Did you know the internet is 32 years old this year? But even its inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee is calling for urgent action to make it a safer place for women and girls
It’s hard to believe the internet is 32 this March. This epoch-changing technology and resource has brought us closer to loved ones, provided endless entertainment (hello memes) and expanded our cultural knowledge. The web is celebrated worldwide but for the millions of women and girls across the globe facing online abuse, the web remains a very dangerous place.
The inventor of the World Wide Web couldn’t agree more. Last year, Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote an open letter on its 31st birthday, stating that amid a ‘growing crisis’ of women facing sexual harassment, threatening messages and discrimination online, his creation ‘is not working for women and girls.’
Gender equality is on the line
Sir Tim’s candid letter was released alongside research carried out by his Web Foundation, revealing more than half of young women have experienced violence on the internet. A shocking 87% of those surveyed believe the problem is just getting worse.
Berners-Lee voiced his concern this 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 demanding 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.
He also urged governments to strengthen laws holding online abusers to account, and urged witnesses of online abuse to speak up.
The world-changing computer scientist said the coronavirus outbreak reflected the need for urgent action, because with cities in shutdown, the web provides a ‘lifeline’ letting us work from home and students to continue their education.
Creating virtual safe spaces
Many leading institutions have welcomed Sir Tim’s warning. Rose Caldwell, CEO of Plan International UK said: “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.”
Plan International UK’s ‘Girls Shout Out’ initiative is 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. “The government must increase their scrutiny of how social media companies handle abuse against girls,” said Caldwell. “And empower girls to feel confident in reporting inappropriate online behaviours.”