Mozilla’s first Internet Health Report is a timely read
Privacy advocates Mozilla have released their first ‘Internet Health Report’ during a year when net neutrality rules are being repealed, and Facebook’s CEO is testifying in front of the Senate over the company’s failure to protect users’ data.
Mozilla expresses concern for a handful of companies with an unhealthy amount of power and influence over the internet. Many of our readers will be able to list at least the Western companies — Google, Facebook, and Amazon. In China, Mozilla is concerned about the likes of Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent.
The company documents the case of Chris Hartgerink, a Mozilla Fellow and a PhD candidate in statistics at Tilburg University in The Netherlands, who, in 2014, decided to leave Gmail and switch to ProtonMail’s encrypted service. His friends thought he was strange for doing so.
“This social aspect just made opting-out of these services even more difficult,” says Hartgerink. “I’m sure it would have prevented others from making the same decision.”
Facebook is a great example of this. Polls show time and time again the company is the least trusted major tech company, even prior to the current scandal with Cambridge Analytica. But many continue to use the service because so many others use it.
This consolidation of power has a worrying impact on boxing out competitors — leading to reduced innovation, as well as being able to get away with shadier practices. Mozilla predicts it could get worse as their size enables them to make advances in areas like artificial intelligence which further reduces the ability of smaller companies to compete.
“If no search engine can ever challenge Google, and no local apps can ever gain a sustainable market share, the opportunity promised by a free and open Internet erode,” wrote Mozilla in a post. “Open source challengers to social media giants, such as Diaspora and Mastodon, are few and far between, and they may at best deliver a proof-of-concept for an alternative future unless people can move their data freely.”
Next on Mozilla’s agenda is putting the spotlight on safety, or rather the lack of it. We’ve already seen the launch of websites collecting and enabling the viewing of the many IoT security cameras which are left unsecured or using default passwords.
IoT devices are expected to double from 2015 to around 30 billion worldwide in 2020. Cameras are just one example, but devices such as fitness trackers can provide deep insight on things like your health, daily habits, and even your location. Even a vacuum cleaner may leak details about the layout of your home.
Outside the home, other threats can emerge. Lifts or connected cars may be remotely controlled, for example, or entire smart cities effectively shut down or manipulated. Just imagine the devastation which could be caused by a hacker accessing traffic lights.
With AI talent in small reserves, there’s also concern developed solutions may suffer from bias and not be representative of everyone they serve. It’s no secret that Silicon Valley is dominated by white males. In fact, studies have already proven that facial recognition technology has more difficulty recognising people of colour and women than white men.
“Diversity in the tech industry is a huge issue across the board, but existentially important regarding the social and political impacts of AI,” says Meredith Whittaker, Co-Founder of the AI Now Institute. “We need to worry about the types of control possible when a small, homogeneous set of actors are responsible for technology that is influencing the lives of billions of people.”
Fake news is yet another concern. You may hear President Donald Trump shouting about it so much that you begin to blank it out, but it’s a serious problem. This, of course, all ties into voter manipulation — and it was quite possibly Cambridge Analytica’s use of stolen Facebook data which got Trump elected.
The report even cites an example of teenagers in Veles, Macedonia, who realised how lucrative writing fake stories favouring Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton could be:
"Investigative journalists in different countries (starting from as early as six months before the U.S. election day) traced the origins of thousands of ‘fake news’ stories to a small town in Macedonia called Veles that used to be known for its porcelain. Young people here have created hundreds of websites with headlines in English designed to rake in digital ad dollars. They produce websites on anything from health and sports to finance and more.
But what they found most lucrative? Stories about Donald Trump. Exploiting the same social media mechanics as described above, Macedonian teenagers were able to make the “attention economy” work for them. Realistically speaking, these are the same dynamics that make Trump the biggest story in mainstream U.S. digital news media. People click, ads pay, more articles are written."
One thing is clear, the internet is not in a healthy state. Fixing all its problems will be a monumental task.
There needs to be regulation, while still enabling the freedom to let innovation thrive. Freedom of speech maintained, but where to draw the line. All of it requires a fine balance that we’ve got very wrong today.
You can find the full report here.
What are your thoughts on Mozilla’s first Internet Health Report? Let us know in the comments.
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