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Web founder Tim Berners-Lee: The web isn't working for women and girls

In his annual letter, Berners-Lee challenges tech companies and governments to make online gender equality a priority.

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Tim Berners-Lee dedicates his annual letter to women and girls, and the rights groups that support them.

Sven Braun/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

In open letter published on the web's 31st birthday, its creator Tim Berners-Lee warned that the lack of access and the threat of online harassment are fueling abuse and discrimination against women and girls.

"The web is not working for women and girls," he said Thursday in the letter. "I am seriously concerned that online harms facing women and girls -- especially those of colour, from LGBTQ+ communities and other minority groups -- threaten that progress." Everyone -- men and women -- should be concerned about this issue, Berners-Lee continued, as women rights and equality are "fundamental to a healthy society." 

2020 is a hugely important year for women's rights. It marks 25 years since the Beijing Commission Status of Women Conference, as well as 10 years away from the UN's 2030 goal for achieving gender equality. That's why Berners-Lee chose this moment to urge governments and tech companies to engage more deeply with the work women's rights organizations, said Emily Sharpe, the Web Foundation's policy director.

"Women's rights are still not given the attention that they're due," Sharpe said. "And it's absolutely not acceptable because women's rights are not niche, we're more than 50% of the population."

In his letter, Berners-Lee highlighted a number of ways in which women weren't afforded equality with men online. The first pertains to access. According to Web Foundation statistics, men are 21% more likely to have access to the web than women, and in some areas, particularly in the global south, this figure rises to 52%.

Another issue that the Web Foundation is increasingly focusing on is gender-based violence and harassment that significantly impacts the experience of women and girls using the internet. 

Research by the Web Foundation and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts found that over half of young women surveyed have experienced violence online, including being sexually harassed, sent threatening messages or having their private images shared without consent. Online abuse not only has the power to push women and girls off the internet, but out of jobs and school. 

For Hera Hussain, who founded and runs Chayn, a charity providing online guidance and resources to women in abusive relationships around the world, the increasing use of spyware is hugely problematic for women. Even if they do have access to the web, for many women that means they are being surveilled by partners or family as part of a wider cycle of abuse.

Often marginalized, women may not trust a frontline service to help and advise them if they're in an abusive situation, she told CNET in an interview, so unfettered access to online resources is crucial to helping them escape. "It's more important than ever that we have digital web-based services," she said.

A final issue Berners-Lee draws attention to in his letter is the discrimination against women that is hidden within AI algorithms, which are often trained on biased data. The result is that many automated systems serve and prioritize men ahead of women, meaning that the technology does not serve the population at large.

The Web Foundation very much sees its role in this fight as a convener or facilitator, bringing different parties together to work toward a solution, said Sharpe. On Thursday it will host the first of several consultations about gender equality online, bringing together tech companies and civil and digital rights groups to find policy solutions.

Sharpe hopes one potential outcome of the consultations could be a "gender equality by design" template that engineers and designers across the tech industry would use whenever they are beginning and working on a new project. They could use it to ensure they're asking themselves the right questions about diversity of data to ensure their end product serves their audience.

"So far the attention that government and companies have paid to this has been too little," she said. "We have seen in other areas, whether it's online safety or terrorist content, for example with the Christchurch call the Paris call, there has been tremendous political will and that's when companies and governments act. We need the same for women's rights online."