Growth of Arabic Wikipedia held back by technological challenges

Lower broadband penetration, regional instability, and the relative lack of source material have held back the development of Arabic language version of Wikipedia, the site’s founder Jimmy Wales said on Sunday in Dubai.

“Arabic Wikipedia is one of the largest editions of Wikipedia with over 400,000 entries, putting it around number 20 [in the site’s language editions],” said Mr Wales, speaking at Ericsson’s Change Makers Forum.

“It’s a very successful project, although if you think of the number of people who speak Arabic [worldwide] it isn’t necessarily as high as we’d like it to be.”

Mr Wales noted that Wikipedia’s Persian language version had nearly 20 per cent more entries than the Arabic version, even though there more than six times the number of Arabic speakers around the world.

Mr Wales said that the comparatively small number of entries was due to technological challenges such as lower levels of literacy and broadband penetration across the wider Arabic speaking region, in addition to the comparative lack of written materials available to Arabic speaking contributors.

“One of the historical problems that has improved quite a bit is the number of things that have been translated into Arabic. It’s improved substantially [in recent years] but there’s still a long way to go” he noted.

“The editors who want to find good quality sources, obviously having a lot of materials in their own language is very helpful to them.”

Mr Wales stressed the need for a greater technological awareness among the region’s regulators, in the face of internet filtering censorship in a number of countries, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and hostility over the use of VPN technology.

“Here in the UAE we have pervasive internet filtering, this is a problem. In March 2015 the Dubai police said that the use of VPNs is illegal and can be punishable under UAE law,” he said.

“We see this kind of statement from regulators and police … who don’t understand the internet very well. People will often see this as a knee-jerk reaction when they don’t actually mean it and can’t actually enforce it.”

However the global spread of the Arabic language meant that the Arabic version has significant advantages over other languages when it came to evading censorship, he said.

“If a country like Finland were to have a censorship problem it would be a very serious problem for Finnish Wikipedia because almost no one speaks Finnish apart from the people of Finland.”

“With the Arabic language if there’s a political dissident in a country like Egypt that Egyptians can’t write about, it may be perfectly possible for people in another country to write about [that subject] instead.”

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