• World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee says web’s not working for women, citing accessibility issues, online harassment and biased algorithms 
  • The issues keep women from work and education opportunities
  • Online harassment is a major problem for 83% of U.S. women 18 to 29 years old in a  Pew Research Center study

The inventor of the World Wide Web says trolls, accessibility issues and skewed algorithms have made the web unfriendly — and even dangerous — to women.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who created the part of the Internet that enables the distribution of image-rich content and information, wants to change all that. His organization, the Web Foundation, developed a “contract” backed by thousands of companies, institutions, organizations and people, to make and keep the web safe and to make it more widely available.

“The #WebWeWant is safe and empowering for everyone,” he said on Twitter. “But thanks to the growing crisis of online abuse and discrimination against women and girls, that’s not the web we have.”

Online abuse forces women from jobs and classrooms, silences their voices, hurts relationships and blocks them from digital opportunities, he said. There are technological limitations: Berners-Lee cited a 2018 incident in which an online recruitment tool had to be mothballed because, due to a programming bias, it wasn’t choosing women candidates.

I am “seriously concerned” about “online harms facing women and girls — especially those of colour, from LGBTQ+ communities and other marginalized groups,” Berners-Lee said in a letter published on the Web Foundation’s website. And, while properly designed artificial intelligence systems “could make the world fairer,” “too often, algorithms reproduce and even deepen existing inequalities.”

More than three decades after the founding of the web, the statistics he cited are grim: Most of the world’s women aren’t online, and men are 21% more likely to be online than women, according to United Nations figures. More than half of young women who participated in a survey by the Web Foundation and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts have experienced online violence including sexual harassment, threatening messages and the sharing of private images without consent. And 84% of the respondents say it’s getting worse.

A 2017 study from the Pew Research Center showed that 70% of U.S. adult women said online harassment is a “major problem,” compared with 54% of men. The figures were even starker from younger women — those between ages 18 and 29 — with 83% saying it’s a major problem compared with 55% of men the same age. Overall, men were more likely to experience harassment than women, but women reported more emotional stress from it.

He called for governments and companies to prioritize the problem of why “the web is not working for women and girls.” He says this requires better data on women’s experiences online as well as products, policies and services based on data and feedback from women of all backgrounds. He also called for legal protections — and their enforcement — for women from “perpetrators of online gender-based violence.” And he said that everyone else needs to speak up when women are being attacked online.  

“This should concern us all,” he said. “Women’s rights are human rights and are fundamental to a healthy society, from reducing poverty and disease to improving education and economic growth.”