For many, life before the Internet is hard to imagine. The level of access to information has brought freedom, power and choice to people in a way that has rarely been seen in recent modern history.
However, this explosion of engagement with the worldwide web has not spread evenly across the globe. In some regions there remains a huge (currently missed) opportunity to revolutionise the way business is done, facilitate communication or simply get access to tools that make the most mundane tasks quicker, easier and more efficient. Internet penetration in the Arabic world currently stands at less than 10 per cent (there are roughly 40 million online users out of a population of over 325 million). Less than one per cent of the content on the web is in Arabic with around 150 million Arabic web pages, compared to 30 billion web pages worldwide (as stated by Madar Research). Clearly, these numbers present a problem in terms of access to information for the Arabic web–if the content isn't there then there is less incentive for people to get online and if fewer people are online then the amount of local content produced remains low. It's the chicken and egg question. So what can be done about it and, more to the point, why should anyone care?
At its very basic level, the Internet satisfies a fundamental human thirst for knowledge, communication and self-expression. Let's take knowledge as a starting point. The Internet has no borders–it facilitates a constant flow of information in multiple languages, on multiple subject matters from people from multiple countries. This ability to search across so many sources of information in more than 110 languages has put a myriad subject matters at the fingertips of people who couldn't otherwise have expected to get access to it. The wealth of material available online–and the ability to automatically translate it into your own language–has democratised learning in an unprecedented way.
Then there's communication. Your day likely involves working with others to perform personal and work-related tasks. In the past, that meant a great deal of paper shifting, calendar juggling and phone calling. Today, a concept we call 'cloud computing' is making it much easier to get things done. Cloud computing moves all of our computer-based activities–searching, emailing, watching videos, creating documents, uploading photos, and more–to a virtual space on the Internet referred to as 'the cloud'. The fact that this data is stored securely on the web means you can access the information you need from any device with an Internet connection from wherever you may be.
It also makes collaboration even easier than before. In the old world order, we would have sent text or picture attachments round on email to organise an event or ask for feedback on a document. The cloud eradicates the need for this, which for businesses large and small in particular represents a huge opportunity to cut costs and boost efficiency. Finally, the Internet has also created enormous opportunities for millions of people worldwide to express themselves: the freedom to create and communicate, to organise and influence, to speak and be heard. The Internet has brought unprecedented access to communities in multiple geographies, languages and time zones. Video sharing sites, blogs, social networks, the ability to create your own website—all have offered a platform on which people can make themselves heard.
When all is said and done, few can deny that the Internet opens up access to information in a way that is crucial for the evolution of the modern world. We at Google are very committed to ensuring that the Middle East takes full advantage of the potential of the Web. By making products such as web search, Gmail, Google Sites and other products available in Arabic, providing translation tools and building local partnerships, we are aiming to play our part in increasing the amount of relevant content online for Arabic local users, businesses and the region as a whole. Everyone has their part to play of course–be it starting up your own blog, creating a website, building an Arabic layer on Google Earth or sharing your expertise on a subject using through Knol–the smallest contribution will help to make the Internet as useful a tool to Arabic users as it currently is to people the world over.
- The author is Google Country Business Development Manager, UAE. The views expressed are his own
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