Since its early days, the Internet has been a predominantly English-language medium. According to some statistics, approximately 56% of Web content is in English, whereas 75% of the world’s population does not speak English. This situation has prompted many countries to take concerted action to promote multilingualism and to protect cultural diversity. The promotion of multilingualism is not only a cultural issue; it is directly related to the need for the further development of the Internet. If the Internet is to be used by wider parts of society and not just national elites, content must be accessible in more languages.
Cultural diversity is a wide concept, and can include diversity of language, national identities, traditions and religions. The relation between the Internet (or, more broadly, information and communications technologies) and cultural diversity, in its various forms, is two-fold. On one hand, the Internet, through its ability to facilitate both exchanges between individuals with different cultural backgrounds, and access to vast resources of information and knowledge, can contribute to the promotion of cultural diversity at a global level. The Internet also offers individuals new possibilities to express themselves in ways that reflect their national and cultural identities; user-generated content therefore becomes a new modality through which the diversity of cultures is better reflected and promoted worldwide. On the other hand, and as underlined during the World Summit on the Information Society, cultural diversity is essential to the development of an inclusive information society that is based on dialogue and respect among cultures.
In the online environment, the preservation, enhancement and promotion of cultural diversity can be achieved, among others, through encouraging the development of local content, which is relevant to the culture and languages of individuals. As local content has the potential to reflect national identities and cultural specificities, having more local content online translates into additional opportunities for making the Internet a more diverse and inclusive space, and for promoting these exact identities and specificities at a global level.
One way to achieve this is by encouraging the development of user-generated content at a local level, as well as fostering digital literacy within local communities. Once local communities are able to use digital tools, they can then generate content and contribute to the promotion of their cultures and identities. Local media is also another potential promoter and distributor of local content in the digital space.
Additionally, the translation, adaptation and online distribution of existing local content, and the preservation of varied information reflecting indigenous knowledge and traditions through digital means represent other forms of promoting cultural diversity. Digital archives can also contribute to strengthening local communities, documenting and preserving local heritage. This is particularly relevant for communities that are isolated or nomadic, whose technological needs might require approaches that are entirely localised. The production and distribution of software in local languages also has the potential to increase the rates of Internet adoption.
Among the organisations working for the promotion of cultural diversity, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) instigated many initiatives focusing on multilingualism, including the adoption of important documents. The main instruments in this field are in fact adopted by UNESCO: the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001), the Charter of the Preservation of Digital Heritage (2003), and the Convention on the Protection and promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.