The Internet at 25


25 years ago in Switzerland Tim Berners-Lee developed the basis of what we now know as the worldwide web.  With the arrival of this technology the internet would soon cease to be the exclusive preserve of academia, geeks and big business.

Yet according to research carried out by Pew, even in the richest and probably most techno-saturated country in the world, the USA, today 13% of the adult population do not consider themselves to be internet users. The correlation between one’s level of educational attainment, earnings and being online is extremely high.

Surprisingly, while 76% of adult internet users say the internet has been a good thing for society, fully 15% say it has been a bad thing and 8% say it has been both a good and a bad thing in equal measure. So that’s nearly a quarter of adult internet users who clearly have reservations. Respondents were more positive about the effects of the internet on themselves as individuals, as opposed to society as a whole, but even in this group almost 10% thought the internet’s impact was negative.

Can we add non-users to those with negative feelings and get a larger demographic of outsiders and cyber malcontents? Probably not. You could be a non-user for all sorts of reasons and still think the internet was good for society.

Pew doesn’t tell us why people felt one way or another so, at one level, we’re not much further forward. However, since governments can be elected or thrown out on the basis of similar vagueness what we’re left with is an overall impression, and it’s one that we ignore at our peril. Therein lies vulnerability to the vicissitudes of politics.

Taken together I would say these numbers suggest the internet is doing very well, but maybe not quite well enough. My gut feeling is that, at least in part, the problem is that too many people think of the internet as if it was a seamless, single entity. Something bad that happens on one bit of it, or with one application, somehow reflects on the whole kit and caboodle. The internet is still not properly understood on a wide enough basis.

To be a trusted medium, to be truly accepted as part of the warp and weft of a modern society the Pew numbers need to be higher across the piece. The internet needs to be thought of as a public utility, in the same manner as household gas, electricity, water and the highway. If something undesirable happens on one or other part of the electricity grid nobody calls into question its underlying structure or purpose.

The industry ought to appoint a new PR agent but it also has to develop a more convincing narrative which in turn can only be based on demonstrable improvements in several areas. Not an easy thing to pull off in such a heterogeneous, highly competitive environment. But if it was easy it would already have happened.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International, Technical Adviser to the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, which is administered by Save the Children Italy and an Advisory Council Member of Beyond Borders (Canada). Amongst other things John is or has been an Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, the Council of Europe and European Union Agency for Network and Information Security and is a former Executive Board Member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. He is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This was renewed in 2018. More:
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