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A roadmap to the web we want

Web Foundation · June 24, 2020

Adrian Lovett, President and CEO of the Web Foundation, last week participated in the launch of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. Adrian called for universal internet access to be made an urgent priority, paired with action to ensure our digital technologies are safe and trustworthy. Read Adrian’s remarks in full below. 

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen; thank you for the opportunity to join this very timely discussion.

We all know that digital technology and the web are today embedded at the heart of our societies. It’s how we talk to each other, learn about the world, bank, shop and, increasingly, how we access government services and even vote. And with Covid-19, we have turned to the web like never before. 

If digitisation is to continue to play such a central role in our world, two things are absolutely clear: these technologies must be available for everyone, everywhere, and they must be safe and trusted. 

A safe and empowering web is our destination. And the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation will help us get there. 

I’d like to suggest four areas where action is needed and which might inform the declaration being considered today.

Closing the digital divide

First, as we build a digital world that is secure, safe and empowering, we must not forget that half the world can’t access the web at all. 

I’d like to echo the words of Sir Tim-Berners-Lee, who founded the Web Foundation that I lead. As he said at the launch of the Roadmap last week: “Our number one focus must be to close the digital divide.”

We need to do it quickly. We have a UN Sustainable Development Goal to connect everyone in the world by this year. We have a target of the UN Broadband Commission — of which I’m a member — to ensure three-quarters of the world’s people are connected by 2025. We are currently set to fail on both these targets. And this at a time when we know more than ever, in this global pandemic, that access to the web is not a luxury. It is a lifeline. It should be seen as hardly less fundamental a need than clean water or basic education. 

We need to be ambitious, going beyond basic access to embrace meaningful connectivity so that people have the data, speeds and devices they need to use the full power of the web. As the members of the Alliance for Affordable Internet — a coalition we proudly host and lead here at the Web Foundation — have said, we can no longer see digital access as simply ‘off’ or ‘on’. Without meaningful connectivity, the true value of the web — one with trust and security at its heart — will remain out of reach.

A safer, better web

Second, while access is half the battle, getting online is not enough. We want people to connect not just to any web, but a safe, healthy and secure one. And on that, there are some specific risks for particular groups of people. 

One of the biggest threats is the rising tide of online violence and abuse. Women bear the brunt of this, and women of colour in particular. A Web Foundation survey found that 52% of young women and girls had experienced online abuse. And the problem has grown worse with Covid-19.  The Web Foundation is now working with women’s rights organisations and major tech platforms to build innovative policy and product solutions to tackle this problem. 

It’s also vital that governments and companies recognise the special status of children in the digital world. Children must be protected online just as they should be in the ‘real’ world. I’ve been proud to work on this as a member of the UN Broadband Commission, and I’m glad that the next session today will address this and you’ll hear from the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. 

And as Kate O’Sullivan just highlighted, sophisticated cyber attacks threaten our most important national infrastructure, from energy grids and communications networks through to our basic democractic processes. I recently joined Microsoft and others in a call for governments to protect the healthcare sector from attacks that threaten the hospitals fighting to keep people alive during this pandemic. 

Data and privacy: avoiding a false choice

My third point is this: In building a digital world where trust and security are paramount, we need to avoid the sense of a false choice between the effective use of data and the necessary safeguards to protect privacy. There can be no better example of this than the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic we are all now facing. 

One of the earliest examples of epidemiology was in 19th century Britain, when there was a widespread belief that diseases like cholera and bubonic plague were caused by polluted air. As a cholera outbreak took hold in central London, it was data that challenged this incorrect theory of transmission, plotting cases and observing that they were clustered around a water pump in the Soho area of the city, identifying the pump as the source, removing the pump handle and solving the problem.

Today, we have the potential to access data in far greater volumes and use it to understand how and where Covid-19 is spreading and to develop strategies to tackle it. But many people, given recent experience, are understandably deeply concerned about the idea of volumes of their personal data in the hands of companies and governments.

This debate is often framed as a “trade off” between privacy and public health. In order to beat the disease and end the crisis, the argument goes, we should accept some exceptional compromises to our privacy. But this binary framing presents a false choice. Privacy should always be prioritised when data is collected and used. And effective privacy laws and frameworks are designed to allow for the use of data when essential to public health and in the public interest, while guarding against improper intrusions to our privacy.

So, we should push back on governments or companies who seek to use Covid-19 as an excuse to collect and use people’s data in ways that are inconsistent with human rights and the rule of law. And given that this data exists, let’s make sure it does more than serve us ever more targeted online ads. At a moment like this, where our data really can benefit ourselves and others, let’s make sure it’s as useful as possible — while ensuring our privacy remains protected. 

Building vehicles for the roadmap

Let me turn to my fourth and final point. A safe and empowering web for everyone is our destination. The Roadmap for Digital Cooperation helps us see the routes to getting there. But a road map needs vehicles too. One powerful vehicle we have at our disposal is the Contract for the Web

Launched by Sir Tim Berners-Lee at last year’s Internet Governance Forum in Berlin, the Contract for the Web lists the high-level principles and the concrete commitments needed by governments, companies and all of us as citizens, to get us to the web we want.  

Already 1,300 organisations have endorsed the Contract, including tech firms with global reach, businesses at national level in countries around the world, NGOs and activist groups, academics and many more. We’re now developing ways for endorsers to demonstrate how they’re living up to their commitments. 

We’re pushing for governments and companies to showcase their best practices. We want to see governments in a ‘race to the top’ to develop the best national policies to ensure digital trust and security for all their citizens, and companies competing to design privacy settings that actually deliver meaningful transparency and control to consumers.

I’m pleased to see the Contract for the Web included in the Roadmap as one of the important multi-stakeholder efforts addressing rising threats in the online world, alongside others like the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise and the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace.

We need all these vehicles to help us get to our destination: a safe and empowering digital world for all the world’s people. And we need the convening power of the United Nations and its digital roadmap to help us get there.

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