The inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has warned that social and economic progress from being online is being constrained because billions of young people are being excluded from accessing it.
In an open letter published with Web Foundation co-founder Rosemary Leith to mark the 32nd birthday of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim said young people were the key to driving positive change in the world.
However, it highlighted figures which showed that one in three people aged 15 to 24 have no access to the internet and two-thirds of those aged under 25 – 2.2 billion people globally – had no internet access at home.
The letter also warned that many young people with internet access, particularly women and girls, were being pushed offline by the threat of abuse, misinformation and other dangerous content, with Sir Tim warning a “toxic internet” was costing society “brilliant young minds”.
He said the leadership of young people had the potential to tackle key global issues including the Covid-19 pandemic, gender inequality, climate change and other challenges.
Sir Tim called on governments around the world and the private sector to commit to investing 428 billion US dollars (£306 billion) over the next ten years into internet connectivity – the figure set by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) which it says is required to connect everyone to a quality, affordable internet connection.
The web inventor also urged tech companies and governments to develop responsible products and policies that reduce the risk of creating or worsening online harms, and make the safety and wellbeing of young people online a priority.
“The influence of these young people is felt across their communities and online networks. But today we’re seeing just a fraction of what’s possible,” the letter says.
“Because while we talk about a generation of ‘digital natives’, far too many young people remain excluded and unable to use the web to share their talents and ideas.
“When young people do get online, too often they are confronted with abuse, misinformation and other dangerous content, which threatens their participation and can force them from platforms altogether.
“This is especially true for those disproportionately targeted on the basis of their race, religion, sexuality, abilities and gender.
“The consequences of this exclusion affects everyone. How many brilliant young minds fall on the wrong side of the digital divide? How many voices of would-be leaders are being silenced by a toxic internet?
“As we did with electricity last century, we must recognise internet access as a basic right and we must work to make sure all young people can connect to a web that gives them the power to shape their world.”