Original URL: http://www.azstarnet.com/star/sun/31221IInternetBias.html

World is wired, but Internet isn't truly global
December 21, 2003
By Anick Jesdanun

GENEVA - Rahul Dewan typed "India" into the search box of an online stock photo service, hoping to find digital images of his native country. He found only three - all of flags.

Dewan then typed "Switzerland," a country smaller than his, and found 33, while "USA" returned 72.

His demonstration underscores a major challenge in getting the developing world online: Even with access, the Internet remains meaningless to most of the world's population, its Web sites heavy in English and reflecting a Western tilt.

Dewan, managing director of the New Delhi software company Srijan Technologies, ultimately settled for Western faces and hands on his Web site, after failing to find Indian images he could use or a similar photo service catering to Indians.

So much for promoting his company as a homegrown business. "They probably think this company belongs to somebody in the USA," Dewan lamented at last week's U.N. information technology summit. "Everything caters to the Western audience."

Compelling information needed

People and organizations who work on connecting villages and schools throughout the world say their work only begins with providing Internet access and teaching people how to use computers. There must be compelling information, in native languages and mindful of local traditions and distinctions, such as audio and illustrations for the illiterate.

"Getting technology into people's hands is one thing. Getting people to use it is key," said Daniel Wagner, International Literacy Institute director at the University of Pennsylvania.

Much of the Web is built by private ventures - mostly in the West and mostly targeting where they believe the money is: the industrialized world.

As a result, there's little specific to developing countries, which remain largely offline. According to the U.N. International Telecommunication Union, 70 percent of Internet users live in countries that make up only 16 percent of the world's population.

African languages almost nil

Some delegates to last week's U.N. World Summit on the Information Society complained that even when Web sites aren't in English, they are usually in French, Spanish or one of a handful of other languages common in the industrialized world.

Adama Samassekou, Mali's former minister of education, said languages spoken by millions of Africans, including Mandingo and Kiswahili, are virtually nonexistent online.

With more than 95 percent of Pakistan's literacy base in Urdu, the Internet is relevant to only the country's elite 5 percent, said Awais Ahmad Khan Leghari, Pakistan's minister of information and technology.

The solution involves more than translating English sites.

To address illiteracy, South Africa is developing speech recognition, text-to-speech and other voice technologies, starting in Zulu. An open source model will let others adapt the tools for additional languages at little cost.

Sherrin Issac, a policy director at South Africa's Department of Science and Technology, said many existing, Western technologies are inadequate - one voice compression algorithm, for instance, drops some "clicks" in conversations, changing the meaning of words.

Bulgaria, South Korea and other countries, meanwhile, are producing government sites in native languages. But Internet users often must type English addresses to reach them.