World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee on Friday marked the 32nd birthday his digital innovation by arguing that "we must recognize internet access as a basic right and we must work to make sure all young people can connect to a web that gives them the power to shape their world."
Noting that the milestone comes a day after the one-year anniversary of health experts declaring the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, Berners-Lee and World Wide Web Foundation co-founder Rosemary Leith wrote in a blog post that "as we repair and rebuild, we have an opportunity to reimagine our world and create something better. The web's power to catalyze change can and must help shape the world we want."
"Through funding for network infrastructure, subsidies, and support for community networks, we can get the web into the hands of every young person on Earth."
—Tim Berners-Lee and Rosemary Leith, World Wide Web Foundation
A critic of Big Tech firms and the global digital divide, Berners-Lee has long advocated for internet practices and policies that serve "humanity, science, knowledge, and democracy." To that end, the computer scientist unveiled in 2018 what he described as a "Magna Carta for the web."
Berners-Lee and Leith noted that the foundation is establishing a Tech Policy Design Lab to help realize the vision laid out in that "Contract for the Web," beginning with bringing together tech companies and women's rights groups to address online gender-based violence and abuse, particular against young women.
The pair also celebrated young people who are "using the web to create a better, fairer future," highlighting nine examples of individuals whose work "demonstrates this incredible potential" and "show how, in the hands of this generation, the web can help to overcome some of humanity's great challenges."
Across the globe, young people see the web as a tool to fight for justice, expand opportunities, and find solutions to pressing problems.
— Tim Berners-Lee (@timberners_lee) March 12, 2021
"The influence of these young people is felt across their communities and online networks," they wrote. "But today we're seeing just a fraction of what's possible. Because while we talk about a generation of 'digital natives,' far too many young people remain excluded and unable to use the web to share their talents and ideas."
As Berners-Lee and Leith detailed:
A third of young people have no internet access at all. Many more lack the data, devices, and reliable connection they need to make the most of the web. In fact, only the top third of under-25s have a home internet connection, according to UNICEF, leaving 2.2 billion young people without the stable access they need to learn online, which has helped so many others continue their education during the pandemic.
When young people do get online, too often they are confronted with abuse, misinformation, and other dangerous content, which threatens their participation and can force them from platforms altogether. This is especially true for those disproportionately targeted on the basis of their race, religion, sexuality, abilities, and gender.
The consequences of this exclusion affects everyone. How many brilliant young minds fall on the wrong side of the digital divide? How many voices of would-be leaders are being silenced by a toxic internet?
"Every young person who can't connect represents a lost opportunity for new ideas and innovations that could serve humanity," they added, specifically calling for massive investment in infrastructure as well as improvements in technology to promote access to the internet while making "users' rights and well-being a top priority."
"Through funding for network infrastructure, subsidies, and support for community networks, we can get the web into the hands of every young person on Earth," they wrote, citing an estimate from the foundation's Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) that a $428 billion investment over a decade would provide everyone around the world with a quality broadband connection.
"While we work to get all young people connected, we must also make sure technology is helpful, not harmful; inclusive, not exclusive," the pair emphasized. "Tech companies must understand the unique experiences and needs of young people and work with them to co-create products and services that respect their rights. And governments need to pass effective laws that govern technology and hold companies to account for creating responsible products and services."
The importance of universal access to high-quality, affordable broadband has increased over the past year, as many jobs, services, and educational programs have shifted online in response to the coronavirus pandemic—which has bolstered the case for treating the internet as a public utility across the globe.
In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission recently established a program to help low-income households get and stay online during the pandemic, and a pair of congressional Democrats on Thursday introduced a bill that would invest $94 billion in broadband infrastructure to close the digital divide nationwide.