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Culture and local content issues
The ready availability of relevant local language content is critical for the development of productive capacity in new media. One of the challenges in the early years of Internet diffusion lay in the dominance of the English language and US-centric content, with little relevance to many Asia Pacific Internet users. Without locally relevant content in local languages, immediate uses of ICT for day-to-day activities may not be apparent.
As Sarmad Hussain and Ram Mohan point out in their chapter on 'Localization' in this edition, there are many aspects to the technical issues in localization, including encoding, keyboard and input method, fonts and rendering, locale and local language interfaces. They state, 'Localization is conventionally defined or understood in a narrow sense—that is, it is usually limited to interface translation and other basic changes in the computing platform. We suggest that localization has a broader scope that includes the entire range of script, speech and language technology to enable access to information for the end-user.' Different language groups have very uneven capacities to deliver all of the components necessary for a fully localized experience, and therefore the priorities for Chinese language initiatives, for example, differ from those for Khmer.
There are a number of notable projects working to build local language computing capacity in Asia Pacific. In Nepal, the Dobhase project is currently building an engine for English-to-Nepali machine translation on the Web. Critically, they are also incorporating Nepali-to-English functionality to ensure that the Nepalese become Web producers and not just consumers of online content. Other projects are happening at the platform level: in Bhutan there has been successful development of Dzongkha Linux, a localized operating system.
Increasingly, regional ICT plans are focusing on content and cultural issues. For example, Lorraine Carlos Salazar and Shelah Lardizabal-Vallarino note in the ASEAN chapter in this volume that the ASEAN ICT Fund has endorsed the Brunei Action Plan which will (a) empower home workers in ASEAN countries, (b) conduct workshops on public domain and content development, (c) conduct e-learning, e-culture and e-heritage training for youth, and (d) develop an ASEAN Skills Standard.
In the area of IPRs and patents, countries are increasingly aware of the ability of overseas companies to patent technologies and materials based on traditional products. ICTs play an important role in allowing this commercialization and publication. However, ICTs can also potentially provide a mechanism to mitigate against such exploitation. The government of India's Traditional Knowledge Digital Library initiative has built a database of over 36,000 Ayurvedic formulations and other traditional medicines (see Noronha and Venniyoor, this volume). It is hoped that this can work as a defensive mechanism against inappropriate patents that may be taken out on such materials, which might otherwise result in their becoming inaccessible for India's citizens.
The question of viable financial models for local content companies remains troublesome in the Asia Pacific region, whether in the public or private sector. It is easier for nations with a high number of cultural producers using common languages, such as English or Chinese, to engage in cultural exports. But for smaller nations, export audiences may not be as easy to reach, and local audiences are at risk from increased competition from global sources, which contribute to difficulties in language maintenance.
Because media policies are based on control of national borders, the global nature of Internet media poses many questions. Overall, these can be seen in the shift in national interest content policies from control and quotas to growing effective new content producers who are able to thrive in an international market. Such initiatives are increasingly undertaken by economic development agencies pursuing the 'creative industries' rather than by cultural development agencies. This reflects the forum shifting that has occurred in the intergovernmental sphere, where media and entertainment are now more commonly discussed in the WTO as part of intellectual property agreements rather than in agencies such as UNESCO that have traditionally been the agency for the discussion of cultural issues. As Braithwaite and Drahos (2000) point out, Europe and the US have led these moves, more so than countries in the Asia Pacific region.
Even in nations managing to achieve significant control over content, such as China's 'national firewall', the controls are a partial measure. New social media such as blogs and wikis provide a challenge to holistic media policy, as much of this cultural activity takes place informally, outside of organizations easily subject to policy initiatives. However, these independent forms also allow an unparalleled opportunity for local content to emerge. Donny B.U. and Rapin Mudiardjo estimate that there are currently around 70,000 to 90,000 blogs within Indonesia alone (see the Indonesia chapter in this volume). Ultimately, there is much for the region to gain by supporting the user-generated content platforms that reflect the diversity of all countries in the region.