About thirty years ago, when the GSM standard was first developed and the SMS entered the commercial area, “they” decided that the SMS messaging will be used by English speaking users only. Or perhaps by a few French users also. But don’t forget the Germans. Then maybe it would be best to include most of the few so‑called “western” languages.
Those few “western” languages are given the chance to write anything that can include 160 of their language characters into a single message.
What, other languages exists on Earth ? OK, let’s be generous and allow 70 characters for a single message on these. These languages should be grateful that “they” admitted their existence.
Fact: the SMS text messaging suffers from a fundamental language and cultural discrepancy. Limiting the following discussion to alphabetic scripts, when it comes to SMS text messaging, some of the European languages are advantaged when compared to the rest of the world languages; or the rest of the world languages are disadvantaged when compared to some of the European languages – just read and keep the convenient variant.
At least this is still the situation at the time when I started to write this article, when global communications are way more advanced compared with the incipient SMS era, when most modern mobile devices are already capable of doing all kind of useful and useless stuff for the humanity and posterity.
So at first I determined to fix the SMS issue. Then the basic idea has evolved into a more comprehensive approach that exceeded the SMS issue boundary.
The subject is quite ample. It took place during several years and is still ongoing today (year 2017). If you are in a hurry, just jump directly to the most recent event toward the end of this page :)
At the beginning of 2008 I tried a timid attempt in asking for a fix on the SMS issue at the ETSI organization, but my message has been probably lost in space. One reason for failure was that I sent my message via ASRO , the Romanian standardization body, where everybody there at that time was focused in the preparation for voting and adoption of the OOXML standard proposed by Microsoft – so the rest of the world problems came to a halt. Other reason might be that the standard dealing with the SMS technical specifications has changed its management to 3GPP , where ETSI is a “partner”, so a new step came up in the bureaucracy.
Shortly after that, I sent a letter to the directorate for multilingualism at the European Commission , which back in 2008 had such a distinct portfolio. My letter contained a short description of the problem and also enumerated a few consequences.
I received a friendly response which unfortunately approached only the economical aspect, i.e. the network operators charging plans, where the European Union cannot intervene.
That meant that I turned back to the point I started.
Being convinced that nobody from (any) decision area will care about languages and/or culture specs and aspects – while I also noticed there were difficulties in understanding where the problem really comes from – I chose to emphasize the discrimination side, in a hope that this will be easier to understand and heavy enough to count.
I therefore published The SMS Discrimination article.
With this article as reference, in 2011 I sent a new letter to the European Commission multilingualism division, which is now part of Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth portfolio.
I received with difficulty a new friendly response that also avoided to address the real cause and passes the problem to other fields. However, this new response contained some additional information, as so I found out that – strictly from the law perspective – the European Union has no power to interfere in a Member State’s language problem or dispute. It appears that languages are currently out of their equation.
Except from being a generally useful information, the answer was not quite on topic and was rather bizarre put in this context, because this case deals with global technology and not with Member States language problems or language disputes.
This avoidance of involvement is also strange considering the European Union claims about encouraging cultural and language diversity.
In 2012 I contacted CNCD , the local National Council for Combating Discrimination. While they were cooperative, they also explained to me that their influence area is limited to the Romanian territory and they cannot act outside our borders.
Since I consider the mobile technology to be something global, involving several international parties (in fact I perceive “them” as an abstract core entity that decides alone for the rest of the world), I abandoned the CNCD path, at least for the moment.
Then I tried to contact the local representative of the Council of Europe , knowing that they are dealing officially and somewhat aggressively with all kind of discrimination stuff, including language.
First I found that the official local information office in Romania was dissolved sometime in 2011. After a while I managed to send my letter to the Permanent Representation of Romania to the Council of Europe (Strasbourg) . The only answer I get to date was by phone, at my insistence, where I’ve been told by an unknown (male) person that I should contact again the CNCD previously mentioned. After I explained that the point where the problem really comes from is related to international standardization and that mobile devices in general are something more global than a regional addressable issue, he said something like “umm, well, if you put the problem that way, I will think about ...”. Well yes, I put the problem that way, the same as in writing. I requested a written answer. I’m still waiting. Probably he’s still thinking.
However, after further readings, I came to the conclusion (?) that the Council of Europe, while really dealing with language discrimination, deals in fact only with minority languages inside a state, not with interstate languages. It appears that this case is unusual for their activity and out of their control (?).
I find interesting that the discrimination fact itself has been acknowledged in all discussions and responses I get, while at the same time they all avoided any implication.
Anyway, once again I turned back to the point where I started.
In May 2012 I asked Romanița Iordache , expert at the European Network of Legal experts in the Non-discrimination Field , in an informal manner, about what would be the recommended approach on the SMS discrimination issue. Hers complex and very informative opinion changed the direction needed to be followed, while at the same time it allowed me to put the issue back on the normal track, by truly addressing the cultural aspects. She also clarified (to me) the discrimination approach by the actual European Union laws.
