The World Wide Web Foundation’s web index report — which takes stock of the current state of the web in each country — has brought some alarming figures to light regarding internet access, web safety, and the growing practice of government surveillance.
The report states that access is “heavily-skewed” to those living in richer countries, with 4.4 billion people still lacking access to the internet. While that fact is not shocking, what is concerning is the increasingly-wide access gap. Internet penetration increased from 45% to 78% in higher-income countries over the last 10 years, while it has remained at 10% in lower-income countries. Additionally, the cost of internet access is 80 times greater in the poorest countries, even where access is close to nil.
Aside from the access problems, there remain issues with traffic discrimination, lack of net neutrality policies of any kind, and gender inequality issues in regards to web use. The report notes that 84% of countries lack adequate privacy laws, 74% of countries are not doing enough to stop online violence towards women, and 74% of countries lack clear net neutrality rules.
And indeed those in charge of compiling the data have vocalized criticism of the global approach to web access and safety. The BBC quotes Anne Jellema, chief executive of the World Wide Web Foundation, and the lead author of the report:
The richer and better educated people are, the more benefit they are gaining from the digital revolution. Extreme disparities between rich and poor have been rightly identified as the defining challenge of our age, and we need to use technology to fight inequality, not increase it.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee — a British computer scientist credited with inventing the web and the founder of the World Wide Web Foundation — has added his two cents in as well, with stern words for governments and the online community:
It’s time to recognize the internet as a basic human right. That means guaranteeing affordable access for all, ensuring internet packets are delivered without commercial or political discrimination, and protecting the privacy and freedom of web users regardless of where they live.
On the bright side, it’s not like there is no activity aimed at resolving some of these issues. Arguably, there are more projects aimed at connecting the next 1 billion people than at protecting the billions already on the internet. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and other tech giants have launched a myriad of initiatives focused on distributing low-cost internet access around the world. But, as co-founder of the MIT Media Laboratory Nicholas Negroponte says, connecting the next billion is not the most difficult task. It’s connecting the last billion that will be the test.