Technology

Net is 'less free and more unequal', says web founder

Map of world showing net access
Image caption Richer countries rank highest for net access, freedom and openness

The web is becoming less free and more unequal, according to a report from the World Wide Web Foundation.

Its annual web index suggests web users are at increasing risk of government surveillance, with laws preventing mass snooping weak or non-existent in over 84% of countries.

It also indicates that online censorship is on the rise.

The report led web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee to call for net access to be recognised as a human right.

The World Wide Web Foundation, led by Sir Tim, measured the web's contribution to the social, economic and political progress of 86 countries.

Other headline findings from the report include:

  • 74% of countries either lack clear and effective net neutrality rules and/or show evidence of traffic discrimination
  • 62% of countries report that the web plays a major role in sparking social or political action
  • 74% of countries are not doing enough to stop online harassment of women

The index ranked countries around the world in terms of:

  • universal access
  • relevant content and use
  • freedom and openness
  • empowerment

Four of the top five were Scandinavian, with Denmark in first place, Finland second and Norway third. The UK came fourth, followed by Sweden.

"The richer and better educated people are, the more benefit they are gaining from the digital revolution," said Anne Jellema, chief executive of the World Wide Web Foundation, and the lead author of the report.

"Extreme disparities between rich and poor have been rightly identified as the defining challenge of our age, and we need to use technology to fight inequality, not increase it."

One of the best starting points would be to put net access at the top of the agenda, she added.

Sir Tim said: "It's time to recognise the internet as a basic human right.

"That means guaranteeing affordable access for all, ensuring internet packets are delivered without commercial or political discrimination, and protecting the privacy and freedom of web users regardless of where they live."

Describing the web as a "great leveller" he said that rights to privacy, freedom of expression and affordable access should be "hardwired" into the basic rules of net use.

For the first time, the report looked at net neutrality, the principle that all web traffic should be treated equally.

It has been the focus of fierce debate in 2014, with the US mulling new laws that could create a two-tier internet - fast lanes for content providers prepared to pay for their services to be delivered faster.

The World Wide Web Foundation is calling on policy makers to introduce a raft of measures to fight net inequality.

They include:

  • Accelerate progress towards universal access by increasing number of affordable net services
  • Prevent price discrimination in internet traffic by treating the internet like an other public utility
  • Invest in high-quality public education to make sure that no-one is left behind with technological progress
  • Use the web to increase government transparency and protect freedoms of speech and privacy
  • Invest more to overcome key barriers in health, education, agriculture and gender equality

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