Last month, Adrian Lovett joined us as our new President & CEO. Here he writes about why, despite very real challenges, he is optimistic about the future of the web.
In South Africa last week, I was talking with one of our Web Foundation partners about a boy living in a neighbourhood in Pretoria, where our team worked a while back. His parents were worried because their child, ten years old, was regularly staying out late. Why? He was travelling some distance each evening to get to a free wifi hotspot. Explaining his trips, he said: “I live in a shack. But when I go online, I don’t live in a shack.”
When web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee established the Web Foundation in 2009, it was widely agreed that the spread of the web was an unqualified good. Increasing the number of people able to get onto the open web and connect with others, access services, build livelihoods and hold the powerful to account was clearly something to celebrate. And so affordable access to the open web came to be seen not only as a public good, but as a human right.
As we approach the landmark milestone of half the world being connected next year, I am determined that we fight for that human right for every person on the planet. As Sir Tim said: “This is for everyone.”
So it’s interesting that in my first few weeks at the Web Foundation, one of the questions I’ve been asked most often is: am I pessimistic or optimistic about the future of the web?
It’s not a question anyone would have asked ten years ago. But recently, the mood has darkened.
We worry that our democracies are being hijacked by peddlers of online propaganda and that filtered news diets polarise civic discourse. We’re anxious that our privacy is under siege as companies capture more and more of our data and use it in ways few of us understand. We’re concerned that while some people harness the web’s benefits, others are left behind, with women, low-income people and other marginalised groups particularly affected by stubborn digital inequality. We see the risk of artificial intelligence and automation undermining job security and discriminating against the most vulnerable.
Fundamentally, we sense a loss of control. The technology that put us in the driving seat now makes us feel like mere passengers, careering full-speed toward an uncertain future.
And yet, the web has been – and remains – a profound force for improving people’s lives. It has allowed us to better understand and influence the world around us. To make our voices heard. To hold leaders to account. To access products and services in new ways. To connect with friends and family anywhere, anytime. To start businesses and bring creative ideas to life.
The evidence is there. For example, the web delivers financial services to millions otherwise stuck in the informal economy – over 440 million people in 93 countries now use mobile money. The web gives people more control over their health care. According to a Deloitte study, rural villages in India with internet access had 14% lower child mortality rates than villages without access – potentially saving millions of lives. And of course, the web is a great economic force, with some estimating it is now responsible for 20% of the global economy. Governments who opt to shut down the internet pay dearly – up to $3.5 million per day according to a recent study of African economies.
So we have challenges, but we also have choices. The negative vision of the web is a challenge to be confronted, not a conclusion to be accepted.
Tackling these emerging threats will be a big, complex task. It will require citizens around the world to come together and urge governments and companies to take decisions that preserve and enhance the open web as a public good and a basic human right.
Can we extend the web to the whole world, while ensuring it’s a web worth having? I believe we can. As a long-time anti-poverty campaigner I have seen how groups of committed people can solve desperate challenges. Thirty years ago, one in three of us lived in extreme poverty. Now it’s one in ten. That hasn’t happened by accident. It’s the result of people joining hands across continents, insisting that the world can be better, and making change happen.
So I am confident that activists, entrepreneurs, policymakers and internet users everywhere will find creative solutions to the challenges we face. It won’t be easy and there will be setbacks alongside surges. But we can build the web we want, a web worth having. We owe it to that ten-year-old in Pretoria and millions more around the world. Let’s work together to make it happen.