Chinese may become the most popular language on the internet by 2015, surpassing English, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has predicted.
Data collated by the ITU (pdf) indicated that last year, there were an estimated 565 million English speaking internet users, or a 27 percent of the 2.1 billion total internet users, and the largest single group overall.
However, the number of Chinese language internet users has continued rapid growth, reaching a total 510 million users, or 24 percent of the total, last year. At current growth rates, the ITU said it believed those users would surpass the amount of English speakers on the internet in three years.
Despite the growing number of non-English speakers on the internet, the ITU voiced concerned popular web-based sites and services such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and even Google Translate are not sufficiently localised to cater for at least some of the 6000 available languages.
It counted 17 languages on LinkedIn, 21 on Twitter, with Google search leading the pack with 345 supported languages.
"Without appropriate efforts to bridge language divides in online content, returns on investment in infrastructure could be significantly reduced, due to more limited use of the Internet," the union argued in a 2012 report authored by the United Nations' Broadband Commission.
"Content and broadband-enabled services in local languages, as well as the capacities of local communities to create and share content, are important drivers of the use of broadband infrastructure by local population."
Multilingualism on the internet could also be encouraged through the use of Internationalised Domain Names, the ITU said.
Since their introduction in 2009, 31 IDN top-level domains have been introduced, representing 21 countries and 23 different languages.
However, the ITU noted there was still no consistent support for IDNs in web browsers, or email functionality. That meant registering and using IDNs "is not always a satisfactory experience for internet users in some countries," the ITU said.
The union pointed to the figures as a background for key objectives to spread internet use throughout the world. It aimed, among other things, to ensure 40 percent of households in developing countries had access to broadband by 2015, up from a 2011 rate of 20.5 percent.
This, it said, would be achieved largely through supporting ongoing investment in mobile infrastructure in those countries.
Progress toward the goal was possible, the union said, as some six billion total mobile subscriptions were already in existence as of early 2012. Of those, three quarters were found to be in the developing world.
"As the price of handsets falls and their functionality increases, soon the vast majority of people on the planet will hold in their hand a device with higher processing power than the most powerful computers from the 1980s," the union said.
"By 2020, the number of connected devices may potentially outnumber connected people by six to one, transforming our concept of the Internet, and society, forever."
The ITU estimated the number of subscriptions would grow to eight billion mobile subscriptions and 15 billion machine-to-machine devices by 2015, while machine-to-machine use would explode exponentially to reach nearly 25 billion devices by 2020.