World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee said Thursday the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates “the gross inequality” of a world where almost half the population is unable to connect to the internet.
He told a high-level U.N. meeting “our number one focus must be to close the digital divide.”
Some 3.5 billion people have missed out on the “lifeline” the internet has provided during the coronavirus crisis that has enabled work, education and social connections online, Berners-Lee said.
“This inequality is a barrier to wider equality, and we know it most affects those who are already marginalized — people in developing countries, those on low incomes, and of course, women and girls, he said. “Men remain 21 percent more likely than women to be online, and 52 percent more likely in the least developing countries.”
He spoke at the online launch of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.
Just last year on the 30th “birthday” of the web, Berners-Lee lamented lack of progress and what he sees as misuse of the web,
“The web has become a public square, a library, a doctor’s office, a shop, a school, a design studio, an office, a cinema, a bank, and so much more. Of course with every new feature, every new website, the divide between those who are online and those who are not increases, making it all the more imperative to make the web available for everyone.
“And while the web has created opportunity, given marginalised groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.
“Against the backdrop of news stories about how the web is misused, it’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good. But given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30. If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web.”
A first step toward improvement now is to develop new financial models to provide affordable connectivity to the Internet for everyone by 2030.
Tackling inequality requires raising the bar from basic access to ensuring that people have “meaningful connectivity” to the Internet “that must include data and devices to use the full power of it,” Berners-Lee said.
When people do get online, they must also find that it is safe, participants said.
The digital world has many benefits, but also has been “gravely misused,” Guterres said.
“Hate speech, discrimination and abuse are on the march in digital spaces,” the U.N. chief said. “Misinformation campaigns put health and lives at risk. … Life-threatening cyber attacks on hospital systems threaten to disrupt lifesaving care.”
The Roadmap for Digital Cooperation aims “to connect, respect, and protect people in the digital age” by promoting open data, open artificial intelligence and financing models and open source software, Guterres said.
It also calls for expanded training, data protection and privacy, and offers the U.N. as a platform for cooperation to ensure that artificial intelligence is trustworthy, respects human rights and promotes peace.
“Unless we address digital instability and inequality, they will continue to exacerbate physical instability and inequality,” Guterres said, warning that digital divides risk becoming “the new face of insecurity and conflict.”
An internet Roadmap
The World Wide Web Foundation, co-founded by Berners-Lee, helped develop the Roadmap. Last year it launched the “Contract for the Web,” a global action plan for governments, companies and civil society to counter growing anti-democratic activity on the internet and keep knowledge freely available.
The contract has 1,300 endorsements and the foundation is developing ways for governments and companies to show how they’re living up to commitments to achieve a “safe and empowering web, connecting the unconnected, respecting privacy (and) fighting misinformation,” Berners-Lee said.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, internet usage has jumped 70 percent, the use of communication apps has grown by 300 percent and virtual collaboration tools by 600 percent. Some video streaming services have grown 20-fold, said Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the World Economic Forum.
But he said only about half of the world has internet access. Of the 25 least connected countries, 21 are in Africa.
The World Economic Forum has worked with the industry partners, the International Telecommunication Union, the World Bank and GSM — which represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide — and others to develop plans for private-public collaboration on expanding digital connectivity.
“This has already been shared with 170 countries and is in active use,” he said. “This fast track partnership is deeply encouraging.”
Schwab called for “ambitious” action on digital access and investment in innovative financing models. He noted only 1% of funding from global development banks goes to digital infrastructure.
Redefining rules for cyberspace is just as important as building digital infrastructure, said Ajay Banga, incoming chair of the International Chamber of Commerce and the president and CEO of Mastercard.
“Now is the time to focus on protecting the entire digital ecosystem and a global population of users rather than discreet parts of the system,” Banga said.
“We must rebuild better, more resilient, more inclusive,” Vodaphone CEO Nick Read told the forum. “The (U.N.) roadmap is crucial for this.”