The US has the opportunity to show positive leadership on technology and human rights, our Director of Policy Emily Sharpe writes as she reflects on key priorities for the incoming Biden-Harris administration.
When President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are sworn in this January, their administration will have an opportunity to demonstrate fresh US leadership on the global stage. From the Covid-19 response to climate policy, to efforts to advance the rights of women and girls, the administration’s actions will have an impact far beyond US borders.
Technology is no exception. As home to global tech companies and as a global investor, what the US does matters for the whole world. The Biden-Harris administration has the chance to establish the country’s status as a constructive norm-setter on tech policy and human rights. At the Web Foundation, we’re working to make sure everyone, everywhere can connect to a web that is safe and empowering, and so we urge this new administration to recognise the far-reaching impact their decisions will have on who can access technology and use it to improve their lives.
With digital challenges on a number of fronts, the world needs the President-elect, the Vice President-elect, and their administration to show positive leadership on technology and to invest in an agenda that contributes to an equal and inclusive digital future across the globe.
Here are three things the new administration can do to show such leadership.
Invest in internet access at home and abroad.
The Covid-19 pandemic has deepened inequalities between those who are connected to the internet and those who are not, especially women and nonbinary people. As the pandemic has demonstrated, internet access is an indispensable lifeline, but half the world is left to navigate the crisis without it.
We welcome the incoming administration’s commitment to expanding connectivity at home, and we’re encouraged that broadband infrastructure investment will be a crucial part of its recovery plan. The US still has deep digital divides. An estimated 42 million Americans don’t have broadband access, with people on low incomes and in rural areas and Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans particularly excluded. By closing these divides and recognising internet access as a basic right, Biden can limit a real driver of inequality and signal to leaders everywhere that increasing meaningful connectivity must be high on their domestic agendas.
We also need to see the administration take a step further by making the expansion of internet access abroad a central pillar of its international development agenda. Internet access is key to achieving all of the world’s Sustainable Development Goals, acting as a critical enabler of so many other development priorities, from education to health, to gender equality and beyond.
Internet access also has a huge role to play in boosting economies, a topic front of mind as the world faces a financial downturn. New research estimates that the internet will contribute $180 billion to the African economy by 2025, driven in large part by increased access to faster and better quality internet connectivity. A major expansion could push this figure far higher.
Universal internet access and all its benefits are within reach, but need political commitment and financial support. The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) has estimated that an additional $428 billion investment over 10 years will be required to achieve universal access by 2030. This figure, which will come from the private sector, governments, and multilateral bodies, is not only achievable, but a great investment.
Put women front and centre of tech policy to tackle gender inequality online.
The web must be safe and empowering for all. But right now, its benefits come with too many risks. Women and nonbinary people in particular are experiencing a surge of violence and abuse online — a shadow pandemic spreading alongside the Covid-19 crisis.
This is unacceptable. We need tech companies and governments to make clear commitments that they will do more to ensure that women and nonbinary people can express themselves equally, freely, and without fear of violence or abuse online. As home to the world’s biggest tech companies, the US approach to regulating the tech sector will have global impact, and the steps the Biden administration takes will play a decisive role in tackling this growing crisis of online violence and abuse against women and nonbinary people. The US government must pass laws protecting human rights, and tech companies must ensure their products and services respect women’s human rights. Our series of consultations have shown that gender-based violence, coupled with lack of action and support by companies and governments, makes women far less likely to use the web and can also lead to threats of violence online manifesting offline.
The President-elect’s plans to convene a national task force on online harassment and abuse is a good start to tackling these issues. It is crucial that the taskforce includes an intersectional perspective that recognises the multiple and overlapping forms of discrimination women face. To prevent and respond to online gender-based violence against women, the administration should adopt and implement gender-senstive laws, policies, practices, and training.
The Biden-Harris administration can do more to close the global digital gender divide and dismantle barriers to women’s online participation by enabling access to affordable and meaningful connectivity and respecting women’s rights (including the right to privacy and protection of personal data) in both its domestic and foreign policy. This should include removing barriers to access and affordability, investing in digital skills education for women and girls, and challenging discriminatory norms and practices that limit women and girls’ full participation in the digital ecosystem. Importantly, the administration must include women, nonbinary people, and those traditionally marginalised in policy discussions and development so their experiences and perspectives can inform inclusive policy strategies.
Champion human rights in the digital sphere.
The US is long overdue in leading constructive policy engagement on human rights in the digital sphere. Now is the time for the US to step up.
For starters, the Biden-Harris administration should endorse the Contract for the Web — a shared roadmap to a safe and empowering online world. This is a critical period for the US to get involved as the Web Foundation guides the Contract’s next steps, focused on accountability, best practices, and innovative policy design, to drive forward sustained, coordinated action to build the web we want. Just as the President-elect has marked his commitment to tackling climate change by rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, he can mark his commitment to multilateral efforts to tackle digital challenges by backing the Contract’s ambitious and collaborative approach.
We need to see the US embark on a program of smart, evidenced-based policymaking and regulatory action, in line with the international human rights framework and in consultation with civil society, academics, citizens, and tech companies. The US has an opportunity to develop forward-thinking approaches to some of the hardest questions of our time, many of which are outlined in the Contract for the Web. How should political advertising be regulated so we hear politican’s views without the harms of microtargeted ads? Can the US pass a strong federal privacy law that protects people’s rights without bombarding them with meaningless or manipulative consent notices? How do we support the free exchange of ideas on the web while limiting harmful and abusive content? These are difficult questions that will require nuanced answers, not political theatre. Tech policy must be based on evidence and a real understanding of how technology works, as well as how it may evolve in the not-too-distant future.
The US has always been a leader in technology and a leader in innovation, and its outsized role in the global tech landscape comes with great responsibility. What the US does truly matters for the whole world, and for our collective digital future. President-elect Biden and his administration have the opportunity to once again show positive US leadership on technology and to work constructively and collaboratively to meet the digital challenges of this moment.
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