Web Foundation CEO: Getting the whole world online is our goal

Adrian Lovett, the Web Foundation's new CEO and president, says we shouldn't take the good things about the web for granted -- we should fight for them.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
7 min read

Web Foundation CEO Adrian Lovett settles into the job.

Web Foundation

The glory days of youth are known as a time for experimentation, making mistakes and figuring out what you want to be when you grow up.

One particular darling of our era, a bright young thing famously known as the World Wide Web, has spent 29 years doing just that. Now it's staring 30 down the barrel, and while many are enjoying its fruits, a significant number of people around the world still can't access it affordably and fairly.

Back in the web's 20th year, its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, founded the Web Foundation, a nonprofit that aimed to advance the open web as a public good and a basic right. Berners-Lee remains very much the visionary spokesman for the organization, but last summer the group appointed a new president and CEO to lead the foundation as the web navigates into the next stage of maturity.

Adrian Lovett joined the Web Foundation from One, the campaigning and advocacy organisation co-founded by U2's Bono to help end extreme poverty. I met with Lovett at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, where he explained why he believes web access should be a right and what he thinks we can do to diminish the digital divide.

The following is an edited transcript of our interview.

Q. Adrian, you've been with the Web Foundation for about six months now; what's it been like coming into the organisation and what have you learned so far?
Lovett: I was really excited about the cause. I've spent 15, 20 years now working on international development in one form or other -- campaigning against extreme poverty and preventable disease. This felt to me like something that is no less important than any of those issues and perhaps over time could become even more important.

We have to be careful not to overstate things and exaggerate, but having now had a chance to travel around a little bit to see the teams, it's really clear to me that we really should be talking about access to the web and the internet as a basic human right.

Of course we talk also about water as a basic human right, but it's clean water that is a basic human right. And actually there's an analogy there, isn't there? Because if we allow the web and internet to become the equivalent of dirty water, well that's not good for anyone.

Our job is to do two things, I think. Firstly to ensure we realize Sir Tim's vision that this [the web] should be for everyone, and secondly that we should make sure it's something worth having.

All of the positives of the web that we all take for granted? Well, we shouldn't. We need to fight for those. We need to work to ensure that we maintain that free and open space for enterprise and creativity, and that's what we're ensuring everyone can access.

What lessons have you brought with you from your work in international development about actually getting things done?
Lovett: The first thing is, you have to be ambitious -- nobody else is going to do this for us.

We're at this what we might call a 50-50 moment right now. Before the next Mobile World Congress, more than half the world will finally go online for the first time, which is an amazing milestone. But it must be a moment where we say nothing less than 100 percent has to be our goal.

If you're one of a minority in a country or community where most of your fellow citizens are connected, then you're in a bad place. You're going to have trouble accessing some pretty fundamental things, like basic health care or the right to vote and the chance to apply for a job.

We've got to put ourselves out there. We've got to be vocal and determined. The other thing that I've learned over the years is we have to connect with real people. These kinds of discussions about how you, in small or large ways, try to make the world a bit better can often get locked in the policy corners and political corridors.

We have to make this a call that everybody can get behind. And actually, compared to a lot of what I've done in the past this ought to be easier. The world of connectivity is something that our own families, our own friends, live and breathe. We all understand when we don't have it, when the Wi-Fi goes down or whatever. We know the difference that it makes to our social lives, to our means of doing our jobs and earning a living, and in some cases to our ability to claim some fundamental rights.

All of the stories of the positive difference that the web and internet have to our life, I think we've got to draw those out, tell those stories -- the way the web has helped me to earn a living fully, or find love, or to learn a language, or to fix an injustice.

How do you go about conveying those stories to people who aren't currently connected to the internet -- both getting the word to them in the first place, but also making it relevant to their lives?
Lovett: It is sometimes a challenge to get people excited about something that they don't have the experience of, but actually a lot of places do have a degree of access now.

There are places, you're right, where really nobody has an experience of this, but there are only a few of those now. Even in remote areas, you'll get younger people who've been off to capital cities who may come back and they've experienced this kind of connectivity. And even if they don't have access themselves, there's more of an awareness now.

That's why our big push is to get really affordable access. In those communities, if you're having to just use a tiny slice of your data to access a social media site or whatever, and then you've got to shut it off, and leave it, you're only half participating in this extraordinary network that has been built. And that's what we need to change.

Research by the Web Foundation and the Alliance for Affordable Internet suggests the digital gender divide is widening in some places. How do you go about tackling that?
Lovett: I've learned over the years that what gets measured, gets done, or is more likely to get done. So in policy terms it's pretty simple: We have to incentivize policy makers to focus on women and unashamedly prioritize women.

Women are 50 percent less likely to be online in the urban areas where we've done some research in developing countries in the last couple years. They're also less likely to be doing certain things online like applying for a job or expressing a stronger opinion -- things that are parts of what everybody should feel comfortable doing online.

A woman in Liberia, carrying a child on her back in a sling.

Getting women online will be better for everyone, says Lovett.

John Moore/Getty Images

If we drive this push for affordable access to be focused first and foremost on women, then actually it won't just be women and girls that would be better off. It would be men and boys as well.

Coming back to the clean water analogy you made earlier, when it comes to keeping the web clean, is that just a net neutrality issue or is there more to it than that?
Lovett: Net neutrality is one key part of it, certainly. But of course everyone is thinking a lot about content online and fake news and hate speech and harassment. There must be better ways of ensuring that the internet is an open and free space, but where authenticity and credibility are rewarded, or flagged, or highlighted so that over time it's easier for people to sort the good stuff from the bad stuff and to know more easily what is a reliable source and what is less reliable.

So content is one thing. Access to personal data or control of our personal data is another. Then there is a huge area around how governments in many parts of the world now are limiting access to the internet. Last year [there were] something like 60 incidents of whole or partial shutdowns in different parts of the world, and they're becoming more sophisticated and more nuanced.

It's almost starting to become part of the security playbook in quite a lot of countries where if there's an arrest, or if there's an election coming up, or a particular region that has a certain volatility, that part of the response is, "Well, we shut down the internet or part of it or we'll limit or throttle it." That's really dangerous, and that's a threat that is progressing by itself, and we need to shine a spotlight on it.

There's a lot of ways that the pollutants can come in and make it all a lot more murky.

When it comes to issues like fake news, how can an organization like the Web Foundation help?
Lovett: In a couple of ways. One is to try to generate some really useful research -- and we're doing that in various ways; it's ongoing -- and to try to put it in the public domain. To put it in front of companies that are working in the space to see what their reaction is and how they respond to it.

I also think that a lot of what we need to do on this is to simply remind people that this is a global challenge, and that while we understandably get consumed by the impact of fake news in the US politically, or in Europe in Brexit, this is also a huge issue for people in developing parts of the world. If anything, there are even fewer safeguards or norms or strong, conventional media.

It may be thanks to Donald Trump or whatever, but fake news is a buzzword as much in Kigali or Johannesburg or Jakarta as it is in Washington, DC, or in Brussels. And it means different things to different people. That's a big agenda for us to try to work on there.

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