Towards a World Wide Web without digital inequality - Image
Credit: PNAS

Towards a World Wide Web without digital inequality

29 March 2023

The World Wide Web (WWW) empowers people in developing regions by eradicating illiteracy, supporting women, and generating economic opportunities. However, their reliance on limited bandwidth and low-end phones leaves them with a poorer browsing experience compared to privileged users across the digital divide. To evaluate the extent of this phenomenon, we sent participants to 56 cities to measure the cost of mobile data and the average page load time. We found the cost to be orders of magnitude greater, and the average page load time to be four times slower, in some locations compared to others. Analyzing how popular webpages have changed over the past years suggests that they are increasingly designed with high processing power in mind, effectively leaving the less fortunate users behind. A more practical solution is to make the web pages more accessible by reducing their size and optimizing their load time. To this end, we developed a solution called Lite-Web and evaluated it in the Gilgit-Baltistan province of Pakistan, demonstrating that transforms the browsing experience of a Pakistani villager using a low-end phone almost that of a Dubai resident using a flagship phone. A user study in two high schools in Pakistan confirms that the performance gains come at no expense to the pages’ look and functionality. These findings suggest that deploying Lite-Web at scale would constitute a major step toward a WWW without digital inequality.