The Internet in 2014 is less free and more unequal and, as far as wealthy nations go, the U.S. could be doing a lot better on that score, according to the latest research from the World Wide Web Foundation.
The foundation’s annual Web Index measures the Internet’s contribution to social, economic and political progress across 86 countries. In its 2014 edition, Scandinavian countries topped the world rankings, with the U.S. coming in sixth.
“It is a bit of a surprise,” said foundation Chief Executive Anne Jellema, in reference to the ranking of the U.S., which fell from fourth place in 2013. “And it’s a cause for concern that over the years we’ve seen the U.S. slip. It’s actually very close to being taken over by South Korea, which, in terms of per capita income, is a much poorer country, and it’s just above Iceland, which is tiny.”
According to Jellema, there are three main reasons why the U.S. slipped. The Web Index found that it offers poor protection to citizens when it comes to privacy rights, that it has unbalanced digital copyright rules, and that the number of citizens with access to the Web is low compared with other rich countries.
These factors are stopping Americans from making the most of what the Internet can offer socially, economically and politically, she said.
“In countries like South Korea and Iceland, Internet connection levels are close to 100%,” Jellema said. “The U.S. appears to be stuck at around 85%, and within that we’re seeing huge gaps between affluent, college-educated people and poorer people with only a high school education in rural areas. That will ultimately start to diminish the U.S.”
In terms of privacy, Jellema said that if those who do manage to get online are worried they might be monitored, they are unlikely to “exploit the Web to its full potential.";;;
Jellema said she hopes the ranking will be a wake-up call to U.S. policymakers, citizens and businesses.
“There are many lost opportunities in places where small initiatives can make a huge difference,” she said.
Overall, the Web Index found that inequality and censorship are on the rise around the world, with 84% of countries either having weak laws or no laws preventing mass surveillance of citizens (up from 63% in 2013), and 38% with moderate to extensive Web censorship (up from 32% in 2013).