On the web's 31st birthday this week, its inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee penned an open letter calling for urgent action to make it a safer place for women and girls
It’s hard to believe that its only been 31 years since the internet was created. A resource that’s brought us closer to long-distance loved ones, provided endless entertainment via ‘dank’ memeage and expanded our cultural knowledge by inviting us into unknown worlds, the web is celebrated worldwide. But for the thousands of women and girls facing online abuse, it remains a very dangerous place.
And the actual inventor of the World Wide Web couldn’t agree more. Penning an open letter on its 31st birthday this week, Sir Tim Berners-Lee stated that amid a ‘growing crisis’ of women facing sexual harassment, threatening messages and discrimination online, his creation ‘is not working for women and girls.’
Sir Tim’s candid letter was released alongside research carried out by his Web Foundation organisation, which found that more than half of young women have experienced violence online. A shocking 87% of those surveyed believe that the problem is just getting worse.
Berners-Lee voiced his concern that such abuse threatens the progress of gender equality, as it continually ‘forces women out of jobs and causes girls to skip school, damages relationships and leads to tremendous distress.’
He also cited the role of artificial intelligence algorithms in stunting gender equality, referring to Amazon’s scrapped hiring software which reportedly taught itself to prefer male over female job candidates.
Calling on everyone to take action against these inequalities and create a safer space, Sir Tim wrote: ‘It’s up to all of us to make the web work for everyone.’
Fixing these problems requires the attention ‘of all those who shape technology’, with Berners-Lee firstly demanding that companies immediately start taking measures to more effectively represent women online. Such measures include the collecting and publishing of more data on women’s experiences online, and the design of more products and services based on data and feedback from women of all backgrounds.
Going back to the towering threat of online abuse, he urged governments to strengthen laws that hold online abusers to account, and asked any witnesses of online abuse to speak up.
The computer scientist said the coronavirus outbreak reflected the need for urgent action, because as cities go into shutdown, the web will provide a ‘lifeline’ to allow people to keep working and children to be educated.
Many leading institutions have welcomed Sir Tim’s warning, with Chief Executive of Plan International UK, Rose Caldwell stating: ‘We hope the world takes notice of Sir Tim’s comments today. While social media and the internet offer many advantages for girls, our research shows that the issues and inequalities affecting girls offline, such as sexual harassment, bullying and body image pressures, are mirrored, and often amplified, online.’
Echoing the important sentiments in Sir Tim’s letter, Plan International UK also announced its ‘Girls Shout Out’ initiative – a safe space on existing social media channels, that Caldwell says ‘girls can share and discuss the issues that affect them online.’
Creating more safe online spaces however, forms only part of the solution, with Caldwell stating: ‘The UK Government must increase their scrutiny of how social media companies handle abuse against girls and empower girls to feel confident in reporting inappropriate online behaviours.’