At the European Parliament’s “Ideas for a new world” dialogue, Sir Tim Berners-Lee makes the case for recognising internet access as a human right and challenges the EU to make a better, safer, more empowering digital world a reality. Read his remarks in full below.
President Sassoli, President von der Leyen, Professor Prodi, distinguished guests. It’s an honour to introduce a dialogue that is so important to me. Thank you for the invitation.
The moment we are in
On March 12th this year, we marked the 31st birthday of the World Wide Web. But as we reflected on all the web has become over more than three decades, we could not ignore that we were on the brink of crisis.
The day before that anniversary in March, Italy closed shops and venues across the country; Austria closed all its schools; Ireland and Sweden recorded their first deaths from coronavirus; the United Nations reported that 20% of the world’s students were already out of the classroom; and the World Health Organisation officially declared the outbreak a pandemic. All in that one day.
The seven months since have seen serious hardship here in Europe and around the world. The cost of the pandemic has been unprecedented.
And yet, as bad as it has been, imagine a crisis like this but without the web. With having access to the web, employees can work from home and keep economies afloat; governments and others are able to disseminate vital health information; families can keep in touch; students, if they are lucky, are able to keep their education intact and their dreams alive by learning online.
In this crisis, for those who have it, the web is not a luxury. It’s a lifeline.
Where it began
31 years ago, I was a software engineer at CERN in Geneva. It was there that I wrote a memo outlining an idea for what later became the World Wide Web. My boss, Mike Sendall, agreed to allow me to work on this as a skunkworks project between the serious physics projects. His original copy of the memo was found 10 years later with a handwritten comment in the margin which read: “Vague, but exciting”. I have always been grateful that he didn’t think “Exciting, but vague” or we may not all be where we are today.
In the years that followed, it became clear to me that the web should not be owned by any single individual, corporation, or government. It had to belong to everyone.
In fact, it was the expression of a set of values that are very familiar to many people in this virtual room today, and to citizens across Europe. Enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights are the rights to free expression and association, human dignity, the protection of personal data, non-discrimination and gender equality, the right to education, and the freedom to work and conduct a business.
Those very same values — universal human rights — are woven into the web. It was created with technology. But it was created FOR humanity.
The web we want
That’s why I agree with President Sassoli when he says that our discussions about the digital world must be anchored not only in technical issues but in human rights and justice. The internet is not just a technology. It is knowledge, it is opportunity, it is empowerment. It is critical to life in today’s world.
So today I want to urge you to recognise internet access as a human right; to work with me, the World Wide Web Foundation I co-founded, and citizens across Europe to ensure that the internet is safe and empowering for everyone; and to come together in support of the Contract for the Web — the first global plan of action for the web we want.
I am a technologist who cares deeply about the social implications of the technology that I and others have created. You are policymakers who care deeply about the role of technology in your constituents’ lives. The Contract for the Web is designed to create a community of people like us — with diverse perspectives and expertise — to work together to build the web we want.
Internet access as a human right
A few moments ago I asked you to imagine living through this pandemic without the web. This is in fact the reality for almost half the world.
3.5 billion people still don’t have internet access. Based on current trends, it will be later than 2050 by the time they do, far short of the UN Sustainable Development Goal to achieve universal connectivity.
Also, as it is today, men are 21% more likely to be online than women — this rises to 52% in the world’s least developed countries.
This is not just a problem far from home. Here in Europe, 43% of citizens don’t have the digital skills necessary to search for information on the web, send emails, make video calls, shop or pay their bills online. In Spain, 19% of citizens do not own a computer.
Every year since I invented the web, its importance in people’s lives has grown. At the same time, the disenfranchisement of those who can’t connect has grown, too.
Web access is now a prerequisite for many of the Sustainable Development Goals — from supporting education and reducing inequalities, driving economic growth and boosting health outcomes.
As the Covid-19 crisis deepens the inequalities between those who are connected and those who are not, we must accelerate the building of a world where everyone — especially women and girls — can access the internet. To do that, we must recognise internet access as a new human right and work to close the digital divide as an international priority.
A safe and empowering web
Access to the web is just the beginning. Our online world must be safe and empowering for everyone. But it is currently falling short of that promise.
