Q&A: Adrian Lovett on the threats and opportunities of online access

Adrian Lovett, World Wide Web Foundation’s incoming president and chief executive officer. Photo by: World Wide Web Foundation

In two months, Adrian Lovett will have a new role, a new office, a new focus: Digital access for all.

But the outgoing ONE Campaign Europe executive director will still be advocating for the same grand causes — fighting inequality and promoting social justice.

“I’ve seen the difference that is made by vaccines, by clean water, by investments in basic education and so on, and those investments are profoundly important and have to continue,” Lovett told Devex following the announcement of his new role as incoming president and chief executive officer of the World Wide Web Foundation.

“But what I’ve also seen is that I think the greatest difference in overcoming poverty and preventable disease is the ability to influence the world around you, to make life better for yourself, and for your family and community. And the single most powerful tool to allow us to do that, I believe, is the World Wide Web,” he said.

Human rights, said Lovett, is not just about people having access to clean water and sanitation, or being given the chance to attend school and see their children survive and grow up healthy. It should also include the ability to access the web and to use it to as a tool to “build prosperity and community.”

“We have a job to do as societies, to help ensure that the web remains what Tim [Berners-Lee] conceived it as: A public good that builds communities rather than destroys, and bring these people together rather than divides.”

— Adrian Lovett, incoming head of the Word Wide Web Foundation

Lovett has yet to start in his new role, but he spoke candidly on what he thinks the web’s biggest contribution has been to development, where it could be further explored, and what his vision for the foundation is. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you think is the web’s biggest contribution to development in the last five to 10 years?

I think the ability to share data has been transformative in development in the last 10 years or so. And indeed creating the demand for that data. It’s been both a tool to disseminate the facts that we know about development, the progress in the fight against poverty, and so on, but it’s also — the web — as a creator of the demand for facts, for that data.

So through initiatives like the Open Government Partnership for example, we’re seeing much more data about governments’ activities being available. But that’s also happening because we have demand for it, and that demand comes from the incredible networks that now exists around the world of activists and policymakers, and that network is powered by the World Wide Web and by the social networks.

Is there an area in development where you think online access has not been explored as much?

I think the thing that is most significant there is around gender. I know the foundation does some great work on this through their women’s rights online projects, where they found that even in the same communities in developing countries, women are 50 percent less likely to access the Internet than men. And they report the obstacles to doing so are perceived lack of know-how of the skills to get to do that, and the cost.

So I think that very clearly illustrates two things: Firstly, how, if we don’t tackle those inequalities, we risk leaving large parts of the human population behind as the internet and the web become even more a part of everyday life. We leave people behind, whether that’s women, whether that’s marginalized groups of different sorts.

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But I think it also illustrates that we know what to do. If we can address these challenges of affordability and of skills and technical know-how that people want to acquire in order to make the most of the web. If we can address things like that, and also address the need to keep the web as a public good, and keep it serving the interest of communities and the progress at the local level and at the global level, then we can see how we can actually overcome these inequalities, which go way beyond the digital world and very present in the real world around people as they live.

The internet has given people access to vast knowledge and opportunities, but it also has its downsides, from the spread of crimes to fake news that’s distorting the public’s views and perceptions. Do you have a vision for how you’re going to tackle these threats borne out of people’s access to the web?

What I am very excited about is, as you say, these issues around our digital life, and how we experience the web and the internet, are incredibly timely. And as you say, there are threats as there are opportunities.

I know that myself, as a parent of teenage children, the web and social media surround them in almost every aspect of their lives, and we all have a responsibility as parents and in our communities to help guide young people through that maze. But we also have a job to do as societies, to help ensure that the web remains what Tim [Berners-Lee] conceived it as, which is as a public good that builds communities rather than destroys, and bring these people together rather than divides. And I’m very optimistic that we can create and maintain the web as a public good, but that requires it to be both public, in other words open to everyone, and good, in other words build on values and not just on a very narrow understanding of profit.

So, I’m very optimistic that these are things we could address, but you’re right they are really key questions.

When new leadership comes in, there’s always a question on what is that new leadership’s purpose or in what direction he or she will be leading the organization. What’s that for you in terms of your new role at the World Wide Web Foundation?

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For me, the very first and most important thing is that the Web Foundation continues to be, and even increasingly is, rooted in the experience of people in the “global south.” The Web Foundation has always had that orientation, and it’s something I’m passionate about building further. And the fact that we have people in Africa, in Asia, and in South America, who understand how these issues work in reality, not in some textbook, is incredibly motivating to me. So I will want to build on that, and in very clear and visible ways.

The other thing that I want to bring is [using the ] Web Foundation’s opportunity to be a storyteller. And telling stories about the progress that we’ve made, the difference that has been made, the way that the web and the internet are already transforming the lives of people often in tough situations and transforming their lives for the better is an incredible story.

We also need to write the next few chapters of that story, and start to figure out where that story ends. And there are lots of questions about that, and as we were saying earlier, the threats as well as the opportunities that exist around ensuring that the web truly is a public good that we see at the moment are there to be confronted and be navigated. So as storytellers, I think we have to find ways to powerfully communicate not only all the progress that’s been made, but also the road that we have ahead of us and where that leads to.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.