Technology

UN’s internet access goals won’t be met the way we’re going, research shows

There’s nothing like a global pandemic forcing us to stay at home and limiting our in-person interactions with others to remind us quite how much we rely on the internet.

But while billions of people see internet access as a given, there’s a very real digital divide — 46% of the world’s population is still offline. In times of crisis, lack of internet access means people are denied access to scientifically accurate information, as well as the ability to communicate with loved ones, work remotely or buy essential goods from online retailers.

The UN has two key targets it wants to hit that would see billions more people brought online, but research published Friday in a blog post by the Web Foundation — the organization set up by Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web — shows that it’s not on track to hit either of them.

The first goal — a part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals — is to achieve “universal access” in the least developed countries by the end of 2020. The Web Foundation defines “universal access” as 85% of a country’s population, using high-income countries as a model and taking the number of children into account. But according to its projections, only 57% of people globally and 23% in least-developed countries will have internet access by the end of this year.

The second goal, set by the UN’s Broadband Commission, also looks like it won’t be met at the current rate of progress. It stipulates that 75% of people globally and 35% of people in least-developed countries should have access to a broadband connection by 2025. But the Web Foundation’s model predicts that only 70% globally and 31% of those living in the least-developed countries will have access to a connection by that point in time.

Web Foundation CEO Adrian Lovett urged governments and companies to “work urgently to accelerate progress” in getting more people online, or risk it taking decades to achieve universal access. The COVID-19 pandemic, driven by the spread of a novel coronavirus, has shown the world what a “critical lifeline” the internet is, he said in a statement, adding that efforts to tackle the virus should include getting as many people as possible online.

Together with the Alliance for Affordable Internet, the Web Foundation this week published a policy brief outlining proposals for increasing connectivity in times of crisis, such as during the current coronavirus outbreak. The proposals range from removing consumer-facing taxes to protecting engineers looking after critical telecommunications infrastructure.

“While this crisis affects everyone, those without the tools to protect themselves and their families are more vulnerable to the virus and its painful economic and social impacts,” said Lovett. “It’s clearer than ever that the web is a basic right, not a luxury.”