From artificial intelligence and automation, to the billions of unconnected people being left behind in the digital economy, there is no shortage of reasons to question whether technology and the internet have entrenched or even worsened inequality. As world leaders gather in Davos this week for the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting, WEF’s latest report highlighted growing inequality as the top global risk for 2017, and noted technology’s role in this divide.
But we are not on a predetermined path. The story of our future does not have to be one where only a few elites capture access to and benefits of the internet and technology. An alternative, positive vision of our digital future — where everyone is connected, has an equal voice and equal opportunity to engage in 21st century society using the web — is possible. Responsive, responsible leadership — the theme of WEF 2017 — means choosing it.
What steps must responsive, responsible leaders in government and business alike take to put us on the path towards digital equality?
1. Decentralise control over technology and the web
As the power and benefits of digital technology grow, so does the harm caused by unequal access to and control over that technology. We are moving towards a future where a handful of governments and companies can control the vast majority of what the world’s population access online, and to where increasingly powerful and opaque algorithms decide what news we see, what services we are offered, and even what our jail sentences will be if we commit a crime.
Responsible leadership means making sure this technology is rooted in strong regulatory frameworks that protect it from control by any one interest. We need to diversify gatekeepers of the web’s information and use the web to make government more transparent to citizens using open data. Governments must recognise that digital rights are human rights, updating legal frameworks as needed. Companies must recognise the fundamental role they have to play, and commit to making algorithms fair, open and auditable.
2. Protect and enhance the online rights of women and girls
There’s no delicate way to put this — the internet is sexist. Women and girls are less likely to be online than men around the world — up to 50% less likely in some poor urban communities according to our research. And, once online, women are far less likely than men to use the web to better their lives through finding a job, accessing education or speaking out on political matters. Meanwhile, 74% of countries do not have effective laws or policies in place to stop online violence against women.
It’s time to address this gender inequality. We want to see governments put gender equality in access and use at the heart of their broadband policies, and to see companies support this with real investment and opportunities for their own employees. In addition, countries must pass and enforce laws that punish online gender violence in a meaningful way, while companies such as social networks must up their game in protecting women from hate speech, abuse or violence.
3. Connect everyone
Over half of the world’s population is still not online. UN Special Rapporteur on the right to free expression David Kaye has said that today, being offline is equivalent to being silenced. If we want our world to be truly inclusive, if we want a future created for and by everyone, if we want everyone to have a chance at participating in the global economy, we must include everyone where this future is being built — online.
Research from the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), a Web Foundation initiative, shows that unless we dramatically accelerate progress, only 16% of people in the world’s poorest countries will be connected by 2020, further deepening inequality. To help reverse this trend, the Web Foundation supports A4AI’s calls for a new target for internet affordability — 1 GB of data for less than 2% of monthly income — in tandem with widespread and well-resourced public access programmes. Leaders from both the public and private sector must unite to progress these goals.
4. Protect privacy and encryption
As more and more of all of our lives move online, responsible leadership at both companies and governments is critical to keeping our most personal data and information secure. This means both rebalancing how much control consumers have over their data, and ensuring encryption is protected.
It also means rolling back mass surveillance programmes. In 2016, we saw an alarming trend for countries to put in place or accelerate such programmes. Perhaps the most high-profile is the UK’s IP Act, which collects the browsing history of every Briton, and makes it available to almost 50 government departments. For the internet to serve as a safe, private space, each of us must be able to browse without worrying that a government is collecting data on our most intimate thoughts. Governments must disavow these disproportionate initiatives, and companies must stand up against unwarranted government data requests, publishing annual transparency reports to reassure users.
5. Guarantee net neutrality globally
The web changed the world because anyone, anywhere could create a web page without asking for permission, and everyone who was online had access to the same web. If we want to continue to see innovation and creativity flourish online, we must protect one of the core principles that has made the internet an engine for opportunity: net neutrality. This means ensuring equality of internet traffic and avoiding price discrimination.
We have already seen net neutrality protected in a number of countries — from Italy to Brazil to India to the United States. But for everyone to benefit from the web and its full potential, we need net neutrality to be protected in every country. Governments must enshrine net neutrality into law, while companies should make a public pledge not to advance business models that violate net neutrality.
Responsive and responsible leadership is needed now as much as ever — and WEF is right to highlight rising inequality, in no small part due to technology. We must act now to reverse the trend and make the web and technology a force for equal opportunity. The Web Foundation is dedicated to this mission, and we invite you to join us.
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