“Growing inequality is one of the defining challenges of our time. What role can the World Wide Web play in tackling it? Seven out of 10 people live in countries where the gap between rich and poor is greater than it was 30 years ago, according to Oxfam research. In some countries these disparities are reaching levels last seen before the Great Depression. Inequality topped the World Economic Forum’s annual survey of global risks this year, while the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine LaGarde, recently warned that rising inequality is choking economic growth, and leaving “a wasteland of discarded potential” in its wake. This discarded potential is the most damaging effect of inequality, eroding the chance for people to make a better life for themselves and making poverty a permanent trap passed on from parents to children. The Web’s power to help restore equality of opportunity is clear. Twenty-five years ago Sir Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at CERN took a momentous decision not to patent the Web, which led to a remarkable democratisation of its capabilities. Today, armed with little more than a smartphone, anyone — regardless of where they were born or how much they earn — can start a business, record a music video, crowdfund an invention, take courses with Nobel Prize-winning professors, or even launch a successful campaign for office. As the examples of Korea, Brazil, Estonia and Iceland demonstrate, the Web has three critical contributions to make to fighting inequality:
- Expanding access to knowledge, information and skills
- Enabling wider political participation and voice
- Lowering barriers for small and micro-enterprise to innovate, compete and succeed
But we can’t take the equalising power of the Internet for granted. Current trends suggest that we now stand at a crossroads between a Web “for everyone”, which strengthens democracy and creates equal opportunity for all, or a “winner takes all” Web that further concentrates economic and political power in the hands of a few. Already, overall scores for the Web’s contribution to development and human rights are strongly correlated with wealth. The higher a country’s per capita income, the higher its Web Index ranking. In part, this is because access is still heavily skewed to those living in high-income countries. An estimated 4.4 billion people — mostly poor, female, rural and living in developing countries — have no access to the Internet at all.
- While Internet use has soared from around 45% to 78% in high-income countries since 2005, in low-income countries it has remained below 10% year after year. Internet penetration grew by only one percentage point per year from 2011-2013 in low-income countries. (ITU)
- In the poorest countries, the relative costs of basic Internet access remain over 80 times higher than in the rich world — while Internet use is 10 times lower.”