The web’s benefits come with many risks — to our privacy, our democracy, our health, and our security.
I’m particularly concerned about online harms facing women and girls — especially those who disproportionately experience intersectional discrimination due to their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other identities.
As the web reshapes our world, we have a responsibility to make sure it works for all of humanity, not just a privileged few.
Frameworks for action
So how do we achieve our ambitions for a digital world that is truly safe and empowering for everyone? The good news is, we don’t have to start from scratch.
Action to ensure human rights are protected online can build on the rights we’ve established offline. Europe’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and other human rights frameworks give us the bedrock we need.
The United Nations has engaged in this work through its Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. If a safe and empowering web for everyone is our destination, implementing this Roadmap will help us get there.
And as a vehicle to carry us on that journey, we have the Contract for the Web.
For the Web Foundation and our partners, the work on the Contract for the Web started with nine high-level principles that ensure our human rights are respected and protected online. For example, governments must ensure everyone can connect to the internet, while companies must respect people’s privacy to build online trust. On top of those principles we built a number of specific clauses — for governments, for companies, and for all of us as digital citizens.
I am proud that so far, more than 1,300 companies and civil society organisations have signed the Contract for the Web, from Microsoft to Reporters Without Borders.
I’m also proud that governments here in Europe have stepped forward: The French government, led by the Digital Minister, who shared the stage with me as we launched the Contract. The German government, who served on the Contract Core Group, and the Italian and Spanish governments who provided key support.
Now, we ask you to go further.
The Contract for the Web is about to enter a new phase, as we move from words to action. And the nations, institutions, and citizens of Europe have a huge role to play.
The World Wide Web was born in Europe, and the European Union has played a leading role in setting evidence-based standards promoting a web available to everyone that enshrines human rights.
To continue playing a leading role, I urge EU policymakers to be ambitious, inclusive, and collaborative in setting the tech policy agenda for the decades to come.
To be ambitious means getting behind the UN goal to deliver universal internet access.
It’s an ambitious target, but not an impossible one. We have the technology to do it, but we need the political commitment, the collaboration, and the funding for internet infrastructure, device affordability, and digital skills training.
The Alliance for Affordable Internet, an initiative of the Web Foundation, has calculated that around 430 billion US Dollars of additional investment is needed over 10 years to hit this target. This is a number that is realistically within our means. The world spends the same amount on carbonated soft drinks every year. Connecting the world will have incredible social and economic returns on this investment.
To be inclusive in setting the agendameans to truly make the web a web for everyone, as I first intended.
Policymakers must protect individuals against discrimination online, particularly those who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination. They must also develop laws targeting the crisis of online gender-based violence and abuse. For example, the Digital Services Act presents an important opportunity to address this crisis as part of a comprehensive framework that prevents and combats violence against women and girls.
Finally, being collaborative means recognising that the challenges facing the web are challenges we can only solve together, as a multi-stakeholder group each playing our role. That is governments setting public policy, companies building tools that promote the best of humanity and challenge the worst, and citizens pressing governments and companies to make the right changes and themselves contributing constructively and discerningly online.
All of this collaboration needs to be based on the foundation of evidence. I urge you to work alongside academics, civil society, and technologists to ensure tech policy is rooted in evidence and in a deep understanding of how technology works — as well as how it may evolve in the not-too-distant future.
It’s clear that we must build a better, safer, more empowering digital world.
We need governments, companies, civil society, and citizens to work together now to create this digital future. A future where internet access is understood — and realised — as a basic human right.
The Contract for the Web will help us get there — through an ambitious, inclusive, and collaborative approach.
As stewards of the Contract for the Web, the Web Foundation will work with partners to gather best practices and share this knowledge to encourage others to follow suit. We’ll also work with governments, companies and civil society to develop an open, inquisitive, and collaborative approach to regulation through best-in-class technology policies.
I ask you to join this fight for the web we want by endorsing the Contract for the Web and working with us to achieve this vision.
We must act, and we must act now, to connect all of the world and fight tirelessly for a better web for everyone.
And, so Your excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce this dialogue on internet access as a new human right.
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