Bridging the Linguistic Divide: The Impact of Language Rights on Internet Freedom

By Andrea Brás

This graph compares languages IRL (In Real Life) vs languages online.     Image Source

This graph compares languages IRL (In Real Life) vs languages online.

Image Source

Access to information on the Internet differs from one language to another; however, users might be surprised at just how much the language they speak conditions their Internet experience. More than 50% of the Internet is in English, which far surpasses the world’s native English speakers and doesn’t come close to representing other majority languages. In fact, according to some researchers, German is the second most visible language online despite representing a much smaller pool of speakers than a language like Arabic.

So how do these statistics impact the Internet Freedom community? To answer this, we looked at language barriers in the human rights sector and how the open source community can play a bigger role in changing the linguistic geography of the Internet.  

Language Rights are a Human Right

Translation is just a small part of the localization process. In the case of technology, localization involves adapting language and software to the regional specifications of the target user. This can include changes to UI/UX design as well as ensuring that local terminology is properly reflected in the tools. If designers and developers don’t take into consideration the cultural and linguistic needs of end-users, they run the risk of incorporating irrelevant analogies, slang, and/or icons that can alienate their intended audience. Localization emphasizes adapting a product to the community and not the other way around.

There are myriad reasons why ensuring technology is available in diverse languages makes sense. From a business perspective, localizing a product has been shown to increase penetration into new markets. In a survey of nearly 2,500 Internet users across 8 countries, 72.4% reported that they would be more “likely to buy a product with information in their own language”. A country that illustrates the potential of localization to boost the uptake of new technology is India. In a recent study, nearly 50% of offline consumers indicate being willing to buy online if the company were to localize its product. Nearly 70% of these same users report challenges when using English keyboards and 60% said language barriers were an obstacle to accessing online platforms. In a country with English as one of its official languages, Indian language speakers (who by and large prefer using the Internet in those languages) are projected to represent nearly 75% of the country’s Internet user base by 2021.

When these findings are taken out of a commercial context and instead applied to the human rights sector, the need and importance of localized digital content becomes infinitely more pressing. How do these reported language barriers impact a user’s understanding of privacy policies or affect their ability to consent when sharing personal information? How might these challenges lead to information access disparities for diverse language speakers in crisis situations? A report by Translators Without Borders states that language barriers have had life-changing and often devastating effects on refugees entering Europe. Interviewees reported issues understanding family reunification procedures, migration rights information, and instructions about how they can get to their desired destination. In the report, one Palestinian man voiced this frustration at the lack of language support:

“I don’t know… Could have been Chinese for all I know. I just couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying [at the registration centre] and they looked at me like I was an idiot. I’m not an idiot, I just speak a different language.”

For the Internet Freedom community, overcoming language barriers through localization can expand the reach of new technologies and address human rights concerns related to freedom of expression, access to information, and a lack of equity online. In the case of developers, making tools available in diverse local languages means they are more likely to be adopted by target users. According to LocLab Shona coordinator Chido Musodza:

“If technology and the internet are going to make any inroads into developing nations, it is important to understand that technology will only be adopted when the local culture and language are reflected in the interface of the tools we are expected to use.”

As an example, Turkey jailed more journalists in 2018 than any other country, and Cambodia, Bangladesh and Russia implemented controversial laws which are slated to severely hinder press freedoms. If a developer has created a technology that could protect the physical safety of journalists from these regions, it’s logical that local UX/UI design considerations and translation should be a priority to reach users who really need these digital security tools. When the target community is made up of at-risk users who may need more technically complex technology to protect themselves from online and physical attacks, supporting language representation can help prevent people from making potentially life-threatening mistakes when using new tools. For LocLab Cambodian contributors, without localized versions of technology, the tools are almost useless within a Cambodian context:

“Young Cambodians are really the only ones who can understand English, so when a tool is only in English it takes a long time for people to adopt the technology. You can’t just put these tools out there and hope people will catch on by themselves because understanding everything on their own is just impossible.”

As members of the Internet Freedom movement who are on the frontline, digital security trainers are also affected by a lack of localized materials. According to a study by Tactical Tech which looked at obstacles to the long-term adoption of healthy digital security practices, researchers found “linguistic and conceptual differences as barriers to learning”. Average users often cite difficulties understanding the technical concepts around digital security topics -- this confusion is compounded for users accessing those same tools in their second or third languages. Trainers working in communities where tools and resources are not available in the local language must transmit complex information and instructions about tools to users who, after the training is complete, might not have access to FAQs or help resources in their language — raising the risk of potential tool misuse.

Open Source to the Rescue

According to LocLab’s Localization Program Manager Erin McConnell, the open source community has already been a major force behind making technology available to diverse language communities:

“Increasing access for speakers of different languages, from different cultural backgrounds and different perspectives also supports the key principles of the open source community -- including principles of open exchange, participation and community. This increased access opens up the opportunity for so much more creativity and ingenuity not only by increasing participation and building community, but also by breaking up the regional and English-language monopolization of information and development.

Open source technology has already been a big part of this solution. With organizations like Mozilla focussing heavily on building a strong international community of localizers and tools like LibreOffice among many others opening up the opportunity to localize into indigenous and minority languages.”

So how do we overcome these language barriers and ensure that current and future users of the Internet are able access the tools they need?

Developers can take steps to ensure that their open source tools are ready for localization and adaptation, and more importantly, they can work with local communities to co-design technology that reflects the needs of diverse end-users. For Tor Project Localization Coordinator Emma Peel, this is a necessary step that Tor is taking to combat inequalities on the Internet:

“...the current situation of localization on the internet reflects how colonialism and cultural imposition have shaped the language landscape around the world. [...] We don’t want these differences to be a barrier to using tools that protect people from tracking, surveillance, and censorship on the web. Localizing technology can even play a role in ensuring a native language survives. When more and more contributors join the movement to localize the internet, the stronger and more sustainable this work becomes.”

As individuals, tackling the lack of language representation online may seem like a daunting task, but the call to change the linguistic makeup of the internet is in being taken up by everyday users who are slowly chipping away at online language barriers — one string at a time.

“I like the idea behind the Tor Browser and I would like to help those who are under dictatorship or strict regimes. Also I disagree with corporations profiting from our privacy and I would like to help provide anonymity for all.”
- Arabic Language Contributor

“Decentralized networking has the potential to empower people in that last mile that large companies may not be incentivized to reach out to. However, language becomes a barrier in some of those cases.”
- Tamil Language Contributor

“Helping Iranians to have free access to the internet.”
- Persian Language Contributor

”I use these apps and services, so I want more people in my country to start using them in my native language.”
- Russian Language Contrubutor