At first glance, there’s a clear need for expanding the Web beyond the Latin alphabet, including in the Arabic-speaking world. According to the Madar Research Group, about 56 million Arabs, or 17 percent of the Arab world, use the Internet, and those numbers are expected to grow 50 percent over the next three years.
Many think that an Arabic-alphabet Web will bring millions online, helping to bridge the socio-economic divides that pervade the region.
But such hopes are overblown. Although there are still problems—encoding glitches and the lack of a standard Arabic keyboard — virtually any Arabic speaker who uses the Web has already adjusted to these challenges in his or her own way. And it’s no big deal: educated Arabs are exposed, in various degrees, to English and French in school.
The very idea of an “Arabic Web” is misleading. True, before the Icann announcement declared that Arabic characters could be used throughout domain names, U.R.L.’s had to be written at least in part in Latin script. But once one passes the Latin domain gate, the rest is all done in Arabic characters anyway.
Nowadays almost every computer can be made to write Arabic, or any other script, and there is plenty of Arabic software. Most late-model electronic devices are equipped with Arabic. I text with friends using Arabic on my iPhone. Many computer keyboards are now even made with Arabic letters printed on the keys.
And where there’s no readily available solution, Arabic Internet users have found a way to adjust. Many use the Latin script to transliterate messages in Arabic when there’s no conversion program or font set available. Phonetic spelling is common. For sounds that have no written equivalent in Latin script, they’ve gotten creative: for example, the number 3 is commonly used for the “ayn” sound and 7 stands in for the “ha,” because their shapes closely resemble the corresponding Arabic letters.
So what will happen? In the short term, of course, some additional users will move to the Web, especially as they take advantage of the new range of domain names. Over time, though, this will peter out, because, as in most of the world, the digital divide still tracks closely with the material and political divide. The haves are the ones using computers, and many of them are also the ones long accustomed to working with Latin script. The have-nots are unlikely to have the luxury of jumping online. Changing the alphabet used to form domain names won’t exactly attract millions of poor Arabs to the Internet.
We should all celebrate the diversity that comes with an Internet no longer tied to a single alphabet. But we should be realistic, too. The Web may be a revolutionary technology, but an Arabic Web is not about to spur an Internet revolution.