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Tim Berners-Lee: One-third of youth still don't have internet access as web turns 32

Every young person who can't connect to the internet represents a "lost opportunity" for humanity, says the web's creator.

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Tim Berners-Lee marks the web's anniversary with an annual letter.

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This story is part of Crossing the Broadband Divide, CNET's coverage of how the country is working toward making broadband access universal.

As the web turns 32 on Friday, its creator is using his annual letter to draw attention to the way the digital divide affects young people worldwide. While you may assume that children now grow up as digital natives, web creator Tim Berners-Lee points to a 2020 report from the International Telecommunication Union, which notes that one-third of young people around the world don't have access to the internet. 

Even when young people are able to get online, they are sometimes be forced off of platforms based on their negative experiences -- especially girls and those who belong to minority groups. The consequences of this affect everyone, said Berners-Lee.

"How many brilliant young minds fall on the wrong side of the digital divide?" he wrote in his letter. "How many voices of would-be leaders are being silenced by a toxic internet?"

Berners-Lee's reminder comes at a crucial moment in the history of the web, when due to the coronavirus pandemic we find ourselves reliant on almost constant connectivity. The pandemic has shone a light on the stark realities of the digital divide, proving that it isn't just a problem for low-income countries, but that digital exclusion is rife across the globe, including in the US and Europe.

The web inventor called on world leaders to ensure everyone is in reach of a good quality internet connection and on governments to pass effective laws that govern technology and hold companies to account for creating responsible products and services. Addressing tech companies, he said that it was important they work to "understand the unique experiences and needs of young people and work with them to co-create products and services that respect their rights."

Berners-Lee's Web Foundation, which is focused on closing the digital divide globally, is currently establishing a Tech Policy Design Lab that will initially focus on tackling online gender-based violence and abuse against women. The Lab will bring tech companies and women rights' groups together to work towards making the web a safe place for women.

"Every young person who can't connect represents a lost opportunity for new ideas and innovations that could serve humanity," said Berners-Lee. "An all-out push to connect the world will make sure that young people do not fall through the cracks."