It’s easy to complain about the insidious hellscape that is modern life online—I do it daily. But it’s also good to appreciate what a technological wonder the World Wide Web really is, and realize how impactful a lack of access to the web can be.
March 12 is the web’s birthday: it was first proposed by computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee on this day in 1989, and when it was finally realized, quickly usurped all other information management systems that were around at the time as the holy grail of connecting users online. 2018 marks the web’s 29th birthday, and like every year, Berners-Lee has penned an open letter to the internet to commemorate it and set some goals for the future.
This year, he focused on the need to close the digital divide and ensure those without access to the internet are given an opportunity to catch up with the rest of the world.
“In 2016, the [United Nations] declared internet access a human right, on par with clean water, electricity, shelter and food,” Berners-Lee wrote. “But until we make internet access affordable for all, billions will continue to be denied this basic right.”
The Alliance for Affordable Internet has defined affordable access as 1 gigabit per second mobile download speeds for less than 2 percent of a person’s average monthly income, a definition the UN’s Broadband Commission recently adopted, but we’re far from that goal in many parts of the world, including some parts of the United States. In order to actually close the gap, Berners-Lee proposes that we support and invest in public access solutions, such as community networks and public Wi-Fi—ideas that are widely opposed and lobbied against by Big Telecom in the US.
Along with prioritizing access for people on the other side of the digital divide, Berners-Lee argues that we need to change the web so that, once online, it actually serves people and how they want to use it.
“What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms,” Berners-Lee wrote. “This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.”
This oligopoly allows some of the worst facets of the internet, such as identity theft and conspiracy theories getting outweighed attention, to thrive, according to Berners-Lee. Though he says a regulatory framework can help, in the end we have to put pressures on the companies themselves if we want to see change in this area.
“I want the web to reflect our hopes and fulfil our dreams, rather than magnify our fears and deepen our divisions,” he said. “It may sound utopian, it may sound impossible to achieve after the setbacks of the last two years, but I want us to imagine that future and build it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Alliance for Affordable Internet as a UN organization.
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