The Internet has a case of the sniffles, with several symptoms keeping it from being as robust as it could be, according to a new Internet Health Report from Mozilla.
Major challenges facing the Internet include a collapse of privacy protections, the unabated spread of fake news, and the consolidation of power at giant tech companies, said Mozilla, the nonprofit creator of the Firefox browser and other open-source software.
Many people “have started to argue that technology companies are becoming too dominant; social media has been weaponized as a tool of harassment; our personal information has been stolen; and democratic processes have been undermined by the manipulation of online media and ads,” the report says.
The software maker called on Internet users to take action by learning how to better protect their privacy and to identify misinformation. “We believe the only way to keep the Internet in the hands of all of us is to ask for it, build it, and demand it,” Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, said by email. “Consumers, governments and technologists need to push for fair competition, open innovation, interoperability and standards so the Internet can evolve in more healthy and humane ways.”
The report gives the Internet a mixed diagnosis, saying a determination on its health is “not a simple question.” Indicators related to access, affordability, and the use of encryption are “getting a bit better,” while censorship, online harassment, and energy use are getting worse.
A growing tension between free speech and harassment is hurting the Internet, while growing technologies like open-source hardware and Blockchain hold great promise, the report says.
Meanwhile, many Internet users are starting to take a more nuanced view of the benefits of the Internet, the report says. “More people are opening their eyes to the real impact the Internet has on our societies, economies, and personal wellbeing,” it says. “We are beginning to see the health of the Internet as not just a technical issue, but a human one.”
The lengthy report, preceded by a prototype report released in early 2017, addresses several issues, but focuses on privacy risks, fake news, and tech consolidation as three major issues to address.
A loss of privacy: The report looks at insecure Internet-of-things devices as a serious problem for privacy, with fitness tracks, kitchen appliances, and light bulbs all starting to connect to the larger Internet. The “attack surface” of the Internet is growing, it says.
“We could worry about creeps on the lookout for unsuspecting naked people, or financial fraud, or invasive advertising or political manipulation,” it adds. “Do cars share our driving habits with insurance companies? Do vacuum cleaners trade in information about the layout of our homes?”
Fake news on the rise: Recent political campaigns in the United States and other countries have been marred by the spread of misinformation, the report says. As more people get their news from social media, they depend on websites that display the content that attracts the most attention. “This ends up favoring headlines that scream for reactions,” the report says.
A cottage industry of fake news has appeared, with some groups targeting elections. “Online misinformation is a major threat to the health of the Internet and all of the societies it touches because of the potential for political disorder, undermining of the truth, hatred and rumors that spread in conflict or disasters,” the report says. Part of the threat is “attempted quick fixes by politicians” that may threaten the openness of the Internet.
Big tech consolidation: A handful of huge tech companies have become “intertwined not only with our daily lives, but with all aspects of the global economy, civic discourse, and democracy itself,” according to the report.
These large companies have brought several benefits by helping communication, creativity, and commerce flourish, the report says. But some of the major online companies have become “too big.”
“The problem isn’t that these companies have billion-dollar valuations, hundreds of millions of users, or large acquisition portfolios,” the report adds. “Through monopolistic business practices … they undermine privacy, openness, and competition on the Web.”
The report calls on Internet users to take action to improve its health. Mozilla doesn’t recommend one or two specific actions, but it asks users to model good practices, such as learning about online data collection practices, learning how to identify online abuse, and improve their “crap detection” skills.
The report also urges Internet users to discuss and debate the Internet’s health and its shortcoming, and to get involved in organizations working to keep the Internet healthy.
“We, as humans, can change the Internet for the better,” it says. “This report is a … call to action for everyone who is ready, in big ways and small, to take on this challenge.”
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