He is a strong advocate for the internationalization of the Domain Name System (DNS). In 1998, he led a team which developed a prototype of an internationalized DNS. That technology is now a commercial spin-off, i-DNS.net International, based in Silicon Valley. Dr Tan is also acting CEO, and a founding member, of the Multilingual Internet Names Consortium (MINC), an international non-profit, non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting the multilingualization of Internet names.
Much of the growth of the Internet in recent years has come from outside the United States, yet more than three quarters of websites are still in English. What is keeping other languages from the Net?
There are many reasons. English had a head start as the language of science, technology, telecommunications, computing and business. Countries in the West also had a head start in the Internet. Singapore, for example, only had Internet access from the late 1980s. Can you imagine the situation for less developed countries?
Internet applications were all in English at first. It is only now, as an afterthought, that they are starting to internationalize.
Multilingual content started to trickle in from 1994, but growth then was hindered by the lack of a standardized keyboard and poor software and browser support for multilingual characters.
What are the special problems facing languages that do not use the Roman alphabet?
This is no longer a major problem. Keyboard input systems have evolved to enable non-alphabetic and non-Roman languages to be keyed into a computer. Problems with font display have been overcome over the years. The technology has been disseminated far and wide. However, the politics of which standards to use is more intractable.
What needs to be done to get more languages other than English on the Internet?
Technical solutions need to be provided for all languages. Standards need to be found for the disparate alternative solutions for the keyboard, font display and other systems. There must be education to increase awareness that a multilingual Internet is possible. Artificial barriers, such as the reluctance of some in the international community to adopt an internationalized domain name system, must be removed.
The lack of support for multilingual domain names is almost the last hurdle in the internationalization of the Internet. Once that is achieved, internationalization will no longer be an afterthought in software or standards development.
In your opinion, will English continue to dominate the Internet in spite of these efforts, the way it has dominated international business?
Historically, English will dominate because we are coming out of several centuries of Pax Britannica and now Pax Americana. People will acquire English to get ahead in the Internet world. I do not foresee a shift within the next decade. But that does not mean that other languages should give up. We must continue to push for technical solutions that will enable other languages to strike an equilibrium with English.
What are the consequences of an Internet dominated by English? It will perpetuate and extend the dominance of the West over the rest of the world. The digital divide will continue to separate the first and third worlds. Future technological advances - coming through the use of English - will increase that divide unless we expend effort to rectify the situation.
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