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Global Web Index Points to Social Media's Political Power But Shows Risks of Online Surveillance and Unequal Access

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, November 22 2013

(Web Foundation)

A new Web Index released by the World Wide Web Foundation finds that Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States rank highest in a measure of how the web contributes to development and the fulfillment of basic human rights and spurs political mobilization in 81 countries, but raises concerns about the growing risks of state surveillance and unequal online access to information online.

Tim Berners-Lee, who established the WWW, Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales, and Lily Cole, actress and founder of gift economy website came together in London Friday as part of the announcement of the index, which first launched last year. The 2013 edition has been enlarged with an enhanced data set incorporating information on gender, open data, surveillance and security and an additional 20 countries.

Promising Role of Social Media

The analysis found that the web and social media played a role in public mobilization in the past year in 80 percent of the countries, and was a "major catalyst" in half of those cases.

“One of the most encouraging findings of this year’s Web Index is how the Web and social media are increasingly spurring people to organise, take action and try to expose wrongdoing in every region of the world," Berners-Lee said in a statement. "But some governments are threatened by this, and a growing tide of surveillance and censorship now threatens the future of democracy. Bold steps are needed now to protect our fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of opinion and association online.”

The report highlights how social media has helped keep up the momentum for protests in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Senegal, Russia and Spain. "Austerity protests in Greece, organised with little or no use of the Web, are an interesting exception that tends to prove the general rule," the report notes. "[Activists] interviewed for this study in diverse countries observed that the ease and speed of virtual mobilisation can be a weakness as well as a strength," the study points out. "While thousands may sign online petitions, the number who actually take part in further actions may be small. Social media momentum does not automatically translate into sustained organising and movement-building for change – but it can," the report states, noting the importance of movement leaders' skills, resources, institutional links, and the degree to which online-fueled movements can spur or replace mainstream media coverage.

The study also highlights that many successful online initiatives are not always connected with a large political goal, but rather an environmental issue or issues of social justice at a local or national level, such as the two million signatures gathered in less than two months urging the Florida State's Attorney to bring charges in the Trayvon Martin case.

Censorship and Surveillance

According to the index, moderate to extensive blocking or filtering of politically sensitive content was reported in 30 percent of the countries over the past year, while 94 percent of the countries did not meet best practices for checks and balances on government interception of electronic communications, the release notes.

When it comes to fighting online censorship, the study points out the limits of international condemnation, citing the example from a researcher in Ethiopia who found that "whenever [foreign] media and human rights organisations release reports about blocking of certain websites, government [temporarily] lifts blocks from those websites and tries to disseminate propaganda stating that the organisations or media which reported the blocking are not trustworthy." In those instances, "domestic processes to define and defend online rights may have more impact," the report notes, pointing to campaigns in the Philippines, Mexico and Brazil.

Still a Digital Divide

"Ten years after world leaders committed to harnessing technology to build an inclusive information society, parents in 48% of countries can’t use the Web to compare school performance and budgets, women in over 60% of countries can’t use the Web to help them make informed choices about their bodies, and over half the population in developing countries can’t use the Web at all," Anne Jelema, CEO of the WWWF, said in a statement. "Countries should accelerate action to make the Web affordable, accessible and relevant to all groups in society, as they promised at the World Summit on the Information Society in 2003.”

The report notes that "between 50 and 70 percent of Africans cite high costs as the main reason they are not online, suggesting that today’s digital divide is primarily a matter of lack of affordability rather than lack of infrastructure. On average, across the developing countries in the Web Index, a basic, entry-level broadband package costs 65 percent of monthly per capita income." The report notes that 13 countries have rapidly increased connectivity over the past five years, with some showing gains of over 30 percent.

Governments Behind on Using Online Tools

Civil society organizations and entrepreneurs tended to be ahead of governments in using online tools to expand access to information, the study found. But both lag when it comes distributing web content through channels more accessible to those from poor and disadvantaged groups such as mobile phones and local radio, according to the study. "Government use of mobile channels is lowest in Africa, where it could potentially make the biggest difference," the study notes.

The study looked specifically at the degree to which farmers and small enterprises in the agricultural sector, the "backbone of most developing country economies," were using online market price information or accessing weather reports. "In only 13 of 81 countries did we find evidence that such information was driving significant innovation, but in developing countries where this occurred, there was a noticeable impact on the livelihood of farmers."

Denmark, Iceland and France were new entries to the top ten due to their strong performance in the areas of online freedom and growth of the number of mobile broadband subscribers, the report states. "Korea also joins the top 10 countries, having achieved the highest household penetration of broadband in the world and world leadership on e-government services," the study notes. "Where countries dropped from the top 10, this was often due to stagnant internet penetration levels. Australia has faced delays in the rollout of its national broadband network project. Ireland and Canada fell on the E-participation Index, and Switzerland did not keep improving across all the variables of the Index."

Online Budget Data

Only 16 percent of the countries offered bulk machine-readable budget data online, while 18 percent offered some form of bulk spending data, according to the study. The lowest availability of budget data is in the Middle East and Asia, followed by Africa, according to the report, while it is most likely to be available in Europe and the Americas lead in the publication of spending data.

The research also found that data on school budgets was hard to find in both developed and developing countries, with South Africa's database of school infrastructure needs indicating for example that 68 percent of schools do not have any computers and almost 80 percent do not have libraries, data that is not available to the public in a raw format.


Drawing on the analysis, the authors of the report call on countries to review laws and practices to address the challenges of powerful surveillance technologies, including the responsibility of technology companies to respect user rights and to prevent government intrusion, to work to achieve or bypass the U.N. target of reducing the cost of broadband below five percent of average per capita income by 2015, while encouraging community WiFi and use of spectrum for public benefit, working to guarantee that essential information is accessible to all, and to work on ensuring that all teachers receive basic technology training, and that all schools and public libraries offer digital literacy and skills training, by 2015.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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