Based on the accumulated information and various responses gathered, I focused again on the European Union. At the beginning of June 2012 I wrote a complaint to the European Ombudsman . Basically I am dissatisfied with the answers I get from the European Commission and the lack of interest regarding (multi)language matters. I really feel that the response to my issue contradicts their own official statements regarding the positive support for cultural and linguistic diversity at European Union level. I also feel there is something highly dubious with languages & law from the European Union perspective: each member state is supposed to treat equally any internal minority language versus its main language, where minority is applicable; as long as the European Union claims to be a community, then why is it powerless in case of language discrimination at community level ?
Here is a copy of the complaint that I filed:
Note: this and some other documents below are written in Romanian language; it is way too difficult for me to translate in English all the subtleties it implies; if there will be some expressed interest thereon, maybe I will ask a professional translation service to do the job; however, being just a hobby, I am not sure about if/when.
In the document I sent to the European Ombudsman, I mentioned in passing one little thing which is not intended to be truly part of the complaint, but which is equally important: the mobile operators do have a part to blame in all this mess.
Today, users are charged in fact for a bits count, not for the effective amount of information sent. For example, character A (first letter of the Latin alphabet) occupies 7 bits inside a single message, whereas character А (first letter of the Cyrillic alphabet) occupies 16 bits inside a single message. In the end the message is not charged for containing A or А, but for containing 7 bits or 16 bits. In some cases the users are charged even for the control characters, which is aberrant. It is like the telegraph offices a hundred years ago would not be charged the information sent, but the quantity of Morse code signs required for sending the information. Irrespective of the emergency nature, an SOS message would have been charged not for a word, nor for three letters, but for six dots and three dashes, or possibly for fifteen dots and twelve dashes if the operator was rigorous and included the full stops to the S.O.S..
For sure there is something weird with this charging principle.
In July 2012 I received a response from the European Ombudsman, in which he asks for further clarification about the reasons of my complaint against the European Commission. His response also shows a misunderstanding of some of the aspects related to the issue raised by me, quite similar to the confusions encountered during my first contacts with the Commission.
Here is the copy of the European Ombudsman opening response:
Obviously there are some troubles with my communication ability, therefore I had to clarify the confusions and explain in detail my reproach.
Here is a copy of my clarification:
Things have moved quickly, so in August 2012 I received a well argued response from the Directorate General for Education and Culture, that states why the European Commission has no power to regulate language matters in the cultural area. The response also proves that this time they made a substantial effort to understand the problem I raised – which they largely succeeded, but not quite completely. The response was sent via European Ombudsman office, as it is part of my official complaint to it.
Here is a copy of their response:
Well, quite interesting, but although everything they stated and argued is true, they missed the essential on where the problem must be solved. Their response also reinforces my doubts about the seriousness of some of the Commission’s official statements, when claiming that the respect for cultural and linguistic diversity is one of the fundamental principles of the European Union. Therefore I formulated a new response to them, in a hope to clarify, once again, my point of view.
Here is a copy of this new clarification:
Just before the end of year 2012, I was informed by the European Ombudsman that it closed the case. Not such a surprise for me, but sad. I am still convinced that the European Commission is right on their statements, except that their statements relates to aspects that are quite different than the key issue raised by me.
I still don’t understand, for example, why the European Union has ordered and financed a research, namely the one from META-NET , if they don’t care about the results , or if they don’t want to be disturbed or get involved in overcomplicated stuff for their understanding, like the SMS issue, which in fact is one of the many reasons that contributes to what essentially the META-NET report warns:
At least 21 European languages in danger of digital extinction.
Here is a copy of the European Ombudsman closing response:
And so, the story goes on.
As the European Ombudsman observed right from the start, my complaint may concern not only the issue raised in the allegation, but also the adoption of an appropriate legislation by the European Union, at the Commission’s initiative, provided there is currently no legislative text obliging the Commission to take action in the desired direction.
Therefore in the early summer of 2013 I created a petition aimed at such a legislative proposal, in which this time it is the fundamental problem the one being addressed, rather than the SMS text messages issue alone.
Here is the copy of the petition:
Later that year the petition got the number 1468/2013.
By coincidence, two days later after I submitted my petition (which happened to be the 16th June 2013), the European Parliament issued a motion targeting the endangered European languages and linguistic diversity in the European Union.
Among other things, article 21 of the motion says “Calls on the Commission to envisage possible actions concerning the protection of endangered languages in the Union”.
Just wondering: will the Directorate General for Education and Culture give the same reply to the European Parliament, claiming its impotence in this matter ? (ref.: the “Copy of the response from the European Commission” document above).
In July 2014 the European Commission sent back a notification to Committee on Petitions members, in which “... the Commission proposes to reject this petition to legislate for the protection of the cultural and linguistic heritage of Member States in the field of modern electronic systems.” (also stating their reasons).
Here is the copy of the document:
However, in September 2014 I was informed that the above inquiry was just “preliminary” and that the Committee on Petitions further considered necessary to submit my petition also to the Committee on Culture and Education, for information.
