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Digital Inclusion Through A Multilingual Internet

2023 Internet Governance Forum Workshop
Opening Remarks of Alan Davidson
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Kyoto, Japan
Oct. 10, 2023
As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Susan. And thank you to our hosts here in Japan, to the IGF, and to my fellow speakers for being part of this important conversation.  

We’re here today because connecting everyone to the Internet is the first step to building an inclusive digital society. 

Being able to engage in one’s own language is key to meaningful connectivity. Making the Internet multilingual will support meaningful connectivity and digital inclusion, and that is what we are here to explore today.

Our starting point: The Internet is now the essential tool for communications in our modern world. It is essential for access to work. Access to education. Access to healthcare. 

But there are still millions of people around the world who are not online. It may be their connectivity is too poor to offer meaningful benefits. Or they may lack the means, or the tools, or the skills to use it. Or they may not find content and uses online that are compelling. 

That has to change.

Domestically, within the U.S., we’re working to tackle these problems in a big way. The USG has dedicated $65 billion in new funding to invest in a simple and ambitious mission: to connect everyone in America to affordable, reliable, high-speed Internet service.  

Internationally, we are trying to do our part as well. We are proud to be part of the ITU’s Partner2Connect initiative, spearheaded by Doreen Bogdan-Martin.
Initiatives like P2C are helping form the partnerships and mobilize the resources to connect the unconnected around the world.

But connectivity is just the baseline. We must both establish connectivity and make that connectivity meaningful. Our ultimate goal is to help people thrive online.

That includes the ability for people to use the Internet in their own language. Everyone online deserves access to a digital sphere that is diverse and inclusive, that serves their needs. Users should be able to take full advantage of government services and engage with local content online.

At NTIA we have had some experience with language and connectivity, most recently in our Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, or TBCP. The program dedicates $3 billion to improving Internet access and adoption on Tribal lands. 

An important part of this program allows Tribes to fund remote educational activities. For many this has included work to preserve indigenous languages.

This is a crucial use of technology. There are 245 indigenous languages in the U.S., but 65 are already extinct, and another 75 are near extinction with only a few elder speakers left.  

Our program awardees are connecting their Tribal Language and Culture buildings to the Internet and digitizing Tribal language educational materials.

For example, the Karuk Tribe in California will offer online classes to promote Native language learning, traditional skills, and increase cultural awareness. 

The Department of Hawaiian Homelands is hiring Native Hawaiian language specialists to: translate and record public health announcements and stories, and travel to the various Hawaiian Islands to translate and record materials for online publication.

In short, the TBCP is not just about connecting Native communities to the Internet. It is ensuring they can meaningfully engage with the Internet in their native languages. And in turn, leverage that connectivity to share and celebrate their culture. 

Every community deserves the same opportunity to meaningfully connect. Our experience has shown that connectivity to the Internet becomes much more meaningful when you can connect in your own language.

While progress has been made, the Internet today is far from multilingual. But together, we can change that. 

Coordination around the promotion of Universal Acceptance, the technical foundation for a multilingual Internet, is a key tool. Universal Acceptance is the technical standard that enables domain names and email addresses to function in non-Latin scripts. Promoting Universal Acceptance is a foundational element of a multilingual Internet, and in turn, advances digital inclusion. 

It is very exciting to participate in this roundtable alongside the institutions and subject matter experts who are focused on driving Universal Acceptance forward.

Thank you all for being here, and for your partnership in making the Internet a more multilingual and inclusive place for everyone.