The Tower of Babel – Building language borders into the Net

Date Posted
March 17, 2008

“If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” (Genesis 11:6-7)

Tower of Babel

The “Tower of Babel” story tells a tale of a people united in language and their cause to build a tower up to heaven. Their pride and independence did not please God so he took the one thing that held them together, language. Confusion was spread around, people broke into language groups and the technical, political and social state of mankind was changed in an instance (Genesis 11). Throughout history language has been a pivotal part of trade, political, cultural and social organisation. Control of language has been sought by numerous political groups to enforce power and ensure smooth operations (Gal 1989). Goldsmith and Wu (2006) discuss various aspects of control that govern the Internet, part of which is the English based domain name system (DNS) as well as the globalising and nationalising factors that are defining the Internet.

Goldsmith and Wu (2006, p179) support New York Times columnist and author, Thomas L. Friedman’s popular theory that the Internet is making us a global society, breaking down the borders of geography and language (Friedman 2005). The Economist (2006) also supports the popular assumption that “English may now be impregnably established as the world standard language: an intrinsic part of the global communications revolution.” In both cases this is attributed to the Internet’s “globalising force” (Friedman 2005).

However, current paleolinguistic studies show that languages are actually becoming more diverse over time (Marling 2006, p8). From 1958 to 1992 the proportion of the world speaking the five major western languages declined from 24.1% to 20.1% (Huntington 1996). Contrary to popular belief English is not even the most common second language, Mandarin is (Marling 2006, p11).

The United States has neither the greatest number of Internet users as a percentage of the population or in total as a nation (ibid, p60). Other countries, particularly non-English-speaking ones, are also making more productive use of the Internet. For example South Korea has such an efficient online bureaucratic system that the United Nations has commissioned its translation into other languages (ibid). Malaysia has a much greater focus on Internet and computer literacy than the United States with high connectivity, Internet cafes in most towns as well as an Internet literacy program that educates remote villages (ibid, p61).

The New York Times published an article titled “Computer Speak; World, Wide, Web: 3 English Words,” emphasising the globalising factors of the web on language. This article stated that to “take full advantage of the Internet there is only one real way to do it: learn English” (Specter 1996). This is a popular, however inaccurate assumption that has been glorified throughout the 1990s. Of course, learning English is very useful when operating with the Internet and computers in general, however, it may not be the way into the future. Although they emphasise globalisation and the importance United States administration, Goldsmith and Wu (2006) do recognise that the Internet is becoming more of a nexus of nationally operated networks (p149).

Goldsmith and Wu (2006) admit that “peoples in different nations tend to read and speak different languages” and that the result of this is a reinforcement of national identity, borders, laws and jurisdiction. With a gaze back into history we can see that colonising nations tend to impose their language across all of their colonies for purposes of unity, trade and government (Gal 1989). Language can be exclusive, simultaneously the most basic and the most complex form of communications media. It defines all media and communication, creating a starting point for the construction of understanding while at the same time being a carrier to communicate.

The control of the Internet deeply linked to language. The Internet relies upon a range of systems and protocols. One of these is the Domain Name System (DNS) that is primary to the functioning of the Internet. The DNS is a reference system that connects computer addresses from numbers (72.14.207.104) to names (google.com.au). The purpose of DNS is to have Internet addresses that are easy to read, short and memorable (National Research Council, 2005). However, these addresses must be able to be understood, readable, memorable and accessible by people from all language groups.

The system of naming is defined by Goldsmith and Wu (2006) as a “global law” without which there “would be no Internet” (p168). However, this system originated from the United States government research programs and that is where the root authority has resided. Therefore, the DNS was developed as a look-up system that operated using the English language, or more importantly Roman characters and Arabic numerals (National Research Council, 2005).

Goldsmith and Wu (2006) assert that root control of the DNS is vitally important to the governance and direction of the Internet. Internet founder, Vint Cerf stated that it “was recognized by many in the 1990s that the Internet had outgrown its original scope and had become an international phenomenon” (ibid, p38) and that most governments around had also recognised this, much to the ignorance of the United States.

The United States government was of the opinion that if they were to lose control of the root that it would “fall prey to overregulation,” slowing down commerce and the practicability of the Internet. Goldsmith and Wu (2006) seem to side with this assumption that a government action (asserting control over DNS) should be taken to stop government action (regulation of DNS).

Ira Magaziner, Internet representative for the United States government stated that “the United States paid for the Internet, the Net was created under its auspices, and most importantly everything Jon [Postel] and Network Solutions did were pursuant to government contracts.” (ibid, p41). There is still a strong feeling in the United States government that this should still be the case. To assert their root control the United States released the “Green Paper,” a policy giving the final word affirming their jurisdictional power over the DNS root (USDC 1998).

However, with the DNS firmly in the hands of the United Sates, internationalisation of DNS is not a high priority. Internationalisation of the DNS is of great importance for the future of the Internet, its control, global governance and equality across languages. Goldsmith and Wu (2006, p50) state that in the 1990s it was widely believed that “English would overrun the Net, just as the Net would overrun borders.” However, this is obviously far from the truth as 2003 marked the point where content on the web written in English accounted for less than 50% of the total (Marling 2006, p65).

