In its first full “Internet Health Report,” the nonprofit combines research and stories to examine five main issues: privacy and security, openness, digital inclusion, web literacy, and decentralization. “It’s really a look at human life on the internet,” says Mark Surman, the executive director of the Mozilla Foundation.
Mozilla notes that the state of the internet isn’t all bad; more people are connecting to it than ever, it’s becoming cheaper for them to do so, and their data is more likely to be encrypted. In other areas though, things are getting worse. State-sanctioned internet censorship has become more widespread, online harassment has grown more severe, and the companies that control the internet largely don’t reflect the diversity of their users.
Beyond these problems, Mozilla specifically calls attention to three issues: securing the internet of things, so-called fake news, and the monopolization of the internet by companies like Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google. (Mozilla funds Firefox, a browser that competes directly with Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome.)
Mozilla also highlights what it calls the “core business models” of the internet, which rely on collecting as much data about users as possible, and then selling that information to advertisers. This is how Facebook and Google have made the bulk of their profits. Mozilla argues these business models carry a constant risk that information will be leaked or misused, resulting in incidents like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica fiasco. Surman argues, though, that internet businesses don’t necessarily have to continue to rely on invasive data collecting to be profitable.
“We’re in this kind of fat data economy, where we collect as much as we can and let it interconnect, and then we end up with these toxic data spills,” he says. “It’s a human decision to have the advertising system work the way that it does. We could have a much leaner, more ethical set of data-driven advertising practices if we actually set our mind to it. We do know how to turn things around and it’s a human system, it’s not so mysterious.”
Part of the reason data collection has become so expansive is that many users aren’t aware of the extent to which it happens. As Mozilla’s report points out, those coming onto the internet today face hidden risks like deceptive advertisements, phishing scams, and misleading news and information. While today’s smartphones can often be used without so much as an instruction manual, digital literacy has yet to become part of most education systems. Just look at the world’s most-used passwords; they all remain woefully insecure. Internet platforms have historically been incentivized to ensure people spend lots of time on them, without much care given to ensuring people do so safely.
Mozilla has also worked to to provide a counterpoint to the internet’s woes. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, for example, Firefox released a browser extension that blocks Facebook from tracking you when you’re not using the social network. The non-profit also stopped advertising on Facebook, and released a petition calling for it to amend its privacy practices. Mozilla also already invests in Cliqz GmbH, a company that develops a privacy-oriented browser.