Sir Tim Berners-Lee addressing conference

Web ‘not working’ for women, warns Sir Tim Berners-Lee

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In an open letter, World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has warned that women and girls are being made to feel unwelcome online, with women experiencing online abuse and hidden forms of gender discrimination.

The letter, which marks 31 years since the creation of the World Wide Web, cites recent research from Sir Tim’s Web Foundation, a non-profit advocating for a free and open web. The study was conducted with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts.

The research indicates that the web is “not working” for women, Sir Tim wrote. 52 per cent of young women have experienced online abuse including threats, sexual harassment and non-consensual sharing of intimate images, with 84 per cent believing that the problem is only getting worse. Sir Tim said that this abuse has serious offline consequences, with girls skipping school, women being forced out of jobs.

“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 wrote. He argued that businesses and global progress on equality were suffering as a result of this abuse.

Women are already poorly represented online. Most of the world’s women are not connected to the internet, largely on account of lack of access to funds and technology. Men are 21 per cent more likely to be online than women, rising to 52 per cent in less developed economies. “This gap reinforces existing inequalities and prevents millions from using the web to learn, earn and make their voice heard,” Sir Tim said.

He also addressed the issue of machine learning systems which replicate and reinforce existing biases on account of being trained on human-generated datasets which (both consciously and unconsciously) discriminate on the basis of gender and other characteristics such as race and sexuality.

“Artificial intelligence systems are increasingly used to judge our abilities and define our opportunities. If properly designed, they could make the world fairer,” he wrote. “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.”

Sir Tim added that companies should dedicate resources and diversify teams in order to mitigate bias or else risk expanding discrimination “at a speed and scale never seen before”.

He called on governments to prioritise combating these issues in 2020 and for “gender equality by design” to be embedded in products, policies and services based on feedback from women of all backgrounds.

Sir Tim's letter was welcomed by children’s charity Barnardo’s and the Molly Rose Foundation, which was established after the death of a 14-year-old girl who took her life in 2017 after viewing disturbing self-harm content on Instagram.

CEO of Barnardo’s Javed Khan commented: “The founder of the modern internet is speaking truth to power: regulation of the online world is urgently needed to keep children safe while they enjoy the most of new technology. Children face growing risks online, including cyber-bullying, sexual grooming and exposure to self-harm forums. Two-thirds of the vulnerable children supported through our sexual exploitation services were groomed online before meeting their abuser in person.”

“All children are vulnerable online - including boys, who are often overlooked as victims. We need urgent action to introduce statutory regulation with the power to impose sanctions if the rules aren't followed.”

The government is in the process of rolling out a set of policies targeting “online harms” such as bullying, terrorist propaganda, and child sexual exploitation. Online platforms such as Facebook and Google will have a statutory duty of care for their users and could receive hefty fines for failing to take action to protect individuals.

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