May 27, 2004

"if you only speak Arabic, why would you be interested in the Internet?"

According to Jonathan Wright's Reuters wire story, Khaled Fattal at the Multilingual Internet Names Consortium (MINC) has the goal of "enabling Arabs unfamiliar with the Latin script to use the Internet in Arabic alone", and suggests that "given enough funding, say $6 million, his organisation could produce tangible results within nine months". Note that the issue is only the use of Arabic in domain names and other aspects of URLs -- web pages can now be displayed correctly in Arabic script in all the major browsers, and there are a large and growing number of Arabic-language web sites. I'm puzzled that the article doesn't mention the fact that ICANN announced a plan almost a year ago, to permit web addresses in any Unicode-supported language -- which certainly includes Arabic.

ICANN's announced plan was based on a reversible encoding from Unicode into ASCII (cleverly if undiplomatically called "punycode"), rather than on modifying the web's infrastructure to permit Unicode directly in domain names. It's clear that the proposed solution has some problems, since the domain-name proposal doesn't seem to have gone much of anywhere in the past year -- though Mozilla has supported "punycode" since rel. 1.4 -- but it would nice to know what the problems are. The Reuters article hints that the difficulties might be more political than technical -- "[t]he Arab Internet community has ... wasted several years in disagreement over which characters are essential and how to map them into computer code". But maybe there are technical issues with "punycode" too. In any case, the reporter is pretty thoroughly clueless -- or has been made to seem so by his editor(s) -- since (for example) the word "Unicode" doesn't occur anywhere in the article.

What really puzzles me, though, is the quote from Paul Verhoef, identified as "a vice president at the International Corporation for Internet Names and Numbers (ICANN)". Verhoef is represented as saying that "What Khaled says is true, because if you only speak Arabic, why would you be interested in the Internet?"

Uh, because you can read thousands of newspapers and magazines, and millions of discussion groups and information and advocacy sites in Arabic? Like, the same reason anyone else would be interested in the internet?

When you read something this dumb in a news story, it's time for the old attributional abduction tango...

...we can't tell: was the journalist or news release writer misled by the source? did the journalist misremember, misunderstand or invent something independently? was the piece subverted by an editor, accidentally in the course of hasty re-writing, or on purpose due to conceptual confusion or some independent agenda?

I'll file this one tentatively under the general heading of "Reuters anti-globalization prejudice", along with the infamous Korean tongue-cutting story. After all, Paul Verhoef, as a former "Advisor to the Director-General" of the European Commission, and head of "a team with responsibility for international policies in telecommunications, Internet, e-commerce, and Information Society" for the "DG Information Society in Brussels", can't possibly be that badly informed and illogical, right?

I'm sorry that this seems to be "beat up on Reuters week" here at the Language Log. I really don't have any anti-Reuters animus. I just read the news via Google's news aggregator, and the Reuters wire offering is often among the top few stories in a given cluster, and beyond that, I just calls 'em as I sees 'em.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 27, 2004 06:05 PM