Here is the copy of the notification:
In the meantime I wrote an article (in Romanian language), describing how the actual virtual keyboards on almost all modern mobile devices are discouraging the correct writing of the native European languages, while promoting – with very few exceptions – a truncated English-like writing for almost all non-English languages. I send a copy of this article to the Committee on Petitions, asking them to include my document in same 1468/2013 petition dossier, as additional information.
In November 2014 I was notified by e-mail about the already known facts, but also about that if I will not respond in two months, then the petition will be closed.
I responded back in just 11 days, confirming that I am aware of the current status of the petition and then asking for further clarifications:
Over the year 2015 i have been awaiting for an answer to my queries. In theory my petition should have not been closed yet, since I sent my answer on time and – as far as I read on the PETI site – a petitioner is always notified about the ending status of its petition, whatever that status might be.
A new year may start very well with a new action, so here we go: since the full year 2015 has passed with neither sign nor movement whatsoever from the Committee on Petitions side – at least none that I am aware of – and since I never received any response to the messages I have sent by e-mail, I decided to make a complaint related to maladministration in the institutions and bodies of the European Union.
At the beginning of January 2016 I wrote an eight-point complaint to the European Ombudsman. The reasons are:
Here is a copy of the complaint that I filed:
It seems that complaints really does have a faster effect than a basic response request: after 18 months of no sign of life, the complaint sent to the European Ombudsman woke them up and led to a response within 2½ months. The answer turns out to be serious and competent, but was the Ombudsman intervention absolutely necessary only that much ?
Regarding one of my previously posed question, I am truly disappointed: it seems that submitted documents (in general) are never translated in full for their (PE) internal use, let alone for the public, regardless the desire of the documents originator. Only the documents summary is made available, presumably in all EU languages.
Here is their response:
On this occasion – which is 33 months since my petition submission and 22 months since it was declared admissible (overlapping interval) – I have been informed that the petition summary is placed online and that it is available to supporters .
That’s ridiculous: how can there be even 1 supporter for a petition, if the petition author (me) was never informed that such an online place even exist, something only revealed following a complaint to the European Ombudsman ? This despite the fact that during all those months I did various searches with no useful result whatsoever – for example, searching by my name on PE or PETI site finds either the minutes document from 18 November 2013 (the one when my petition was declared admissible), and that’s all, or – if searching in Romanian – several PE reports on rye cereal (because my name in Romanian means rye). No other trace exists.
I replied to this stupidity as well as some other things – including the unsolved parts from my complaint to the European Ombudsman consisting of my “dialogue” with the European Commission.
While I was officially informed by the Committee on Petitions, on 20 March 2017, that my petition has been closed on 28 February 2017 due to the European Commission's response issued back in 2014, sometimes during April 2017 the Committee on Petitions surprisingly published a revised response from the European Commission to my petition, response that is dated 31 March 2017. Although there has been no true acceptance of my legislative initiative, this time the Commission changed the approach to a rather flexible point of view; instead of their previous “... the Commission proposes to reject this petition ...” glacial statement, now – 32 months later – their revised conclusion sounds way better:
The issue raised by the petitioner has been considered in various actions. However, the Commission currently does not envisage a legislative initiative for the protection of the cultural and linguistic heritage of Member States in the field of modern electronic communication systems.
Well, this statement proves a reassessment, even if not quite satisfying (but yet promising).
In my article English the languages (written in Romanian language) I highlighted, with a few examples, the discrepancy between some public political statements as expressed by the EU on various occasions and the related true reality that turns out to be quite different than the theoretical or hypothetical intentions. For example, one of the missing piece at EU level is the lack of concern for speech recognition support when it comes to EU-wide official languages, on mobile devices that offer such a technology (e.g. Cortana, Siri, etc.).
Here is the copy of the document:
To be continued...
The SMS case is not unique per se. It is undoubtedly that in the early days of computer era everything was English-based. Even later, support for other languages was difficult and expensive to implement and encodings were mostly chaotic. Individual electronic devices which had to do with alphabets and characters, like desktop computers from first generations or just a simple impact printer, included – at best – language support for a handful of international languages (those usually considered as widely used). Each language or a small group of languages with some linguistic common denominator had its own encoding that needed to be known a priori by a system in order to be able to work properly. More languages ? More encodings.
Fortunately, for now this is just history, in general; but not for SMS. The SMS is a notable case of technology stagnation [when it comes to internationalization]. After more than 20 years since it was first developed it is still as primitive as it was then, with a recently added language shift mechanism exhumed from the stone age, which does not cover all modern requirements and is not intended to be implemented by default. Most other technologies have solved most of the past language issues. But not the SMS.
Every now and then “someone” – like a mobile phone – happens to show me that some character of my language is “special”. No really. At the time when I was in elementary school nobody ever told me that the 28 letters (only later 31) of the Romanian alphabet are in any way special. On contrary: at that time the special letters presented to me were Q, W and Y (and even K). Strange, but I never noticed on my mobile phone the letter W to be reported as “special” when writing or pasting some text in a SMS text message.