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Understanding the digital trends shaping our world

Web Foundation · July 27, 2017

The Web Foundation fights for digital equality — a world where everyone has access to the web and can use it to improve their lives. To achieve this vision, we need to understand how new technologies are shaping society; where they present opportunities to make people’s lives better, and indeed where they threaten to create harm. Nowhere is this more critical than in low and middle-income countries, which are rarely the focus of research on digital trends and their impacts.

Three transformative trends

To better grasp how emerging technologies are changing our world — focusing on low and middle-income countries — we have commissioned a series of white papers looking into three of the most important digital trends we face: artificial intelligence, algorithms and control of personal data.

The series addresses each of these issues, looking at how they are impacting people’s lives and identifying steps that governments, companies and civil society organisations can take to limit the harms, and maximise benefits, for everyone.

Explore the research

All three issues, working interdependently, are affecting society in profound and varied ways, from upending labour markets and public service delivery, to changing how we interact with companies. While there is much to be excited about, with the growth of new industries and innovative products and services, these trends simultaneously open new avenues that threaten privacy and security, inflict discrimination and create wide scale economic disruption.

Low and middle-income focus

All too often, research and debate are focused on developments in the US, UK and Europe, with actors from elsewhere seldom consulted. We intend these papers to trigger a broader discussion on how AI, algorithms and personal data are currently playing out in low and middle-income countries. If we don’t consider the experiences of a wider range of countries, we will fail to harness unique and valuable diversity of perspectives that can better shape product development and technological trends, as well as inform related policies and standards. We must encourage local tech hubs and civil society to lead the way in driving technical and policy solutions that meet people’s needs.

Fighting for the future of the web

Last March, on the web’s 28th birthday, our founder Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote a letter about what he believed were the biggest challenges facing the web. The challenges he outlined are threefold: we’ve lost control over our personal data; misinformation spreads too easily online; we need more transparency and understanding of digital political advertising.

The three issues covered in these papers — algorithms, AI and personal data — are driving the challenges Sir Tim described, and will no doubt be central features of the web as it enters its fourth decade.

The white papers will now help to refine our thinking and set our work agenda in the years ahead. We are sharing them openly in the hopes that they benefit others working towards our goals, and start a discussion about the steps we can take together to ensure emerging digital technologies are used in ways that benefit people’s lives.

We hope you enjoy the read, and we welcome your feedback. Let’s work together to build a more open web for a more equal world.


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