It’s by no means an easy task, which is perhaps why it has taken until now for the World Wide Web Foundation established in 2009, to produce its first ever global Web Index.

The ambitious project –fittingly named Web Index 2012 – involves examining, over a five year period, the impact of the world wide web on 61 countries around the globe from super-developed nations such as America and the UK, growing countries (China) and emerging nations (Yemen).

By ‘impact’ it means looking at how the world wide web has affected that country’s population and make-up in such terms as economically, politically and socially. It also looks at levels of internet connection and availability ie just how accessible the world wide web is to the majority of the population in that particular nation (consider China and its suppression of internet access when faced with political controversy). At present one in three people around the world use the internet, although that drops to one in six in African nations.

Why we need to measure the web’s influence

So how do you go about measuring and comparing on such a gigantic scale? And how do you know the research is being carried out properly in the first place? Well first off, the Foundation is in very good hands – those of the inventor of the world wide web, or Sir Tim Bernes-Lee, to be more exact. The ultimate dream of this father and family man is for his creation to “serve humanity.” In a recent interview with the FT newspaper he said the purpose of the Foundation was to discover which populations were being denied access (whether directly or due to inaccessibility) and by highlighting that fact, hopefully – with the help of other organisations and interested parties – rectifying it.

He explained:  “It’s an agenda. When people in each country ask, ‘What do we do next?’ here’s a list of things in which you may have to put a little bit more effort and here are the things where really you are behind.” He acknowledges that the divide between the technological ‘have’s’ and ‘have not’s’ is widening at a rapid pace. “The [World Wide Web] Consortium and the industry and all the geeks in town are pushing [the web] up every moment to great heights, which then obviously leaves a widening gulf with the people who don’t have it,” he added.

He later discussed the role of the Foundation and how it regarded countries which practiced web censorship. “It is a strength of the index that we put a flag where we think the benefit of the Web should lie and to point people in that direction,” he said. “Some of the things the W3C stands for includes openness and the freedom to communicate between different people, no matter what your agenda. The idea that access should be available to people, no matter who you are, is an important one.”

Ways to measure the web’s impact

Getting back to information, data was provided for the Web Index survey by such august and global corporations as Ethnologue, Freedom House, The International Energy Agency, International Telecommunication Union, United Nations, Reporters Without Borders, The CIA Factbook, Wikimedia Foundation, World Wide Web Foundation, The World Bank and the World Economic Forum.

Policies of each country regarding web access and computer skills, as well as educational levels, were examined. So too was the type of content, the prevalence (or not) of social networking, and to what extent the world wide web played a part in that country’s business interactions. Sir Bernes-Lee explained: “At a base level, [we are asking] are people actually connected? Have they got something like a phone on which they can access the Web?

“On the medium level, there is the content. At the top, is [the Internet] really affecting people’s lives? Can you get a job on the Internet? Are you using it for health, for education? Is it affecting the way you run the country?” By making the information freely available for all (ie publishing the results of the survey) the Foundation hope that it will be picked up by academics, NGOs, chief executives and other decision makers in a bid to improve a country’s political and economic standing as well as benefit the lives of those individuals living there.

Results of the Web Index 2012 

Interestingly, the results – which were revealed earlier this month (September) and have received global publicity – showed Sweden to be the country where the world wide web had the biggest impact, followed by (in order) America, United Kingdom, Canada, Finland and Switzerland. Iceland had the most users with 95 per cent of its population going online on a regular basis while Ireland was the country which benefitted most economically when nearly 15 per cent of its gross domestic products were listed under the IT export bracket for 2007 to 2010. Italy was highlighted as the ‘poorest’ user in the West, ranking 23rd on the list (behind Qatar and Mexico). This is despite Italy being the world’s eighth largest economy according to the International Monetary Fund. Bottom of the list of web users were Nepal, followed by Cameroon, Mali, Bangladesh, Namibia and Ethiopia.

Points to ponder

Summing up his survey’s findings, Sir Berner-Lee noted that one of the biggest problems to the democratisation of the world wide web was around the subject of connectivity, for poorer nations in particular. To solve that, he said, the costs of connecting had to be reduced (atlhough Smartphones were proving valuable in allowing more users to be connected, of which Uganda was an excellent example). Another escalating difficulty to web access was the monopolisation of certain aspects of the web via technology from the likes of Apple and Facebook.

Censorship though was the biggest threat according to the Foundation. This is based on the findings which showed that around 30 per cent of the countries looked at in the Index had some form of censorship to web access. In a rather ominous tone Sir Berner-Lee noted: “The Web is a global conversation. Growing suppression of free speech, both online and offline, is possibly the single biggest challenge to the future of the Web.”

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