Health of World Wide Web - 30 years old
Updated: Oct 30, 2020
In July of 2019, I found myself in sunny Tangier in Morocco. This was my first visit to the African continent. I was understandably excited. Internet experts, Corporates, Activists and Policy makers had come together for a 3 day conference on driving Africa's internet story further. Incidentally, this was also the 30th anniversary year since the. invention of World Wide Web or Internet as we know it.
With some of the foremost voices on internet access and democratisation of data across the African continent, CyFy 2019, organised by ORF India was an annual congregation of impactful stakeholders shaping Africa's internet.
Among the dozen conversations I had with some of the most illuminating minds at CyFy 2019, one chat particularly stood out for me. With Ingrid. The world celebrated 30 years of the World Wide Web in 2019. Yup. Sharing vacation photos on the 'gram, cat videos, memes, social media, all of the web shows on OTT apps. It's no older than 30 years.
And what was true for the internet in 2019 is truer in 2020. The internet, despite its inherent goodness, has become a rather inequitable and hostile place for women across the world. I spoke with Ingrid Brudvig, Gender Policy Manager at the World Wide Web Foundation about the cracks in today's internet and how can we overcome them. Here are the highlights from my conversation.
Ankit: "I have with me Ingrid Brudvig, she's the gender Policy Manager at World Wide Web foundation. For people who may not necessarily be aware of World Wide Web foundation is the foundation, that Sir Tim berners Lee, he chairs, right? And so Tim berners Lee is the man thanks to who you are watching this right now, on the World Wide Web. He invented the World Wide Web. So Ingrid, there's a bunch of questions I have for you on the health of the World Wide Web as of today, in 2019, just a couple of months ago, we celebrated our 30th birthday of the World Wide Web. And I think it's safe to say that web is having some sort of a delayed quarterlife crisis, which generally comes in around 25. But around 30, the World Wide Web is going through a major crisis. There's a lot of negativity. There's a lot of hate speech. There are a lot of organized bad actors. There's terrorism. There is fake news, misinformation. And this is not to say that internet is not doing a whole lot of good. It's doing remarkable things. And it enriches our life, healthcare, financial e-governance, all of it. So talk to us about what, according to you, is the health report of the World Wide Web? And what are some of the biggest challenges?" (I know I ask long questions :P)
Ingrid: "Absolutely. Well, the state of the web right now is of great importance, not only to the World Wide Web Foundation, but it should be to everyone. We live our lives on the web and the Internet, and it fuels how we connect with each other & form relationships, our family, our economic opportunities, our political and civic voice. So it is the state of the web and where we're going in terms of internet policies, and especially around connecting the next 50% of the world, should really be of interest to everyone. On that, we we have reached a point in the web's history where we have connected 50% of the world. Okay, so out of 7 billion plus people on the planet, almost 50% of them have internet access. We've reached that 50% mark in 30 years. Yes. And the real growth has really just come about in the last 10 years or so. Yes, a hockey stick graph that we see. And I think it's really important to note that the access gaps are very pervasive across geographies, across countries, within countries, particularly related to income. Affordability is a major barrier. There are high gender gaps in access and use of the web."
Ankit: "So now, 50% of seven, seven plus billion people have internet. What is the gender ratio over there? About three, three and a half billion people? How many percent is male internet users? How many percent is female?"
Ingrid: "Yeah. Well, the gap is pervasive, and it's different across countries.
Overall, it's been recognized that women are 23% less likely to be on on the web than men.
We did research a few years ago for part of our women's rights online research initiative, where we actually surveyed women and men in urban poor communities across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And our assumption is that if we're looking at urban areas where there are higher rates of connectivity, generally higher income areas, income earners, there may be a lesser gender gap. And we found that, that is not the case across all geographies, collectively, women were 50% less likely to be online than men. What is the reason? There are major barriers, including, as I mentioned, affordability and exorbitant costs.
the internet is actually unaffordable in 60% of countries. And of course, it is compounded for women who generally are not primary income earners, the gender pay gap.