Internationalisation of domain names is a hot topic that the United States government has let go cold. Currently, people from nations around the world are required to enter web addressees in the Roman characters and Arabic numerals used in the English language (and to a degree some other western languages). There are many characters from languages throughout the world that are now available on computers, that make up over 50% of the content on the Internet (Marling 2006). However, throughout the world people are still required to enter web addresses using what may be foreign characters to them (for example, they can not write http://??.?? they have to write http://example.test ) (ICANN 2007).

Due to its original English-centric design, there are significant technical challenges in the journey towards internationalised domain names (National Research Council, 2005). However, in the hands of the United States government it has taken nine years (1998-2007) to get to a point of having a live test for a true internationalised DNS, and it is still far from implementation (ICANN 2007). The United States operated National Research Council (2005) admits that “the DNS is so central to the reliable and effective operation of the now fully global Internet that its control by a single
nation is no longer justifiable.”

The United States government claims that it should control the DNS root authority to maintain stability (Goldsmith & Wu 2006, p36). However, the root is not necessarily stable in the hands of the United States (National Research Council, 2005). The United States claims made mention of over-regulation due to the laws of multiple governments all regulating one global medium (ibid, p41). International laws have always been difficult, but this does not go to say that the laws of the United States are best suited to Internet governance. Goldsmith and Wu (2006) give the example that many countries have laws to prevent defamation in contrast to the United States First Amendment for freedom of speech. However, Goldsmith and Wu’s (ibid, p41) perception that defamation laws are “overregulation” can be dangerous. In fact there have been significant Internet related court cases already based on this important distinction in International law (ibid, p148).

Another issue raised by DNS is the profitability of sales from the multitude of these individual domain names (ibid, p35). This was raised initially when Network Solutions (the original contract holder for DNS operations) were making a striking profit with minimal costs and for a system to which they held no claim; they did not invent it, fund it, nor was the root authority theirs. Many issues arise in the current situation of global top level domain (gTLD, for example .com .net) sales are such a profitable business whose profits are directed primarily to just one country (the United States) who assumes this root control for a global medium (National Research Council, 2005).

In accordance with many media forms the Internet has far outgrown its original purposes, it has been adopted, adapted and reinvented to suit the needs of consumers. The non-English speaking world has separated and adopted this technology to suit their language needs, as William Gibson (1986) noted “the street finds its own uses for things.” However, the problem arises when the original creators of a medium do not embrace the adaptations and new needs of the users. This global village of nation-state networks is still legally tied to the United States, however separated in form and function.

Since the 1990s we have seen nations reinforce their independence, laws, language and borders. Goldsmith and Wu (2006) recognise this as the future of the Internet. The United States seems to ignore the origins of the Internet as only one of the many early network systems that merged to adopt the TCP/IP protocol of the Internet for ease of inter-networking (inter-net). The invention of the TCP/IP protocol and the early administration of DNS is quite small justification to hold the assertion of vast control over such a global medium (Peter 2004).

Goldsmith and Wu (2006) provide an elaborate account of Internet governance and control, however they seem to largely ignore the impact of language. Granted, there are many other issues of Internet governance and control outside that of language and DNS ranging from spam, illegal use, the digital divide, intellectual property, privacy, freedom of speech, defamation and regulating eCommerce (NRC 2005). However, we are now at a point where virtually every government in the world “directly manages important aspects of the Internet” but the dominant role that the United States plays with Internet policy making is “being challenged by other nations, and is now an issue before the United Nations” (McChesney 2004). To move forward appropriately the role of language cannot be ignored or minimised. If the United States continues to ignore the importance of language, they may end up bordering themselves from the rest of the world. The Tower of Babel is big one to build, and one that man kind does not necessarily desire, there seems to be an emphasis towards the future of reinforcing a global world of national identity, borders, commerce, laws, culture and most importantly: language.

References

  • Gal, S. (1989). “Language and Political Economy” from Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol. 18: 345-367. October 1989.
  • Genesis 11. “The Tower of Babel.” The Bible. New International Version.
  • Gibson, William. (1986). “Burning Chrome.” Accessed online 08/11/2007 from http://project.cyberpunk.ru/lib/burning_chrome
  • Goldsmith, Jack & Wu, Tim. (2006). “Who Controls the Internet: Illusions of a Borderless World.” Oxford University Press, New York
  • Huntington, Samuel P. (1996). “The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order.” Simon & Schuster, New York
  • Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). (2007). “Internationalized Domain Names”. Accessed 08/11/2007 from http://idn.icann.org/
  • Marling, William H. (2006). “How “American” is Globalisation?” The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore
  • McChesney, Robert W. (2004). “The Problem of the media”. Monthly Review Press, New York
  • National Research Council. (2005). “Signposts in Cyberspace: The Domain Name System and Internet Navigation.” The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
  • Peter, Ian. (2004). “Can TCP/IP Survive?” CircleID. DNS. Sep 17, 2004. Accessed online 08/11/2007 from http://www.circleid.com/posts/can_tcp_ip_survive/
  • Specter, Michael. (1996). “Computer Speak; World, Wide, Web: 3 English Words,” New York Times, April 14, 1996. p4-5.
  • The Economist. (1996). “The Coming Global Tongue” from The Economist, December 21, 1996. p78
  • United States Department of Commerce (USDC). (1998). “Green Paper.” Management of Internet Names and Addresses. Docket Number: 980212036-8146-02. Accessed on 08/11/2007 from http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/domainname/6_5_98dns.htm

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