IDN are also part of ICANN’s New gTLD Programme, allowing for the registration of new top level domains (gTLDs) in scripts other than the Latin one; for example, .сайт (website) and .онлайн (online) are among the new top level domains available to the public.
IDNs thus contribute to making the Internet more inclusive, as the possibility of accessing and registering domain names in more languages and scripts empower more people to use the Internet. It has been said numerous times that domain names are not only about addressing and naming, but also about content; they are therefore relevant for local communities, and they have the potential of encouraging both the use and the development of local content, in local languages and scripts.
Many efforts have been also made to improve machine translation. Given its policy of translating all official activities into the languages of all member states, the EU has supported various development activities in the field of machine translation. Although major breakthroughs have been made, limitations remain. In the case of IDNs, for example, universal acceptance is still a challenge when it comes to issues such as functional IDN e-mails and recognition of IDN by search engines.
The promotion of multilingualism requires appropriate governance frameworks. The first element of governance regimes has been provided by organisations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), which has instigated many initiatives focusing on multilingualism, including the adoption of important documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity.
Another key promoter of multilingualism is the EU, since it embodies multilingualism as one of its basic political and working principles. The evolution and wide usage of Web 2.0 tools, allowing ordinary users to become contributors and content developers, offers an opportunity for greater availability of local content in a wide variety of languages. Nevertheless, without a wider framework for the promotion of multilingualism, the opportunity might end up creating an even wider gap, since users feel the pressure of using the common language in order to reach a broader audience.