There are you know, gender and social norms around women's access to mobility in public spaces and public life. We're seeing high incidences of patriarchy. The fear for patriarchal setups and societies is that, the more women have access to internet or information, the more enlightened versions of themselves we will be and hence challenge the state. They will want to go to school and push for change in their living conditions and lifestyle and things like that. It's such an important domain for social organizing and access to information and information is power. And in our research, we looked at whether women who are online, are they using the internet to to search and access information. And we found on the whole, that it's very limited. You know, in terms of women actively searching for information on legal rights, sex, sexual reproductive health rights, searching for a job is comparatively limited.
And so there is a very worrying trend, that woman's access is actually confined to Facebook and social media platforms. And that sort of access to information in a walled garden could actually be detrimental to women's informational lives.
Ankit: "We heard this at Cy-Fy conference a lot, about how literally eat American companies pretty much control the internet for majority of the planet's internet users. And among these eight companies are Facebook, Amazon, there's Apple, there's Netflix and Google, and couple of others. And Sir Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web has been extremely vocal about his desire to decentralize the power from these eight technological companies. Talk to us about why and how."
Ingrid: "Absolutely. Well, the World Wide Web was founded based on principles of openness and universality. So that anyone should be able to connect from anywhere and access any content and access each other. And this kind of collaboration is created with the web that we know today.
And the risk of centralization, is really a threat to the worldwide web itself. So you know, there definitely needs to be greater regulation, it needs to involve governments, companies, civil society, and individuals. And we work with various stakeholders through multi stakeholder processes and alliances. For example, we,
the World Wide Web Foundation, run an initiative called the Alliance for affordable internet, which brings together governments, ICT regulators, companies, civil society, to transform the policy and regulatory environment to bring down the cost of access. Similar models need to take place in conversation with these big technology corporations.
I think it's also around how do we introduce ethics and responsibility in their role to the greater public good, and to public society. And so we are in the process of writing with a variety of different multi stakeholders a 'contract for the web', that puts this responsibility back. You know, first, responsibility is around around access, closing the access gap towards privacy and data rights towards technology as a public good. And so this 'contract for the web' has been endorsed by over 200 companies. Globally, several governments, over 100 civil society organizations and many individuals."
Ankit: "So what are some of the highlights of this contract for the web?"
Ingrid: "Well, there are overarching principles which are currently through working groups. The contract itself is being fleshed out in Britain. So it will be launched later this year, in 2019. But I do encourage you all to follow the process of the contract and see what's been taught at contractfortheweb.org.
Ankit: "And that's literally my next and last question to you, what work is World wide web Foundation doing to make sure that the web remains inclusive for all sections of the society, minorities, women, even though women are not minorities, in real world, in offline world, but on the internet, they are massive minorities. So how can that balance? And how long will it take in terms of the number of years and effort to make it an equitable 50-50 kind of an increment?"
Ingrid: "Yeah, that's a great question. And in fact, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal has set some very concrete targets around developing policies that would promote women's empowerment through the internet. There is a specific target around achieving universal affordable internet access by 2020. Clearly, we are lagging. So we have actually been monitoring country's policy commitments and progress towards closing the digital gender gap and towards digital gender equality. And we have come up with a specific set of policy recommendations and overarching framework, which I think is really central to addressing what you're asking. This is like it's an instruction manual exact for governments for policymakers, take this handbook or playbook and do this. Yes. So it is easily remembered as REACT. So you're going to focus on Rights, ensuring that human rights and women's rights are upheld in all technology policies and spaces. Monitor how technology is influencing women's rights and human rights eg around education. Investing in digital education and capacity building at home educational levels. 'A' would be around access closing the access gap by prioritizing affordability, right policies to promote competitive marketplace for you to bring down the cost to connect right? 'C' would be around content, which is really around diversifying language, people's contributions storytelling onto the web. You know, there's such a dearth of relevant content in local languages. And we've seen wherever provided people thrown to the internet or thrown to these online communities because they've been represented. And it should be a space where everyone everyone is able to to contribute. And. 'T' is by the way, being around targets and setting gender policy targets. You know, this is our framework, we would love to hear from you about this."
I know this has been a long read, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on how you think India is making the internet more equitable and gender balanced. My DMs are always open to discuss India's Internet and it's health. I hope you're staying safe and sane in this unprecedented year.