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The web can help more in the fight against Covid-19. Here’s what we must do.

This piece was written by Web Foundation President and CEO Adrian Lovett and was originally posted at webfoundation.org

Communication is everything in a health emergency.  In the 1918 flu pandemic, an army of Boy Scouts was dispatched across New York City, handing out printed cards telling people to stop spitting in the street. Public information campaigns relied on announcements in theatres and posters on streetcars. Crisis communications in the analogue age. Fast forward a century and we are wrestling with a crisis on a similar scale, but now with a powerful tool in our hands. For all the grim horror of Covid-19, imagine for a moment how much worse this pandemic would be without the World Wide Web.

Without public health information at our fingertips many would be dangerously under-informed about the scale and severity of the issue. Without the option to work and learn from home, our economies would take a still greater hit and children’s education would suffer even more.  

In the past few weeks we’ve seen the web at its best: enhancing lives, acting as a vital public good and connecting people in creative, positive ways. It is both a lifeline and a critical force in helping to curb the spread of the virus, providing vital public health information and helping us live virtually when meeting physically threatens human lives. 

But the web could do so much more if we could overcome three obstacles. Almost half the world’s population doesn’t have internet access.  To be without connectivity in normal times is a grave disadvantage. In the crisis we’re facing, it’s devastating.

Where the web is available, it is vulnerable to medical misinformation and conspiracy theories which can have deadly effects. And the lack of a collaborative, ambitious, privacy-minded approach to the use of data in this crisis means some of the most effective ways to tackle the virus may never be fully harnessed.

These goals — increasing access, fighting misinformation and using data responsibly and effectively — are part of the Contract for the Web, the plan of action launched last year by the Web Foundation and our partners, to make our online world safe, open and empowering. They are now all the more urgent, and we are working with our founder, Sir Tim Berners Lee, to underline to governments and companies the action that must be taken, and ensure the web he invented is one that works for everyone in this crisis, and indeed in other urgent areas such as climate change, more than ever before.

Securing internet access for everyone

If ever there was a time to redouble efforts to bring the benefits of the internet to more people it is now. Only 54% of the world is connected today — with people in poorer regions far less likely to be online, along with women and those living in remote and rural areas. And digital deprivation isn’t limited to low-income countries. In New York, one of the world’s wealthiest cities, nearly a third of households lack a home broadband subscription. In Spain, 19% don’t have a computer

Bridging this digital divide can’t be done overnight, but every step can make a difference. Governments and companies must take a number of steps to ensure as many people as possible can get online.

Firstly, no one should be going without internet access during this crisis because of cost. To ease financial barriers, network providers should commit to serving those customers who fall behind on bills and to waive late fees where these apply. This is common practice with energy bills in extreme weather conditions — internet access is just as vital. We’ve seen providers in the US take these steps and others should follow suit.

Service providers could go a step further by increasing data allowances that will enable people to use the internet for video calling, online learning and other data-heavy activities that have become so important to life under lockdown. As schools across the world close, millions of children are being told to go online for lessons. Those who live in homes with no connection — or only have access through a parent’s mobile phone — are losing their right to an education and existing inequalities will only deepen as a result.

Governments and companies need to recognise that meaningful connectivity is about more than just access to the web. As our Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) has argued, to get the internet’s full benefits, people need regular access to a suitable device and enough data at sufficient speeds. Networks in South Africa have already announced price cuts to data packages and additional free “lifeline data”. Governments and companies can and should provide or subsidize data dongles and laptops to help connect those without access. 

And, to make sure everyone can access the most vital information in this crisis, websites for official health organisations and other essential government services should be zero-rated, meaning they don’t draw from people’s data plans.

Any governments enforcing internet shutdowns or slowdowns must stop. In Kashmir, for instance, where the government is slowing down internet traffic, people aren’t getting the information they need. When quick, accurate updates are essential to curb the spread of disease, such an information vacuum has deadly consequences. When the web is more vital than ever, it’s all the more important that we keep it on.

Fighting viral misinformation

As health advice changes rapidly in response to new knowledge, accurate information is a matter of life and death. But conspiracy theory videos and medical misinformation appear across social platforms and messaging apps, undermining people’s trust in public bodies and threatening our health. Governments and companies must fight this viral misinformation as a priority.

There’s already positive work underway. Governments and bodies like the World Health Organisation are partnering with social media platforms to get critical information to their billions of users. News organisations are offering free access to coronavirus news, and platforms including TwitterFacebookYoutubeReddit, and DuckDuckGo have devoted prime real-estate to direct people to authoritative sources and prioritised official sources in search results.

While getting reliable and accurate information out is vital, platforms must also prioritise removing content, accounts and groups that spread misinformation. In normal times, they depend on the work of human moderators to weed out misinformation that algorithms miss. But many companies have understandably sent these workers home in response to Covid-19 and depend far more heavily on automated systems to police their platforms. These tools are imperfect. While recognising the unique challenges of this environment, it’s vital that companies find safe ways for human moderators to continue to review content, and work quickly to improve AI-based detection of harmful material.  

When it comes to misinformation, we all have a part to play to help companies rid their platforms of misinformation. The steps are as simple and important as washing your hands: avoid sharing information that doesn’t come from official bodies and credible news outlets. If you’re unsure whether information is true, search online to find the source. If your contacts share misinformation, don’t engage with it, because that could help it spread further. Instead, send a private message asking them to stop sharing and remove it, ideally including evidence showing what they shared is misinformation.

Unlocking data to protect public health, while protecting privacy

To slow down the spread of the coronavirus, governments need access to accurate, timely data. Every day, we are creating a wealth of information that can be used to understand how and where the virus is spreading and develop strategies to tackle it. Innovative and responsible approaches to using this data can contribute to solving this public health crisis.

We’re already seeing ways our data can be used to support efforts to fight Covid-19. Vodafone, for instance, is creating a heat-map of anonymised mobile location data to help Italian health authorities better understand population movements. 

Exceptional uses of such data in a health emergency must be carefully controlled. But privacy and public health do not have to be at odds. Privacy laws are designed to allow for the use of data which can be essential to public health and in the public interest, while guarding against unnecessary and improper intrusions to our privacy. 

Any data use must be necessary and proportionate to fighting the virus, subject to oversight and accountability and grounded in law. Governments and companies providing data must operate transparently, telling people clearly how their data will be collected and used. Only the data necessary for the job at hand should be collected — and shouldn’t be used for any other purpose. Wherever possible, data should be anonymised so specific individuals can’t be re-identified. And of course, these measures must be temporary. When the virus is under control, or specific measures are no longer effective for tackling it, they must end. With these safeguards in place, and with proper oversight, we can unlock the power of data to help save lives in this crisis.

The road ahead

We’re going through a worldwide disaster that demands a coordinated, global response. The web is one of the most powerful tools we have to tackle Covid-19 together.

In the coming weeks, the Web Foundation will continue to gather evidence, develop policy recommendations and work with governments and companies to help guide their thinking on these three issues that we’ve identified as critical to ensuring the web serves humanity at this moment.

We’ll be sharing our work at every step. If you have questions or ideas, please get in touch.

For more updates on our work, follow us on Twitter at @a4a_internet.