No more unicode flags

A couple of years ago I described the active proposals to officially add an Esperanto flag to Unicode. It is now clear that this cannot occur in light of a blog post from the Unicode Consortium a few days ago: there will be no more flag emoji added to Unicode. The rare exception is if a country is newly recognised as an independent nation by the UN, which is codified in ISO 3166-1 and has a direct route for inclusion in future versions of Unicode. Both variants of “Esperanto Flag” are now “Declined”.

They don’t mince their words in their post. They know that they’re being played, that they’ve become an unwilling participant in a menagerie of disputes—disputes which are far-removed from the technical discipline of encoding text in binary.

We realize closing this door may come as a disappointment — after all, flags often serve as a rallying cry to be seen, heard, recognized, and understood.

When people ask for a new flag emoji, we recognize that the underlying request is about more than simply a new emoji. And when we say, “We aren’t adding more flags,” we are only saying changing the Unicode Standard is not an effective mechanism for this recognition.

They present quite a few arguments why the addition of more flag emoji is a bad idea but the sections I’ve quoted are the most interesting. It’s clear that vast expansion of emoji has opened a can of worms. If your flag is recommended for inclusion as an emoji then it is a mark of recognition, a mark of legitimacy from an authority. The Esperantists pushing to have the flag included have an acute, sordid awareness of this. We have always suffered from a lack of awareness and it would be quite the coup to get a flag into Unicode. Therefore as much as I would have liked to see the Esperanto emoji happen, I have to accept that the Consortium is right to say “okay hang on, this isn’t what we had in mind; go promote your weird language somewhere else.”

This is much better than an unexplained refusal—it’s an admission that they went too far by adding flags for non-country concepts like “Wales” or “Pride”. Theirs is a difficult job, presiding over a list of finite practical length that encompasses all human expression. If that list could include any concept that people identify with which happens to have an established flag, there are unlimited candidates, many of them controversial, and any inclusion or exclusion is inherently passing judgement on something’s value relative to everything already on that list. So I’m not disappointed that they changed their policy. They can’t reverse what they’ve done in the past but it’s good that they’ve explained their reasoning openly. It’s clear that including the Esperanto flag would perpetuate the problem—why not have the Ido flag too?

The absence of an emoji doesn’t inconvenience Esperantists particularly. You can still write name of the language in UTF-8 and the latin abbreviation “EO” is well-understood. Flags can always be digitally encoded as images or CSS styles. It’s just one more door closed in the continuous effort to promote the language.

The situation reminds me of Cloudflare, which provides web content caching and DDoS protection for a significant fraction of websites on the Internet. The nature of their business is that they are empowered to decide whether a given one of their customers is online and available or not. This technical capability makes them the target of considerable social media pressure, suggesting that they support the views of a given website by providing the technical capabilities of operating their website. Cloudflare is loathe to make this kind of judgement call about their customers, and I agree. If there is content online which is so objectionable that it shouldn’t be online, then that is not a matter for their CDN. First and foremost it is a matter for the democratic government of the country that hosts the original website, and secondly for the democratic government of the countries that are viewing that website, whether it should be the subject of an ISP-level domain block or similar. This is the process we should follow for determining what should and should not be online.

Similarly then, it is hardly up to the Unicode Consortium to decide whether Esperanto has a “real flag” or not. It is another example of abusing an entity that plays a technical role to determine the value of something which is completely unrelated to their expertise or authority.


P.S. Speaking of domains and Esperanto, if you are an Australian individual or business you will soon be able to register direct .au domain names. Some Esperantists might be interested in collecting morg.au or almen.au.