Digital Divide

Tim Berners-Lee says too many young people are excluded from web

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In a letter to mark 32 years of the internet, its founder says getting 2.2 billion fully online must be a priority

Tim Berners-Lee
Tim Berners-Lee: ‘Far too many young people remain excluded and unable to use the web to share their talents and ideas’. Photograph: Rosdiana Ciaravolo/Getty Images

Alex Hern@alexhernFri 12 Mar 2021 00.01 GMT

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Too many young people around the world are excluded from accessing the internet, and getting them online should be a priority for the post-Covid era, Tim Berners-Lee has said.

In a letter published to mark the 32nd birthday of the web, its founder says the opportunity “to reimagine our world and create something better” in the aftermath of Covid-19 must be channelled to getting internet access to the third of people aged between 15 and 24 who are offline.

“The influence of young people is felt across their communities and online networks,” Berners-Lee writes. “But today we’re seeing just a fraction of what’s possible. 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.

“A third of young people have no internet access at all. Many more lack the data, devices and reliable connection they need to make the most of the web. In fact, only the top third of under-25s have a home internet connection, according to Unicef, leaving 2.2 billion young people without the stable access they need to learn online, which has helped so many others continue their education during the pandemic.”Advertisement

Even though young people are more likely than the typical global citizen to have internet access – roughly half the world is online, but the figure rises to 70% of people aged between 15 and 25 – Berners-Lee argues that aiming to connect every young person in the world to the web would reap dividends.

He also says doing so would be relatively cheap compared with the cost of many government programmes launched over the last 12 months. He estimates that an investment of $428bn (£307bn) over the next decade would provide everyone with a quality broadband connection.

Rosemary Leith, who co-founded the Web Foundation with Berners-Lee, said access to the web should be a basic right for young people, similar to education. “If half a generation of young people are unable to use the tools to thrive in a digital world – to learn new skills, run businesses, build communities, participate in democratic debate – society as a whole will miss out on their talents, ideas and efforts,” she said.

The need to bring young people online was demonstrated during the Covid pandemic, as countries around the world moved to remote learning by default. The UK government was accused of falling short on its promises to provide laptops to poorer pupils months into the national lockdown.

“More than three-quarters of our year 10 pupils do not have access, regularly and consistently, to a device or the internet at home,” Steve Howell, the headteacher at the City of Birmingham school, said in June. “The most disadvantaged pupils are hardest hit with IT poverty, and the fact this has taken so long is really making things worse.”Topics