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It’s Complicated: Mozilla’s 2019 Internet Health Report

This press release is originally published at Mozilla Foundation. This press release has been authored by Mark Surman.

Our annual open-source report examines how humanity and the internet intersect. Here’s what we found

Today, Mozilla is publishing the 2019 Internet Health Report — our third annual examination of the internet, its impact on society and how it influences our everyday lives.

The Report paints a mixed picture of what life online looks like today. We’re more connected than ever, with humanity passing the ‘50% of us are now online’ mark earlier this year. And, while almost all of us enjoy the upsides of being connected, we also worry about how the internet and social media are impacting our children, our jobs and our democracies.

When we published last year’s Report, the world was watching the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal unfold — and these worries were starting to grow. Millions of people were realizing that widespread, laissez-faire sharing of our personal data, the massive growth and centralization of the tech industry, and the misuse of online ads and social media was adding up to a big mess.

Over the past year, more and more people started asking: what are we going to do about this mess? How do we push the digital world in a better direction?

As people asked these questions, our ability to see the underlying problems with the system — and to imagine solutions — has evolved tremendously. Recently, we’ve seen governments across Europe step up efforts to monitor and thwart disinformation ahead of the upcoming EU elections. We’ve seen the big tech companies try everything from making ads more transparent to improving content recommendation algorithms to setting up ethics boards (albeit with limited effect and with critics saying, ‘you need to do much more!’). And, we’ve seen CEOs and policymakers and activists wrestling with each other over where to go next. We have not ‘fixed’ the problems, but it does feel like we’ve entered a new, sustained 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 and visualization, and original reporting. It was also built with input from you, the reader: In 2018, we asked readers what issues they wanted to see in the next Report.

In the Report’s three spotlight articles, we unpack three big issues: One examines the need for better machine decision making — that is, asking questions like Who designs the algorithms? and What data do they feed on? and Who is being discriminated against? Another examines ways to rethink the ad economy, so surveillance and addiction are no longer design necessities.  The third spotlight article examines the rise of smart cities, and how local governments can integrate tech in a way that serves the public good, not commercial interests.

Of course, the Report isn’t limited to just three topics. Other highlights include articles on the threat of deepfakes, the potential of user-owned social media platforms, pornography literacy initiatives, investment in undersea cables, and the dangers of sharing DNA results online.

So, what’s our conclusion? How healthy is the internet right 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 are becoming mainstream. The last year brought a tectonic shift in public awareness about privacy and security in the digital world, in great part due to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. That awareness is continuing to grow — and also translate into action. European regulators, with help from civil society watchdogs and individual internet users, are enforcing the GDPR: In recent months, Google has been fined €50 million for GDPR violations in France, and tens of thousands of violation complaints have been filed across the continent.

There’s a movement to build more responsible AI. As the flaws with today’s AI become more apparent, technologists and activists are speaking up and building solutions. Initiatives like the Safe Face Pledge seek facial analysis technology that serves the common good. And experts like Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, are lending their insight to influential bodies like the Federal Trade Commission and the EU’S Global Tech Panel.

Questions about the impact of ‘big tech’ are growing. Over the past year, more and more people focused their attention on the fact that eight companies control much of the internet. As a result, cities are emerging as a counterweight, ensuring municipal technology prioritizes human rights over profit — the Cities for Digital Rights Coalition now has more than two dozen participants. Employees at Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are demanding that their employers don’t use or sell their tech for nefarious purposes. And ideas like platform cooperativism and collaborative ownership are beginning to be discussed as alternatives.

On the flipside, there are many areas where things have gotten worse over the past year — or where there are new developments that worry us:

Internet censorship is flourishing. Governments worldwide continue to restrict internet access in a multitude of ways, ranging from outright censorship to requiring people to pay additional taxes to use social media. In 2018, there were 188 documented internet shutdowns around the world. And a new form of repression is emerging: internet slowdowns. Governments and law enforcement restrict access to the point where a single tweet takes hours to load. These slowdowns diffuse blame, making it easier for oppressive regimes to deny responsibility.

Biometrics are being abused. When large swaths of a population don’t have access to physical IDs, digital ID systems have the potential to make a positive difference. But in practice, digital ID schemes often benefit heavy-handed governments and private actors, not individuals. In India, over 1 billion citizens were put at risk by a vulnerability in Aadhaar, the government’s biometric ID system. And in Kenya, human rights groups took the government to court over its soon-to-be-mandatory National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS), which is designed to capture people’s DNA information, the GPS location of their home, and more.

AI is amplifying injustice. Tech giants in the U.S. and China are training and deploying AI at a breakneck pace that doesn’t account for potential harms and externalities. As a result, technology used in law enforcement, banking, job recruitment, and advertising often discriminates against women and people of color due to flawed data, false assumptions, and lack of technical audits. Some companies are creating ‘ethics boards’ to allay concerns — but critics say these boards have little or no impact.

When you look at trends like these — and many others across the Report — the upshot is: the internet has the potential both to uplift and connect us. But it also has the potential to harm and tear us apart. This has become clearer to more and more people in the last few years. It has also become clear that we need to step up and do something if we want the digital world to net out as 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, more humane digital world. In this year’s Report, you’ll hear from technologists in Ethiopia, digital rights lawyers in Poland, human rights researchers from Iran and China, and dozens of others. We’re indebted to these individuals for the work they do every day. And also to the countless people in the Mozilla community — 200+ staff, fellows, volunteers, like-minded organizations — who helped make this Report possible and who are committed to making the internet a better place for all of us.

This Report is designed to be both a reflection and resource for this kind of work. It is meant to offer technologists and designers inspiration about what they might build; to give policymakers context and ideas for the laws they need to write; and, most of all, to provide citizens and activists with a picture of 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 doing something in our work and our lives that we will create an internet that is open, human and humane.

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