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The Internet just became a little bit freer.

February 10, 2012

In May 2011, the blogosphere exploded with commentary on the implications of a report released by the UN Human Rights Council. The report (full text) indicated, among other things, that Internet access is a basic human right.

While the debate continues about the underlying implications for State privileges and responsibilities, some private enterprises are taking it upon themselves to promote social inclusion through Internet access.

On Feb. 7th, Mozilla Perú announced plans to launch a project designed to provide a version of Firefox in Quechua, an indigenous language spoken by about three million people in the Andes of Perú, Bolivia, and Ecuador. This will be a joint project between the makers of Firefox and Runasimipi Qespisqa Software, a group dedicated to creating free software in Quechua.

The Runasimipi Qespisqa explains: “Our dream is that any Andean child who goes to a public cabina [cyber café] in the future will have the option of seeing everything in his native language.”

In announcing the partnership with Runasimipi Qespisqa, Mozilla reiterates the importance of this project:

“Quechua is a fundamental part of the Peruvian culture and the language of expression of more than three million Peruvians [whose input we need] in the development of the Internet. With content, but above all with perspective.”

The Mozilla Perú blog post includes an embedded slideshow that explains the reasoning, the goals, and the plan. This ambitious translation project will take place in a series of three phases:

1. Produce a basic language pack for Firefox that includes the most frequently used aspects of the user interface.

2. Produce a more comprehensive language pack for Firefox with the complete user interface, with the help of more than 80 official Firefox testers.

3. Produce a language pack for Firefox Mobile.

While some people question the growing movement to provide computer programs and internet access in Quechua on the grounds that the most quechuahablantes, or Quechua speakers, are also literate in Spanish, this initiative is significant.

First, there’s just something special about meeting the needs of a people group (literally and figuratively) in a language they can understand. While the vast majority could just as easily surf the ‘net in Spanish, the spirit of the concept of internet access as a human right is to provide 21st Century conduits for the freedoms of information and expression. This will be a lot easier for the Quechua people to do in their native language.

Second, it will give the rest of the world the opportunity to share with and learn from one of the more resilient people groups in world history. Some experts believe that Quechua as a language predates the Incas, which predate the Spanish Conquistadors. While Quechua is not alone in this feat, it’s still pretty amazing that it has lasted this long in common, every day use. The rest of the world could benefit from the wisdom and traditions of the Quechua.

Third, it will both directly and indirectly affect economic growth. It will directly affect the economy in that it will open up a new market to the people who own and run cyber cafes. It will indirectly affect the economy by allowing the Quechua people easier access to information, which will give them easier access to knowledge, which will better equip them to contribute to the economy.

Finally, it will provide a mechanism to help keep the Quechua alive. While there’s no shortage of quechuahablantes today–Quechua is an official language in both Bolivia and Perú, where 21.2% and 13% (respectively) of the population speak it–there is growing concern about the assimilation of Quechua youth within mainstream Peruvian culture. The Runasimipi Qespiqa Software Manifesto notes that it just isn’t “cool” to speak Quechua with your friends–especially when all the new tech toys are in Spanish. This project will help ensure that both the Quechua culture and the mainstream Peruvian culture remain relevant together.

Mozilla is also actively working on projects to provide Firefox in Guaraní, an indigenous language spoken in Paraguay and parts of Bolivia, as well as Firefox Maya, Firefox Tarahumara, Firefox Tseltal, and Firefox Zapoteco for the indigenous peoples of Mexico.

When the Firefox translation project is complete, Mozilla will join Google and Microsoft in seeking to serve the Quechua people. Both companies have already been providing products in Quechua since at least 2006.

For more information on Internet resources for quechuahablantes and digital inclusion, click here and here.

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