World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has published an open letter warning that continued lack of web access and a growing crisis of online harms are fuelling discrimination and abuse against women and girls — and threatening global progress on women’s rights and empowerment.

He highlights a triplicate of online threats to women and girls, especially those of colour, from LGBTQ+ and marginalised communities: widespread abuse and harassment, flawed AI systems that replicate and expand discrimination and a stubborn digital gender divide, with far fewer women than men able to access and use the internet globally.

Global research released by Berners-Lee’s Web Foundation and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts found more than half of young women and girls surveyed have experienced online abuse, including threating messages, sexual harassment and the sharing of private images without consent.

A massive 84% of young people surveyed think the problem is getting worse.

The impact of online abuse can be devastating. A survey from Unicef found that for young people who have experienced cyber harassment on social media, the odds of attempting suicide were 3,1-times higher than for those who have not experienced it.

And it is silencing women’s voices: 40% of women journalists said they avoided reporting on certain stories because of anticipated abuse

The relentless abuse directed at female politicians on social media is leading many to not seek reelection.

Writing on the web’s 31st birthday, Sir Tim warns that the response to the crisis by governments and companies has been “too slow and too small”, and identifies five key actions they must take in 2020 to tackle the issue.

These include addressing the data void on what women experience online, and embedding “gender equality by design” — informing the creation of all policies and tech products with data and feedback from women from diverse backgrounds. He also calls on individuals — men and women alike — to be “active bystanders” and speak up against harassment and abuse when they encounter it online.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee writes: “As we celebrate the web’s birthday, we are reminded of all the incredible things it has enabled — and all that we stand to lose if we don’t fight for it. But the web is not working for women and girls. A majority of women are not connected to the web, preventing millions from using the web to learn, earn and make their voice heard. Online abuse forces women out of jobs and causes girls to skip school, it damages relationships and causes tremendous distress.

“I am seriously concerned that online harms are threatening the important progress we have made on gender equality. This should concern us all. To ensure the web empowers women, we need the attention of all those that shape technology, from CEOs and engineers to academics and public officials. That’s why I’m adding my voice alongside thousands of others calling for action.”

It has been 25 years since 189 countries agreed an ambitious global plan to empower women. With just 10 years to the global deadline for reaching gender equality, 2020 is a critical year for global action to tackle online gender inequality.

The Web Foundation is hosting a series of consultations to run throughout the year, bringing global tech companies together with civil society organisations to ensure those building online products and services understand — and design for — the diverse needs of their customers. These consultations will be used to develop innovative policy and product solutions that will be published for other companies of all sizes to use.

Emily Sharpe, Web Foundation director of policy, says: “The crisis facing women and girls online is one of global proportions. We need a world where women can go online without being harassed; where they can run for office without fear of misogynist abuse; and where women can apply for jobs knowing algorithms will judge them on their skills rather than their gender.

“2020 is a year of opportunity to radically accelerate women’s empowerment, as decision-makers from around the world debate plans to achieve gender equality by 2030. Committed action to tackle online threats to women and girls must be at the heart of those discussions.”

In his letter, Sir Tim calls on organisations and individuals to channel “an ambitious, collaborative spirit to tackle the digital gender divide and online harms against women and girls”, by:

* Prioritising the problem;

* Providing better data;

* Embedding ‘gender equality by design’;

* Building legal protections; and

* Being active bystanders.