Our annual open source report examines how humanity and the internet intersect. This is what we found
Today, Mozilla publishes its 2019 Internet Health Report – the third annual examination of the Internet, its impact on society and how it affects our daily lives.
The report paints a mixed picture of what life on the Internet looks like today. We’re more connected than ever, as humanity passed the “50% of us online now” mark earlier this year. And while nearly all of us enjoy the positive aspects of communication, we also worry about how the internet and social media are affecting our children, our jobs, and our democracies.
When we published our report last year, the world was watching the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal unfold — and those concerns began to grow. Millions of people were aware that the widespread sharing of our personal data, the lack of interference, the explosive growth and centralization of the technology industry, and the misuse of online advertising and social media were adding more chaos.
Over the past year, more and more people have started asking: What are we going to do about this mess? How do we push the digital world in a better direction?
When people asked these questions, our ability to see the underlying problems in the system—and to visualize the solutions—improved tremendously. Recently, we’ve seen governments across Europe ramp up their efforts to monitor and thwart disinformation ahead of the upcoming EU elections. We’ve seen big tech companies try everything from making ads more transparent to improving content recommendation algorithms to creating ethics boards (albeit with limited impact and with critics saying”You have to do so much more!‘). And we’ve seen CEOs, policymakers, and activists wrestle with each other over where to go next. We haven’t “fixed” the problems, but we seem to have entered a new and ongoing era of debate about what a healthy digital society should look like.
The 2019 Internet Health Report examines the story behind these stories, using interviews with experts, data analysis, visualization, and original reporting. Also created with input from you, reader: In 2018, we asked our readers what issues they wanted to see in our next report.
In the report’s three notable articles, we’ve broken down three big issues: One is examining the need for better automated decision-making—that is, asking questions like Who designs the algorithms? And the What data do they feed on? And the Who is discriminated against? It examines the latest in rethinking the advertising economy, so surveillance and addiction are no longer a design imperative. The third highlight article deals with the rise of smart cities, and how local governments can integrate technology in a way that serves the common good, not commercial interests.
Of course, the report is not limited to just three topics. Other highlights include articles on the threat of deepfakes, the potential of user-owned social media platforms, porn literacy initiatives, investing in undersea cables, and the dangers of sharing DNA findings online.
So, what is our conclusion? How healthy is the internet now? It’s complicated – the digital environment is a complex ecosystem, just like the planet we live on. There have been a number of positive trends in the past year that show that the Internet – and our relationship with it – is getting healthier:
Calls for privacy became prevalent. The past year brought about a drastic shift in public awareness about privacy and security in the digital world, due in large part to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This awareness continues to grow – and also translates into action. European regulators, with the help of civil society watchdogs and individual Internet users, are enforcing the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): in recent months, Google has been fined 50 million euros for violations of France’s GDPR, and tens of thousands of abuse complaints have been lodged across the country. the continent.
There is a movement to build more responsible artificial intelligence. With today’s AI flaws becoming increasingly apparent, technologists and activists are talking and creating solutions. Initiatives such as Safe Face Pledge seek facial analysis technology that serves the public good. Experts like Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, lend their insights to influential bodies such as the Federal Trade Commission and the European Union’s Global Technology Commission.
Questions are growing about the impact of “big technology”. Over the past year, more and more people have focused their attention on the fact that eight companies control a large part of the Internet. As a result, cities are emerging as a counterweight, ensuring that municipal technology prioritizes human rights over profit – the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights now has more than two dozen participants. Employees at Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are asking employers not to use or sell their technology for nefarious purposes. Ideas such as the cooperative platform and cooperative ownership as alternatives began to be discussed.
On the flip side, there are several areas where things have gotten worse over the past year – or where there are new developments that worry us:
Internet censorship is booming. Governments around the world continue to restrict internet access in many ways, ranging from outright censorship to requiring people to pay extra taxes for social media use. In 2018, there were 188 documented internet shutdowns around the world. And a new form of repression is emerging: the slowdown of the Internet. Governments and law enforcement are restricting access to the point where it takes hours to upload a single tweet. These slowdowns dissipate blame, making it easier for repressive regimes to deny responsibility.
Biometrics are being misused. When large segments of the population do not have access to physical identifiers, digital identity systems have the potential to make a positive difference. But in practice, digital identity schemes often benefit governments and private actors, not individuals. In India, more than a billion citizens have been put at risk due to a weakness in Aadhaar, the government’s biometric identity system. And in Kenya, human rights groups have taken the government to court over the soon-to-compulsory National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS), which is designed to capture people’s DNA information, the GPS location of their home, and more.
Artificial intelligence amplifies injustice. Tech giants in the United States and China are training and deploying AI at a rapid pace that does not take into account potential externalities and damage. As a result, technology used in law enforcement, banking, employment, and advertising often discriminates against women and people of color due to flawed data, faulty assumptions, and a lack of technical scrutiny. Some companies are setting up “ethics boards” to allay concerns – but critics say these boards have little or no impact.
When you look at trends like this – and many others across the report – the conclusion is this: the Internet has the power to uplift and connect us together. But it can also potentially hurt and divide us. This has become more and more apparent to an increasing number of people in the past few years. It is also becoming clear that we need to step things up and do something if we want the digital world to become a positive for humanity rather than a negative.
The good news is that more and more people are dedicating their lives to creating a healthier and more humane digital world. In this year’s report, you’ll hear from tech experts in Ethiopia, digital rights lawyers in Poland, human rights researchers from Iran and China, and dozens more. We owe it to these individuals for the work they do every day. And also to the countless people in the Mozilla community—more than 200 employees, colleagues, volunteers, and like-minded organizations—who helped make this report possible and are committed to making the Internet a better place for all of us.
This report is designed to be both a reflection and a resource for this type of work. It aims to provide technologists and designers with inspiration on what they might build; To give policy makers the context and ideas for the laws they need to write; Most of all, providing a picture of citizens and activists showing where others are pushing for a better internet, in the hope that more and more people around the world will push for change themselves. Ultimately, it is by more and more of us do something In our work and life, we will create an open and humane Internet.
I urge you to read the report, leave comments and share widely.