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Activist linguist groups are making sure apps speak all languages

On December 10, a group of language activists from Bolivia translated the digital security app Orbot to the Aymara language, enabling their community to use the app while furthering the fight to preserve their native tongue not only in the real world, but in cyberspace too. Aymara is spoken by over one million people in Bolivia, Peru and in the northern part of Chile, but despite being one of the main languages spoken in the Andes regions (alongside Spanish), Aymara is still considered a minor language, and similarly to fellow indigenous tongues, is often excluded from language options in apps and tech services.

Orbot is a downloadable app for Android that creates a private mobile internet connection that permits different apps to use the internet more safely. Orbot encrypts traffic and circulates it through several computers scattered around the world, making its content untraceable. What makes Orbot unique is that it uses Tor, the free software and open network that protects users from network surveillance and traffic analysis.

As apps and digital services are increasingly penetrating people’s day-to-day, with the premises of simplifying or facilitating our lives, members of the Jaqi Aru—a group of volunteers who is translating and creating online content in the Aymara language since 2009—have now reached a new goal: allowing the Aymara indigenous community to join Orbot and access the online protection services it provides by translating the app’s features in Aymara.

Jaqi Aru has already translated Facebook’s interface, and is now translating articles for Global Voices and creating content on Aymara on Wikipedia. But the Jaqi Aru activists are not alone in the movement for the representation of minor and indigenous languages on the internet. For the Orbot project for instance, Jaqi Aru collaborated with Localization Lab, an organisation that brings together linguists, digital security trainers, technologists, professional translators and activists to build connections between developers and communities in a bid to increase localisation and tear down language barriers in technology.

For Localization Lab’s Executive Director Dragana Kaurin, translating technology is fundamental, and it’s also the only way forward to protect language rights and cultural diversity, “Every internet user needs to worry about protecting themselves online; from protecting their passwords to preventing viruses and securely surfing the web. But talking about digital security can be confusing for a lot of us, and adding a language barrier on top of that can mean preventing people from accessing much-needed technology.” Said Kaurin.

Technology has reached every corner of the world, and its services and full accessibility can only be maintained by the effort of groups such as the Localization Lab and Jaqi Aru. In a moment where indigenous and local languages are increasingly threatened by globalisation, making sure that technology speaks all languages is a necessary endeavour towards the preservation of diversity in today’s world culture.


Absher, the Saudi wife-tracking app that is legal

By Sanjana Varghese

For many years, women living in Saudi Arabia had to contend with guardianship—essentially, the men in their lives have complete control over where they go, where they study, and whether they are even able to drive or move around freely. That is often contingent on tons of paperwork—applied by the government through an intensely bureaucratic system. Now, an app called Absher, which was created by the Saudi government, digitises that process. It alerts men on the whereabouts of the women they know. Whether they are leaving the country or coming into it (supposedly without their permission), Absher will notify these men, amongst other services which the app offers. It gives men permission to revoke the travelling abilities of the women they are guardians of.

Women in Saudi Arabia, as well as other feminists internationally, have called on Google and Apple to remove these apps from the app store, ever since the issue first gained press coverage. But the app essentially makes a form of oppression and control which already exists in real-life into digital form—for women in Saudi Arabia, it just meant that their request to leave the country or to travel somewhere without a chaperone could be refused faster, rather than getting lost in government bureaucracy or refused a few months later. But this is also part of the larger question—how much do Apple and Google know about the apps that are on their app stores?

This is not the first time that an app with dangerous actual consequences has been brought to the attention of large technology companies. On one hand, there’s the problem of malicious apps—apps with malware that are disguised as other versions of popular apps, like Tinder, or third-party app stores. These are dangerous in a different way than Absher—for example, these apps will steal individual credit card information, or use geotagging information to find out where you are, but they won’t be able to change anything about where you can and can’t go. This is something which security experts have spoken about previously, but it’s a different issue from what is happening with an app like Absher, which is, for all intents and purposes, legal.

In this case however, the problem may have arisen because it’s not immediately obvious that Absher enables this kind of control over women. Absher also hosts a variety of other services, such as passport checks and document scanning, and so it may not have initially been obvious to moderators that the app would be used in this way. As a New York Times article documented in January, women are trying to leave Saudi Arabia in greater numbers than before, partially enabled by technology. Some of them were able to use websites and WhatsApp groups to coordinate with other women, some were even able to use Absher on their male relative’s phones, setting them to let the women travel and escape to safety.  

On a larger scale, apps like Absher proliferate because they aren’t technically illegal. What Absher does violate is international human rights law—but that’s also because the government that’s created it and uses it does too. In this way, trying to remove Absher would potentially cause a firestorm, particularly given the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Silicon Valley, in addition to doing little to change a fundamentally broken system. If large international bodies and other groups haven’t been able to alter the misogynistic system of guardianship, the app being removed from the app store is unlikely to do so.

These problems arise because the process of developing an app and putting it on app stores, both for Apple and Google, are fairly straightforward. Google, in comparison to Apple, which has a strict approval process, has also come under fire for the apps that it lets proliferate on Google Play. A report from WIRED UK found that child-friendly apps that were being sold on Google Play were anything but. The problem of content moderation on the app store is one that Google has had to reckon with, but has done precious little about. This is also different because the government of Saudi Arabia has created the app—making it harder to take down than just reckoning with an app developer.

But Apple and Google do have the ability to intervene and remove apps from their app stores as and when it’s deemed necessary. Recently, in India, TikTok was considered to be a danger and a menace to the population, particularly given how many of the users were under the age of 18. A week later, TikTok was removed from their app stores, over concerns about paedophilia.

After all, Saudi Arabia’s repressive policies towards women are not a state secret—human rights organisations and activists have been raising the alarm about them for years—so it’s unsurprising that this may have passed under the radar. But the fact that companies are enabling this kind of human rights abuse should surely be a cause for concern for anyone who cares about freedom or equality.