Tim Berners-Lee has written a powerful letter which talks about the internet not being a safe space for women and girls.
If you’re a woman who uses the internet, statistics prove that it’s likely you’ve experienced some form of online abuse. From females being abused on Twitter every thirty seconds to the ongoing problem of revenge porn, the internet is regularly a toxic place for women. In fact, things are so bad that even the man who created the world wide web has said that it is “not working for women” and online abuse is “forcing women out of jobs and girls to skip school”.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee made the comments in an open letter to mark the 31st anniversary of the creation of the internet. It comes as new research from Web Foundation – which advocates for a free and open web for everyone – and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts reports that more than half of young women and girls have experienced online abuse. This includes threatening messages, sexual harassment and the sharing of private images without their consent. And 84% of these women think the problem is getting worse.
Berner-Lees wrote: “The world has made important progress on gender equality thanks to the unceasing drive of committed champions everywhere. But I am seriously concerned that online harms facing women and girls — especially those of colour, from LGBTQ+ communities and other marginalised groups — threaten that progress.
“This should concern us all. Women’s rights are human rights and are fundamental to a healthy society, from reducing poverty and disease to improving education and economic growth.
“And so it’s up to all of us to make the web work for everyone. That requires the attention of all those who 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.”
Berner-Lees quoted the worrying statistics found by the Web Foundation research, before explaining how important it is to take action on them, continuing: “[This] abuse forces women out of jobs and causes girls to skip school, it damages relationships and leads to tremendous distress. Relentless harassment silences women and deprives the world of their opinions and ideas, with female journalists and politicians pushed off social media and bullied out of office.”
He added: “Other forms of online discrimination against women remain hidden. Artificial intelligence systems are increasingly used to judge our abilities and define our opportunities. If properly designed, they could make the world fairer. But too often, algorithms reproduce and even deepen existing inequalities. In 2018, a major automated recruitment tool had to be scrapped because it systematically under-selected women due to being trained on historical data where roles were filled by men.”
The letter concluded: “Despite the growing crisis of gender inequality online, action by governments and companies has been too slow and too small.
The coronavirus outbreak demonstrates just how urgently we need action. When offices and schools close, the web is a lifeline that allows us to keep working, educating our children and reading information vital to keeping us safe and healthy. A world where so many women and girls are deprived of these basics is completely unacceptable. When we need it more than ever, the web has to work for everyone.”
Plan International has responded to the story, saying it hopes the world “takes notice of Sir Tim’s comments”. Rose Caldwell, Chief Executive 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. Nearly a quarter of girls (23%) have felt harassed by someone contacting them regularly on social media.
“Digital safe spaces for girls are few and far between. That’s why at Plan International UK we have launched Girls Shout Out – a safe, closed space on existing social media channels, where girls can share and discuss the issues that affect them both off and online.
“But safe online spaces are only part of the solution. 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.”
With the man who made the internet openly admitting that online spaces aren’t safe enough for females, what else will it take for effective actions to be taken?