Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British inventor of the World Wide Web, has today published an open letter warning that continued lack of web access and a growing crisis of online harms are fuelling discrimination and abuse against women and girls — and threatening global progress on women’s rights and empowerment.
The inventor of the World Wide Web highlights a triplicate of online threats to women and girls, especially those of colour, from LGBTQ+ and marginalised communities: widespread abuse and harassment, flawed AI systems that replicate and expand discrimination and a stubborn digital gender divide, with far fewer women than men able to access and use the internet globally.
The scale of this crisis is huge. Global research released today by Berners-Lee’s Web Foundation and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts found more than half of young women and girls surveyed have experienced online abuse, including threating messages, sexual harassment and the sharing of private images without consent. 84% of young people surveyed think the problem is getting worse (1).
Maria, Young Leader, Girl Guides Association of Cyprus, says:
“As a girl, I spent time learning from the Internet. I was not prepared for the inappropriate photos and comments I would receive from people online, for people making fun of me, for being blackmailed. Online harassment has a deep impact on the girls being targeted and allows a harmful, silencing culture to develop.”
The impact of online abuse is devastating. A survey from Unicef found that for young people who have experienced cyber harassment on social media, the odds of attempting suicide were 3.1x higher than for those who have not experienced it. And it is silencing women’s voices. 40% of women journalists said they avoided reporting on certain stories because of anticipated abuse (3). And the relentless abuse directed at female politicians on social media is leading many to not seek reelection.
Writing on the web’s 31st birthday, Sir Tim warns that the response to the crisis by governments and companies has been “too slow and too small”, and identifies five key actions they must take in 2020 to tackle the issue.
These include addressing the data void on what women experience online, and embedding “gender equality by design” — informing the creation of all policies and tech products with data and feedback from women from diverse backgrounds. He also calls on individuals — men and women alike — to be “active bystanders” and speak up against harassment and abuse when they encounter it online.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee says:
“As we celebrate the web’s birthday, we are reminded of all the incredible things it has enabled — and all that we stand to lose if we don’t fight for it. But the web is not working for women and girls. A majority of women are not connected to the web, preventing millions from using the web to learn, earn and make their voice heard. Online abuse forces women out of jobs and causes girls to skip school, it damages relationships and causes tremendous distress.
“I am seriously concerned that online harms are threatening the important progress we have made on gender equality. This should concern us all. To ensure the web empowers women, we need the attention of all those that shape technology, from CEOs and engineers to academics and public officials. That’s why I’m adding my voice alongside thousands of others calling for action.”
25 years since 189 countries agreed an ambitious global plan to empower women, and just ten years from the global deadline to reach gender equality, 2020 is a critical year for global action to tackle online gender inequality.
The Web Foundation will today host the first in a series of consultations to run throughout the year, bringing global tech companies together with civil society organizations to ensure those building online products and services understand — and design for — the diverse needs of their customers. These consultations will be used to develop innovative policy and product solutions that will be published for other companies of all sizes to use.
Emily Sharpe, Web Foundation Director of Policy said:
“The crisis facing women and girls online is one of global proportions. We need a world where women can go online without being harassed; where they can run for office without fear of misogynist abuse; and where women can apply for jobs knowing algorithms will judge them on their skills rather than their gender.
“2020 is a year of opportunity to radically accelerate women’s empowerment, as decision-makers from around the world debate plans to achieve gender equality by 2030. Committed action to tackle online threats to women and girls must be at the heart of those discussions.”
In his letter, Sir Tim calls on us all to channel “an ambitious, collaborative spirit to tackle the digital gender divide and online harms against women and girls”, by:
Prioritising the problem: 2020 must be the year governments and companies tackle online harms against women as a top priority.
Providing better data: Companies and governments must tackle the data void around online violence by systematically recording and publishing data on what women experience online.
Embedding ‘gender equality by design’: Governments and companies must create all products, policies, and services based on data and feedback from women of all backgrounds.
Building legal protections: Governments must develop laws that hold perpetrators of online gender-based violence to account, and resource law enforcement to respond and prosecute when those laws are violated.
Being active bystanders: We must all speak up when we see harms against women and girls online.
Web Foundation / World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts — Ureport Survey (2020)
Unicef — Écoutons ce que les enfants ont à nous dire, Adolescents en France : le grand malaise
International Women’s Media Foundation — Attacks and Harassment The Impact on Female Journalists and Their Reporting
Established by web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Rosemary Leith, the Web Foundation fights for the web we want. Using world-class research, policy advocacy and practical innovation, we’re working around the world for a web that is safe and empowering for everyone.