The inventor of the World Wide Web warned attendees at a World Wide Web Foundation event that a “growing tide of surveillance and censorship” is threatening the future of both democracy and the web.
The web and social media are giving otherwise powerless people the tools and incentive to “organize, take action and try to expose wrongdoing in every region of the world,” Tim Berners-Lee said during the presentation of the World Wide Web Foundation’s (W3F) annual report on the impact of the web.
Governments threatened by that are increasingly monitoring or censoring such activity in ways that often impose greater controls over online communities than those offline.
Berners-Lee, an Oxford-educated physicist and computer scientist, developed the first web client and server in 1990 and created the specifications for HTTP, HTML and URIs while working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory.
According to the Web Index – the second annual edition of which was published Nov. 21 by the W3F – 30 percent of monitored countries imposed “moderate to extensive” online censorship, with government agencies blocking or filtering content to which they objected from sites within their borders. (Full report PDF here.)
That figure may be misleadingly low, however. Ninety-four percent of countries in the Index fall below W3F best-practice standards for legal limits on their governments’ ability to intercept digital communications.
Web-censoring regimes are particularly hard on women, according to the report, which found that localized information on sexual and reproductive health, domestic violence and inheritance rights are among the topics most frequently blocked.
More than 100 countries have passed laws guaranteeing access to information, but only in 55 percent are those laws “robust and well enforced” or consistent with international standards listed under the Open Government Data initiatives.
In many cases, laws ostensibly designed to prevent cybercrime, terrorism or blasphemy are misused to “silence legitimate dissent or justify blanket digital surveillance,” the report said.
Unsupervised, blanket surveillance knocked England and the U.S. into the Nos. 3 and 4 spots on the Index, which rates a country’s web health using estimates of the percentage of the population able to access the ‘net, amount of locally or nationally relevant content, degree of freedom and openness online, and degree to which the web empowers that country’s residents.
The U.S. was No. 1 in Empowerment, No. 10 in Relevant Content and No. 12 in Universal Access, but dropped to 27th in Freedom and Openness thanks, in part, to warrantless wiretapping programs involving the CIA and FBI and more recent PRISM scandals involving the National Security Administration.
The report called on governments and international political organizations to take four steps to keep censorship and power politics from squelching the web’s role in creating “an information society that furthers inclusion, participation and human rights”:
- Reverse the accelerating trend toward online censorship and surveillance;
- Make broadband affordable and accessible to all.
- Guarantee the same information is available to both men and women, boys and girls.
- Educate everyone on digital rights and skills.
The percentage of the global population with access to the web more than doubled, from 16 percent in 2005 to 39 percent in 2013.
That digital divide still holds back what the W3F refers to as a “second Gutenberg revolution,” referring to the explosion of knowledge that followed invention of the printing press.
As problems based in restrictions imposed voluntarily by governments rather than limits on access caused by economic limitations, the future of the web is in less danger from the failure to be universal than from oppressive surveillance, censorship and government limits on equal access to online information, according to the report.
“Beyond the digital divide, the world faces a growing participation divide, as unequal access to knowledge and speech online denies millions the necessary tools for free and informed participation in public life,” it read.
Image: World Wide Web Foundation