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Closing digital divide must be top priority: Tim Berners-Lee

The world wide web inventor said that 3.5 billion people have missed out on the ‘lifeline’ of the internet during the Covid-19 crisis.

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee (Fabrice Coffrini/Pool, Keystone/AP)

Sir Tim Berners-Lee (Fabrice Coffrini/Pool, Keystone/AP)

Sir Tim Berners-Lee (Fabrice Coffrini/Pool, Keystone/AP)

World wide web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has said the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates “the gross inequality” of a world where almost half the population is unable to connect to the internet.

He told a high-level UN meeting that “our number one focus must be to close the digital divide”.

Sir Tim said that around 3.5 billion people have missed out on the “lifeline” the internet has provided during the coronavirus crisis, enabling work, education and social connections to continue online.

He said: “This inequality is a barrier to wider equality, and we know it most affects those who are already marginalised – people in developing countries, those on low incomes, and of course, women and girls.

“Men remain 21% more likely than women to be online, and 52% more likely in the least developing countries.”

Sir Tim spoke at the online launch of UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres’ Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.

He said that the first step would to develop new financial models to provide affordable connectivity to the internet for everyone by 2030.

The web inventor added that tackling inequality requires raising the bar from basic access to ensuring that people have “meaningful connectivity” to the internet “that must include data and devices to use the full power of it”.

When people do get online, they must also find that it is safe, participants said.

Mr Guterres said the digital world has many benefits, but also has been “gravely misused”.

“Hate speech, discrimination and abuse are on the march in digital spaces,” the UN chief said.

“Misinformation campaigns put health and lives at risk. Life-threatening cyber attacks on hospital systems threaten to disrupt lifesaving care.”

The Roadmap for Digital Cooperation aims “to connect, respect, and protect people in the digital age” by promoting open data, open artificial intelligence and financing models and open source software, according to Mr Guterres.

It also calls for expanded training, data protection and privacy, and offers the UN as a platform for cooperation to ensure that artificial intelligence is trustworthy, respects human rights and promotes peace.

Mr Guterres added: “Unless we address digital instability and inequality, they will continue to exacerbate physical instability and inequality.”

He also warned that digital divides risk becoming “the new face of insecurity and conflict”.

The World Wide Web Foundation, co-founded by Sir Tim, helped develop the Roadmap.

Last year it launched the “Contract for the Web”, a global action plan for governments, companies and civil society to counter growing anti-democratic activity on the internet and keep knowledge freely available.

The contract has gathered 1,300 endorsements, and the foundation is developing ways for governments and companies to show how they are living up to commitments to achieve what Sir Tim called a “safe and empowering web, connecting the unconnected, respecting privacy (and) fighting misinformation”.

Since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, internet usage has jumped 70%, the use of communication apps has grown by 300% and virtual collaboration tools by 600%.

Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, said some video streaming services have grown 20-fold.

But he said only about half of the world has internet access. Of the 25 least connected countries, 21 are in Africa.

The World Economic Forum has worked with the industry partners, the International Telecommunication Union, the World Bank and GSM — which represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide — as well as others to develop plans for private-public collaboration on expanding digital connectivity.

Mr Schwab said: “This has already been shared with 170 countries and is in active use.

“This fast track partnership is deeply encouraging.”

PA