11/11/2016 09:37 GMT | Updated 11/11/2017 05:12 GMT

Connecting the Next Billion and Beyond - Powering Equal Internet Access for All

Internet access brings vast new possibilities in nearly every aspect of life. We all experience this every day - from the individual and community level, to business growth and better governance. Yet half of humanity lacks these opportunities. This must change.

Today, more than four billion people remain unconnected to the web, according to the World Economic Forum. One of the biggest challenges of our time is to connect the unconnected, making Internet access and use a realistic possibility for all, regardless of gender, income or geography. Imagine billions of empowered people, millions of strengthened communities, thousands of thriving businesses, and hundreds of breakthrough innovations powered by the full diversity of the open Internet. No single organisation or effort can tackle this challenge alone. It needs joint forces, ongoing commitment and practical, action-oriented, new thinking.

Today's Reality

The digital divide is a clear and persistent reality. Over 55% of the global population cannot access the open Web so miss out on the potential social, economic, and civic benefits that result from access. And we also observe a gender gap: Women are far less likely to use the Internet; only 37% versus 59% of men, according to surveys by the World Wide Web Foundation.

The barriers to Internet access are complex and multidimensional. The lack of infrastructure, and affordability are major and quite obvious factors. The disproportionate costs of access mean even those who are rising from poverty cannot access the Internet. But people also don't connect due to a lack of trust and social acceptance. Or because they can't find enough content and services that are relevant to them, that are local or localized.

So clearly access alone is not sufficient - we need inclusion and openness. Pre-selected content and walled gardens powered by specific providers subvert the participatory nature of the Internet that makes it such a powerful platform. Offering just a partial version of the Internet does not yield the same social, educational, gender, and economic benefits that providing access to the full diversity of the open Internet does.

The Need for Open Innovation

For the Internet to continue to contribute to the evolution and growth of the global economy in an equal and unbiased manner we need an underlying system that is content-agnostic, not subject to gatekeepers, and not based on "pay-for-play" provisions. We need combined individual, corporate, government, and philanthropic efforts to make the world's largest shared public resource truly open and accessible to all.

And importantly, we need to shift our mindset to imagine a broader set of possible solutions. This is why we seek to engage entrepreneurs, designers, researchers and innovators from all over the world to propose ideas and work together on actionable solutions. This will cultivate digital literacy and affordable access to the open Internet faster and more targeted than any one single effort ever could.

Collaborative projects such as Mozilla's Equal Rating Innovation Challenge, focused on identifying creative new solutions to connect the unconnected are pivotal to this mission. Incentivising a global community of problem solvers through competitive projects, expert mentorship and funding we feel is a great way of sparking new ideas and bringing solutions to the market that have the potential to really open the Internet up. These ideas may range from creating open consumer products and novel mobile services to new business models and infrastructure proposals. The submissions process for the challenge has just opened and we are excited about engaging with a great variety of ideas.

How we solve inequality in Internet access and how fast is a critical question. Billions of people's futures are depending on us as a connected society to share our privilege with them. How will you help us build the next generation of the open Internet?