‘3.5 billion people still don’t have access and on current trends, it will be past 2050 before they do. That’s nowhere near good enough.’ writes our President & CEO Adrian Lovett as he reflects on the role the web has played during this Covid-19 crisis.
Time is playing with our minds in 2020. It stands still even as it races forward. More than half the year is already behind us. After a period in the spring that was labelled Peak Uncertainty, perhaps now we are in a summer of Peak Anxiety. With a global coronavirus pandemic and further devastating evidence of systematic racial injustice and gender disparities, 2020 has exposed brutal inequalities, new and old. It isn’t always easy to know what to do – and yet we feel compelled to act, move forward, make up for lost time and find the right response to once-in-a-lifetime challenges.
At the Web Foundation, as we fight for the web we want, we’re not going to proclaim certainty where there is doubt. But I do think these last six months have revealed some truths and cast light on some opportunities and we’ve been working hard to shape the agenda, make the case for action and map a way forward.
Shaping the agenda and demanding action
Covid-19 has shown more than ever that the web is not a luxury – it’s a lifeline. In March I outlined an agenda for action to ensure the web can be part of the solution in this pandemic, not the problem. Since then we’ve published proposals for action in three areas:
- Ensuring everyone can get online, as Covid-19 shows why internet access must be a basic right
- Fighting the global pandemic of misinformation, while protecting free expression
- Using data to fight Covid-19 without lowering the bar for privacy
With a global coronavirus pandemic and further devastating evidence of systematic racial injustice and gender disparities, 2020 has exposed brutal inequalities, new and old.
Already we’ve seen some concrete responses to our proposals. WhatsApp introduced stricter limits on forwarding messages in an effort to curb misinformation, in line with our policy recommendations. Twitter announced a test aimed at limiting the spread of misinformation, including Covid-19 misinformation, by nudging people to think before they share articles they haven’t read. And we’re meeting with Facebook to advocate for the implementation of human rights impact assessments across their products and services, especially when it comes to Covid-19 misinformation, hate speech and the harassment of women.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has brought into even sharper focus the need to bridge the gender digital divide. On the web’s 31st birthday, our co-founder Sir Tim Berners-Lee underlined that the web needs to work better for women and girls, pointing to challenges in access, safety and online discrimination. On this too, we have much work to do.
Making the case for the web as a universal human right
We’re making our case for action in support of this agenda. Tim made a passionate argument for a new push to get the web to the whole world as a universal right, through this recorded spoken essay for the BBC, and in this opinion piece for the Guardian. He joined the UN Secretary General and others to virtually launch the UN Digital Cooperation Roadmap, and I made my own remarks to the UN calling for universal internet access paired with action to ensure our digital technologies are safe and trustworthy. Sonia Jorge, the Executive Director of our Alliance for Affordable Internet made the case in Reuters that this right to internet access must go beyond a basic connection — and that the pandemic and protests of 2020 have underlined how important it is that everyone has Meaningful Connectivity.
Mapping the way forward
So where next? We’re mapping a way forward on three tracks:
Firstly, we need an all-out push to get the world connected to the web, and in a way which makes a real difference. For those who have it, the web is a lifeline right now. But 3.5 billion people still don’t have access and on current trends, it will be past 2050 before they do. That’s nowhere near good enough. So with the Alliance for Affordable Internet, we’ve mapped out a new standard for ‘Meaningful Connectivity’, where everyone has the data, devices and speeds they need to truly benefit from all the web has to offer. Basic access alone is no solution: it must meet standards which allow users to truly harness the transformational power of digital technology.
3.5 billion people still don’t have access and on current trends, it will be past 2050 before they do. That’s nowhere near good enough.
Secondly, as more people connect to the web, it must also be a web worth having. That means action now to fix the problems of the web – and our focus is on driving forward an effort to combat the growing scourge of online gender-based violence, by convening consultations where women’s rights organisations and tech companies co-create solutions, listening to and understanding the needs of women who use and are impacted by companies’ products and services, and designing policy and product solutions that are accountable to women and girls. Meanwhile, we’re working with fantastic partners across Africa, Asia and Latin America to close the digital gender gap through our Women’s Rights Online program.
And finally, while we focus on immediate challenges we must also fight for the future of the web. 2020 has shown us in stark ways that we also need to build further the Contract for the Web, bringing together companies, governments and citizens with a set of commitments behind an action plan to protect the web as a public good for everyone. We’ve been working on the Contract’s roadmap for the next five years, including laying out plans to develop more detailed policy recommendations and to hold endorsing organisations accountable in implementing the Contract’s clauses. There will be more to come on this in the second half of the year.
Our vision of an open web for a more equal world has never been more important. We’re determined to redouble our efforts in this moment of anxiety and use it for good. We know we can’t do it alone, and we’re constantly inspired, challenged and encouraged by so many friends and partners. Thank you for all you do.
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