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Internet access can be matter of life and death: forum

The inability to access to the Internet in one's own language can be life-threatening, a forum at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh heard on Tuesday.

"Lack of access to information is life-threatening, threatens your ability to stay healthy, to access government services," Dwayne Bailey, of the African Network for Localisation (ANLoc), told the Internet governance forum.

Multi-lingualism on the Internet was an imperative that had to be addressed, stressed the official from ANLoc, a project to empower Africans to participate in the digital age.

He gave the example of vital health guidelines that South African authorities post on their websites in English "in the hope that most people will understand."

"There are 2,000 languages spoken by a billion people in Africa. There are 15 languages in Africa that have more than 10 million people each and almost none of those are present in any significant way in the information age," Bailey said.

On Monday, the US-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) took a significant step towards ending the exclusive use of Latin characters for website addresses' internationalised domain names (IDNs).

Egypt and Russia were among the first to apply to have their country code for top level domains in their own scripts.

But Bailey said that while IDNs were essential in the drive to internationalise the World Wide Web, he stressed they were only one aspect.

"There's the assumption that all languages can be typed," said Bailey, whose organisation has developed keyboards that allow people to type African languages.

"Software is predominantly not available" in many African languages, he said.

Only 100 of the world's 7,000 languages existed in cyberspace, said UNESCO's Abdul Waheed Khan, who illustrated the point of language barriers by starting his speech in Hindi without translation.

"Language is part of identity," said the official from the UN body that deals with education and culture.

"Can you share with a farmer scientific innovation if that information is not available to him or her in the language that they can understand?" Khan asked.

Participants proposed translating and localising content to make it more relevant, making spell-checkers available for different languages.

"There is nothing as negative for a language as seeing it all underlined in red, basically your computer communicating that your language is irrelevant in the computer age," Bailey said.

This year's Internet Governance Forum in Egypt has brought together more than 1,500 representatives of government, advocacy groups, non-governmental organisations and the private sector to discuss the future of the Internet.

The third day of the IGF was focused primarily on providing access to the Internet to millions of people who face constraints of language, connectivity, cost or disability.