The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has called on industry leaders to invest in the future by ensuring every young person has access to the web.
"As we repair and rebuild [from COVID-19], we have an opportunity to reimagine our world and create something better. The web's power to catalyse change can and must help shape the world we want," he said.
"Across the globe, young people in particular are leading by example, using the web to create a better, fairer future. These young leaders see the web as a tool to fight for justice, expand opportunities, and find solutions to pressing problems."
Berners-Lee said far too many young people remain excluded and are unable to use the web to share their talents and ideas.
In a letter he penned alongside Web Foundation co-founder Rosemary Leith on the 32nd birthday of the web, Berners-Lee highlighted that a third of young people have no internet access, and that many more lack the data, devices, and reliable connection they need to make the most of the web.
"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," the letter said. "This is especially true for those disproportionately targeted on the basis of their race, religion, sexuality, abilities, and gender."
According to Berners-Lee, 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? Every young person who can't connect represents a lost opportunity for new ideas and innovations that could serve humanity," he said.
"Imagine how many more people … could tackle critical challenges if they could access a safe and empowering web."
Berners-Lee put a call out to the industry to get the web into the hands of every young person on Earth. To do so, he said, leaders must rapidly scale investment to make sure everyone, everywhere is within reach of a meaningful internet connection, with the speeds, data, and devices they need to make the most of the web.
"An all-out push to connect the world will make sure that young people do not fall through the cracks," the letter continues.
He calculates that $428 billion of additional investment over 10 years would provide everyone quality broadband connection.
"To put this in perspective, that amounts to the equivalent of just $116 per person for the 3.7 billion people who remain offline today," he said.
Berners-Lee considers such an investment as a down payment for future generations, as it would deliver incredible returns in the form of economic growth and social empowerment.
However, just having access to the web or technology isn't enough. Berners-Lee said this should be coupled with a promise that it is "helpful, not harmful; inclusive, not exclusive".
The letter concluded with a push for tech companies to understand the unique experiences and needs of young people. It also urges companies to work with young people to co-create products and services that respect their rights. Governments, he said, would need to pass effective laws that govern technology and hold companies to account for creating responsible products and services.
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