An attempt to register the Tibetan flag as an internationally recognised emoji has stalled after 'emoji gatekeepers' ruled that the flag won't be adopted without support from major tech companies, according to campaigners.

Regulation of emojis is overseen by the Unicode Consortium, a non-profit organisation that determines international standards for computer text. Proposals for new emojis are considered first by the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee and then its Technical Committee. If the proposal is approved, the tech companies who are members of Unicode can choose how to implement their own versions of the emoji.

©iStock/fcknimages
©iStock/fcknimages

Last year, London-based NGO Free Tibet submitted a proposal to Unicode for the creation of a new Tibetan flag emoji to be RGI (Recommended for General Interchange), which would make it likely to be widely supported across multiple platforms and devices.

Free Tibet told Techworld that the Unicode Subcommittee had decided to abdicate the decision on adopting the emoji to its member tech companies, which include Microsoft, Google and Huawei. While there is no evidence that the submission has been handled unusually, Free Tibet believes these companies are unlikely to back the proposal due to concerns that it would raise the ire of the Chinese government.

"It appears that the obstacles to this happening are to do with power and politics," John Jones, advocacy manager at Free Tibet, said in a statement. "This would be predictable but nevertheless disappointing. We want to see Unicode assess the proposal for a Tibetan flag emoji on its own merits, and if, as it sounds, they believe it to be strong, take the necessary steps to see that Tibetans are represented."

Emoji criteria

The selection criteria used by the Unicode Consortium are primarily concerned with the likely use of the new emoji, whether it will work at the typically small emoji size, and if it offers something that existing emoji can't express.

Proposals for country flags are also subject to additional criteria. Unicode categorises flags based on the rulings of the International Standards Organisation (ISO), the body responsible for approving country codes. The ISO classifies Tibet as part of China, which means it doesn't have an ISO country code. It does, however, have an ISO subdivision code.

"Thus there is already a valid Unicode emoji flag for Tibet, as a subdivision of China," Mark Davis, co-founder and president of the Unicode consortium, told Techworld. "The images for valid flag emoji are not specified by Unicode."

The proposal advice on the Unicode website explains that only a handful of the 5,000 or so of these subdivisions have RGI emoji, as providing this "can appear to play favourites unless similar subdivisions also get flags". Proposals to add subdivision flags as RGI are brought to the attention of vendors at quarterly Unicode Technical Committee meetings. 

Currently, the only RGI subdivision flags are those of England, Scotland and Wales – although notably not Northern Ireland's. Jeremy Burge, Chief Emoji Officer at Emojipedia and a member of the emoji subcommittee, told radio station NewsTalk that it had not been selected for RGI because "Northern Ireland has no official flag other than the Union flag".

Taiwan does have an ISO country and its flag is RGI, despite China's claim of sovereignty over the island. It was included in the first release of emoji documentation from Unicode, which was published in 2015.

Since that decision, emojis have become more prominent and China more assertive over its territorial claims. The Hong Kong Press recently reported that Apple had removed the Taiwan flag from the emoji keyboard of users whose iOS region are set to Hong Kong or Macau.

Nonetheless, the Free Tibet emoji campaign now plans to put pressure on the tech companies who are members of the Unicode Subcommittee.

"The large tech firms should also take the initiative," said Jones. "If even one of them were bold enough to go ahead with the proposal, it would send a clear message to Tibetans that they are included, and might inspire other companies to follow their lead."

Need for transparency? 

Unicode publish detailed guidance on the emoji registration process and its members were responsive to Techworld's queries, but the Emoji Subcommittee has faced accusations of lacking transparency. 

Lilian Stolk, a researcher on image-based communication and the author of book about emojiis, is developing a system she thinks could help: a web-based "Emoji Voter" that allows the public to express their views on proposals received by the Unicode Consortium. The app is due to be released on 14 November.

"I find it weird that companies decide which symbols are installed on our keyboard and thus determine which emoji we can send to our friends," she said. "Imagine if they would determine with which words we can communicate?

"Moreover, the process is very non-transparent. Even if you delve into it, it's hard to understand. That does not fit with a language that is used by so many people all around the world."