Massive, first-of-its-kind study seeks to measure the effectiveness of global Internet use and express a vision of the ideal Web.
Intel Puts Future On Exhibit
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We as a culture love to rank things, as the parade of "best of" lists attests. But how to quantify the effectiveness of Internet use? The Web wears so many contradictory hats--open forum, commerce engine, inexhaustible generator of cat memes--that comprehensive rankings seem audacious.
If anyone's attempt to untangle this complexity commands attention, however, it's Tim Berners-Lee, the physicist credited with inventing the World Wide Web in 1989. On Sept. 5, his organization, The World Wide Web Foundation, released its first Web Index. Topped by Sweden, the U.S., and the U.K., the ranking is an unprecedented look at how Internet use and effectiveness vary across the globe.
The 51-page report, funded by a $1 million grant from Google, reflects 85 variables drawn from surveys commissioned for the study, and numerous existing data sources. Countries were judged in three areas: Communication and Institutional Infrastructure; Web Content and Web Use; and Political, Economic, and Social Impacts.
Among the 61 countries surveyed, Sweden finished on top. It posted top-five rankings in every area except Web Use and Content, which were limited by the relatively small amount of online material in Swedish. As runner-up, the U.S. dominated Institutional Infrastructure and Content categories, but lagged behind Northern Europe in citizen use. The U.K.'s third-place finish owed to a profile broadly similar to the U.S.'s. Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, and Yemen rounded out the Index's lowest rankings.
[ The Internet makes fact checking easier than ever before, but research suggests that the echo chamber effect persists. See Truth, Lies, and the Internet. ]
Not surprisingly, the Foundation's findings correlate closely with gross domestic product (GDP) per capita: seven of the top 10 nations in the latter also appear in the top 10 of the former. The role of technology in the U.S. economy contributed to its high rating, but local tech industries weren't an all-out indicator of a nation's effective and influential Web use--19 countries checked into the Index ahead of Japan, for example. Some nations also rated notably lower than their pocketbooks would imply: Qatar, which topped the GDP per capita list, was only 21 in the Index, and Italy, 17th highest in GDP per capita, was 23, Western Europe's lowest score.
The Index heavily considered infrastructure. Low-ranking countries, such as those in Africa, were generally characterized by high Internet access costs and poor infrastructure. Finland, in contrast, finished fifth partly because its 2010 decision to make broadband access a right has resulted in about 90% of its citizens using the Web. Despite a high ranking, the U.S., which excelled in government and organization-based infrastructure, lost ground in this category. Only around three-quarters of the population uses the Internet, and several countries--including Canada, Ireland, and Norway--outpace the U.S. in percentage of households with personal computers. The U.S.'s relatively low bandwidth speeds are also to blame. Singapore maintains a huge lead in this metric; with average bandwidth clocking in at 547,064 megabits per second, it outpaces second-place Iceland by over 90%.
Money and infrastructure, however, don't always translate into effective Web use. Qatar's ranking of 21--which represents the largest differential between Index listing and GDP per capita--is owed to relatively low content production, and relatively little use of the Web for political impact. The U.S. and the U.K., meanwhile, fare very well in content ratings because the global audience for English-language material is so large.
In addition to actual measurements, the Index seeks to set an example. A philosophy is implicit in the Index's methodology, with a collaborative, open Web constantly held up as a statistical ideal. That the study's top 10 are all listed as "full democracies" in the most recent Democracy Index seems to confirm a philosophical underpinning.
In the report, Berners-Lee explicitly criticizes Internet use that violates open tenets: "When people go on social networking sites today, they often connect with … people who aren't very different from themselves. As a result, they can unknowingly demonize other cultures without even being aware of their own inhumanity."
Future indexes might use slightly different metrics as the Web evolves, said the Foundation. It acknowledged that current data is incomplete and welcomed input as it tries to bring the Web to the 60% of the world population that currently lacks access. The Foundation said it hopes the study will shape public and private policy, and notes several downward trends--such as Russia's blogosphere growth being curbed by recent government crackdowns--that it hopes its research will reverse.
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