Committed to connecting the world

ICTs for a Sustainable World #ICT4SDG

Speech by ITU Secretary-General, Dr Hamadoun I. Touré 

Technology, Innovation & Multilingualism

 Roundtable Discussion

03 April 2013, Geneva, Switzerland



Distinguished colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be able to join you here this afternoon for this roundtable discussion on ‘Technology, Innovation and Multilingualism’ which is being organized by the Organisation Internationale de Francophonie.

As those of you who know me well will have heard before, I am personally passionate about multilingualism.

I was brought up in Mali, where I learned the local languages Songhai and Bambara, as well as French and English. I pursued my studies in the former Soviet Union, in Russian, and I have spent much of my working life in countries where English is the working language, if not always the native language.

Most recently, I have been learning Spanish – and with each new language, new doors are opened up, new cultures are revealed in their full glory, and the world becomes a more interesting and a more rewarding place.

There are well over 6,000 spoken languages and there are hundreds if not thousands of different scripts, and we must respect and indeed reward this diversity, and avoid linguistic imperialism.

Today, we stand at a crossroads.

Do we take the path which is perhaps the path of least resistance, and continue with the current Internet infrastructure, which imposes the Latin script on all the world’s people, and which remains predominantly monolingual?

Or do we work to open up the Internet to the wonderful diversity of all the world’s scripts and languages?

And in so doing, help to connect the whole world; help to connect all people, wherever they live and whatever their circumstances?

Ladies and gentlemen,

Connecting the unconnected is at the heart of what ITU does, and is fully-consistent with the significant role we have played in enabling the Internet – through standards, spectrum, fibre optic networks, satellites and much more.

We have made the most extraordinary progress in the first twelve years of the new Millennium.

So much so, in fact, that we now have mobile penetration in many regions at well over 100%, and there are more than 6.4 billion active mobile phone subscriptions globally.

We still have far to go, however.

Because while almost everyone now has access to mobile telephony, almost two thirds of the world’s people – some 4.5 billion people – still do not have access to the Internet. This means that:

  • Almost two thirds of the world’s people are still locked out of the world’s biggest and most valuable library.
  • Almost two thirds of the world’s people are still refused access to the world’s biggest market place.
  • And almost two thirds of the world’s people are denied the opportunities which are now available to the other third.

The desire to see all the world’s people connected, and the importance of broadband to all countries was made very clear at the World Conference on International Telecommunications, WCIT-12, which took place in Dubai last December.

And I am pleased to note that the new International Telecommunication Regulations – the ITRs – which came out of WCIT contain important new provisions, notably in Article 6, which will encourage investment in international telecommunication networks and which will promote competitive wholesale pricing for traffic carried.

This is one of the most important articles in the revised ITRs and I am confident that it will play a very important role in furthering broadband rollout around the world – and in bringing the Internet within reach of the 4.5 billion people globally who are still offline.

We are among the privileged ones – the 2.5 billion who are connected today – and I am sure no one attending this roundtable in Geneva forgets about the remaining two thirds of the world’s population who remain unconnected.

The revised ITRs also contain several new resolutions, which do not require any ratification, acceptance or approval process, and are not inherently binding for Member States.

They are nonetheless important texts and will themselves help to promote improved access to ICTs to all the world’s people, and to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Internet.

In this regard I would like to draw your attention to the third resolution, which addresses the fostering of an enabling environment for the greater growth of the Internet.

The resolution specifically calls for greater broadband investment and expresses support for the multi-stakeholder model for Internet governance.

Distinguished colleagues,

Three years ago, in 2010, the ITU and UNESCO set up the Broadband Commission for Digital Development to advocate for increased broadband access and rollout globally; not just for its own sake, but to accelerate progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

We now have close to 60 Broadband Commissioners – all leaders in their field – representing governments, industry, academia and international agencies, and they are doing great work in advocating the importance of policy leadership.

One of the Broadband Commission’s thematic working groups focuses specifically on multilingualism.

The Working Group on Multilingualism is chaired by my good friend Adama Samassékou, President of the International Council of Philosophy & Human Sciences, and aims to promote principles of multilingualism and multi-cultural diversity. The working group had its inaugural meeting in Paris last year and is now considering how to raise awareness, particularly through the Internet, about the vital importance of multilingualism for global governance and the safeguarding of humanity.

Interestingly, the Broadband Commission’s ‘State of Broadband’ report, published last September, noted a strong linguistic shift taking place online and predicted that if current growth rates continue, the number of Internet users accessing the web, predominantly in Chinese, will overtake English language users by 2015.

As my co-vice-chair of the Commission, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, said at the time of the report’s launch: “Multilingualism on the Internet can be a great enabler for achieving the MDGs and contributing to building knowledge societies.”

Ladies and gentlemen,

ITU of course itself has a long history in promoting multilingualism, and particularly within the Internet context, since we organized the World Summit on the Information Society in 2003 and 2005.

In particular, internationalized domain names, IDNs, remain a high priority for our membership, and Resolution 133 of the Antalya Plenipotentiary Conference in 2006 covers the role of administrations of ITU Member States in their management.

The resolution instructs the ITU Secretary-General and the Directors of the Bureaux to take an active part in all international discussions, initiatives and activities on the deployment and management of multilingual domain names, in cooperation with relevant organizations, including UNESCO and WIPO.

The resolution was revised at our most recent Plenipotentiary Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2010, where our membership made clear the need to make the Internet available in non-Latin based scripts.

Distinguished colleagues,

By broadening access to information, multilingualism offers new and different ways of seeing and interacting with the world, and drives inspiration and creativity in all fields of human endeavour.

Through the progress made at WCIT-12, and the ongoing work of ITU in connecting all the world’s people, I believe that we shall see a flourishing of multilingualism in the next decade.

This will be accompanied by a new wave of tremendous innovation – and innovation is of course the lifeblood of human progress.

So let us applaud the spirit of multilingualism, and let us work together to ensure it has its rightful place in the world of tomorrow.

Thank you.