Growing movements to protect digital privacy, build more responsible AI, and rein in big tech named most positive trends for a healthier internet
Annual report cites pervasive AI bias, biometrics abuse, and increased government censorship as most disturbing developments
Mountain View, CA (April 24 2019) – Growing movements to protect digital privacy, build more responsible artificial intelligence, and rein in the power of the eight big tech companies were cited as the most positive developments for a healthier internet, while pervasive AI bias, biometrics abuse, and increased government censorship were named the most disturbing trends according to 2019 Internet Health Report, released today by the Mozilla Foundation.
Mozilla, the nonprofit creator of the Firefox browser and other open-source tools, released its first full-length Internet Health Report in 2018 with the goal of sparking a social movement that engages policymakers, business, and the public in protecting the internet as a global resource that is open, secure, humane, and accessible to all. Created in collaboration with Mozilla Fellows and allies from around the world, the 2019 report compiles research, interviews with experts, data analysis and visualizations, and original reporting to reveal how the internet is evolving across five issues critical to its health: privacy and security, decentralization, openness, digital inclusion, and web literacy.
“Over the past year, people around the world have started to realize 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 has added up to a big mess,” said Mark Surman, Executive Director of The Mozilla Foundation. “The good news is that there are signs we are beginning to push the digital world in a better direction – from Europe stepping up efforts to thwart disinformation ahead of the EU elections to tech companies making ads more transparent. 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.”
Positive trends in the past year that show that the internet — and humanity’s relationship with it — is getting healthier according to the 2019 Internet Health Report are:
- 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 translates 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Areas where internet health has gotten worse over the past year — or where there are new disturbing developments:
- 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.
The 2019 Internet Health Report also identifies three issues that present both challenges and opportunities to building a healthier internet:
- The need for better machine decision making — from who designs the algorithms to what data AI systems feed on
- Rethinking the ad economy, so surveillance and addiction are no longer design necessities
- How the rise of smart cities presents local governments with greater power to integrate tech in a way that serves the public good, not commercial interests.
The 2019 Internet Health Report includes the debut of a new feature that allows the public to create and share their own reading lists, or explore ones curated by leading internet advocates such as Esra’a Al Shafei, Joi Ito, and Luis Diaz Carlos. It also includes a “What You Can Do” section with information on how readers can both create a healthier internet for themselves and advocate for a healthier internet.
Mozilla is a nonprofit that believes the internet must always remain a global public resource, open and accessible to all. Its work is guided by the Mozilla Manifesto. The direct work of the Mozilla Foundation focuses on fueling the movement for an open internet. Mozilla does this by connecting open internet leaders with each other and by mobilizing grassroots activists around the world. The Foundation is also the sole shareholder in the Mozilla Corporation, the maker of Firefox and other open source tools. Mozilla Corporation functions as a self-sustaining social enterprise — money earned through its products is reinvested into the organization.