Growing online abuse of women and girls is threatening global progress towards gender equality, the inventor of the web Tim Berners-Lee says.
Berners-Lee, who invented the web in 1989, said he was “seriously concerned” about the impact of harassment and other online abuse, urging governments and companies to do more to stop it.
“The world has made important progress on gender equality thanks to the unceasing drive of committed champions everywhere,” he said in an open letter published on the 31st anniversary of the web.
“But I am seriously concerned that online harms facing women and girls — especially those of colour, from LGBTQ+ communities and other minority groups — threaten that progress.”
Most girls have experienced some form of harassment online according to research from the Web Foundation, founded by Berners-Lee, and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, and 84 per cent believe the problem is getting worse.
The biggest concern among respondents was having private videos and images shared, followed closely by sexual harassment and receiving humiliating messages.
Harassment including hate speech and sharing intimate images without consent can deter women from participating online and leak into “real-world physical abuses”, said the Web Foundation’s director Emily Sharpe.
“We see an increasing use of internet-of-things devices – connected devices – whether it’s security cameras or thermostats or remote locking doors used by ex-partners to harass and abuse women,” Sharpe told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“These are real offline harms that are caused by these online harms that we’re seeing.”
Campaigners say online sexual harassment is difficult to regulate and is often only partially covered by legislation, which varies in each country, with researchers, lawyers and advocates worldwide working to plug legal gaps.
“Regulation and policy is always complicated,” said Mariana Valente, a director at the law and technology research centre InternetLab.
“Platforms should be aware of this, acting upon it and acting faster,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Berners-Lee said governments and companies needed to do more to meet a United Nations goal of achieving gender equality by 2030, including introducing legal protections.
Each year, he publishes an open letter on the state of the internet and the biggest challenges he foresees for the year ahead. Previous ones have called attention to misinformation, internet misuse and improving access.
“Despite the growing crisis of gender inequality online, action by governments and companies has been too slow and too small,” he said.
“But 2020 is a year of opportunity to change that.”