UK Ranks Third In 2013 Web Index, Despite Surveillance Concerns


Sir Tim Berners-Lee says world governments are making slow progress in their adoption of the Web, but GCHQ spying lets Britain down

Countries that allow surveillance and curtail online freedom faced criticism in the second annual Web Index report from Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation – but despite this, Britain performed well, coming third out of 81 countries in the Foundation’s rankings.

In September, Britain looked likely to top the Foundation’s rankings, which score countries on ease of access to the Internet, availability of useful information in a local language, citizen activity online, privacy and government censorship. Then, both the UK and the US lost points  in the ‘freedom and openness’ category, when evidence of GCHQ and NSA surveillance practices were leaked by Edward Snowden.

Once again Sweden was top of the Web Index chart, which is published by the World Wide Web Foundation – a non-profit organisation launched by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 2009.

“The use of cybercrime laws or anti-terrorism legislation to justify restrictions on free expression online seems to be a growing trend,” said Anne Jellema, CEO of the Foundation at the Web Index launch event. “However, we now also know that many western countries are violating Internet users’ privacy on a massive scale, by monitoring, intercepting and storing huge amounts of data on private communications. We identified only five countries that fully met best practice standards to protect our privacy as end-users.”

TBLIn response to this problem, The World Wide Web Foundation has developed four recommendations that the world governments can follow to improve their ranking.

“The country owes a lot to whistleblowers”

According to the Web Index 2013, access to the Internet is still out of reach for three out of five people living on the planet, despite the goal of connecting at least half of the world population, set by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) way back in 2003. The report is published every year to establish trends and encourage adoption of the Web as a tool for social change.

“What’s positive about this year’s Index is 80 percent of the countries have serious discussions about what they want happening on the Web, and 40 percent have taken actual action – the country is a better place because of the change that has been initiated on the Web,” said Sir Tim Berners-Lee. “The way I feel it, it’s a leading indicator of the things to come. If we can discuss it, if we can leverage the Web, then we can fix things like healthcare and education.”

The top ten countries by their use of the Web for the benefit of population were Sweden, Norway, the UK, the US, New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, France and the Republic of Korea.

Denmark, Iceland and France rose due to strong performance on online freedom, and Korea joined the top ten having achieved the highest household penetration of broadband in the world. Amongst emerging market nations, Mexico achieved the highest overall position –  30th.

The UK was ranked top for availability of information, followed by the US, France, the Republic of Korea and Sweden. However, the country was 24th in terms of privacy, safety and freedom of expression online.

Jimmy Wales, who was present at the launch – after all, the number of Wikipedia articles in a particular language is also a part of the Index – said that revelations about the surveillance practices used by the US and the UK intelligence agencies make it more difficult to argue against things like extensive government censorship in Russia and China.

“The country owes a lot to whistleblowers, because there was no way we could become aware of it – because we couldn’t have this conversation – without them,” said Berners-Lee. “At the end of the day, when our systems of checks and balances break down, we rely on whistleblowers – therefore we must protect them,”

Do’s and Don’ts

MapA major trend identified in the 2013 report indicates that the development of the Web is not connected to the wealth of the country – for example Quatar, the richest (per capita) nation in the world, was ranked 51st, Saudi Arabia 69th, and Singapore 31st.

Meanwhile the relatively-impoverished Philippines, ranked 38th in the Index, as the Web was embraced by non-profits and recently helped the locals to respond to the destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan, often ahead of international organisations.

Findings of the Web Index also suggest that simply switching off the Internet does not work as expected. “Having the Internet turned off is an obvious thing you can see, and the country that does that doesn’t usually get very far. Some say in Egypt, turning off the Internet actually got the youths on the streets, because what else are they to do?”

According to the Web Index, the countries that want to improve their rating have to reduce online censorship and surveillance, make broadband more affordable and accessible, guarantee that every demographic can access relevant information on the Internet, and educate the population about digital rights and skills.

“I think the gulf between the technological world and the policy world has got to go,” added Berners-Lee. “We need people who understand technology and programming as lawyers and politicians, because otherwise, we are not going to be able to design systems with social intent.”

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