Capping a year where the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to rely even more on the internet, Mozilla’s 2020 Internet Health Report reveals an online ecosystem that is increasingly compromised by racial bias, misinformation, and anti-worker policies. But, one which still has the potential to create a more just, equitable, and humane society.
The annual Mozilla report, in its third year, diagnoses and spotlights three major threats to the health of the internet:
- Built-in racial bias is exacerbating discrimination
- Big tech’s lack of transparency is enabling the spread of violence, unrest, and disease
- The gig work model is trampling the rights of workers worldwide
The report also unpacks potential solutions to these problems, like creating data co-operatives that empower gig workers, and mandating that internet platforms reveal how and why algorithmic decisions are made.
“In 2020, we’ve experienced first-hand how the internet is essential to survival while also witnessing how it can irreparably harm society – from fuelling the spread of a pandemic to corrupting democracy and diminishing human rights and worker rights,” said Solana Larsen, editor of Mozilla’s Internet Health Report. “At the same time, the Internet Health Report reveals that there are people, policies, and projects all over the world showing how it is possible to improve it.”
To bring the current health of the internet to life, the 2020 Internet Health Report features 35 data visualizations highlighting trends, including: which internet giants have accrued the most power and money; how quickly COVID misinformation spreads online; the toll that data processing takes on the environment; and the frequency of internet shutdowns (there was an internet shutdown in progress every single day of the year somewhere in the world).
The report’s infographics also show the inequality of internet access and the need for targeted policies around public infrastructure investment. With nearly half of the world still offline, it’s clear that citizens in a number of African, Asian and South American countries are being prevented from accessing the internet due to prohibitive mobile broadband and smartphone costs.
Interviews with 100 leading activists, policymakers, and researchers from around the world on the events of 2020 that most harmed or helped the internet, also feature in the report.
Mozilla, the nonprofit creator of the Firefox browser and other open-source tools, released its first Internet Health Report in 2018 with the goal of sparking a social movement that engages policymakers, businesses, and the public in protecting the internet as a global resource that is open, secure, humane, and accessible to all.
Further details on the three major threats to the health of the Internet identified in the report (viewable here):
- Built-in racial bias reinforcing discrimination. Example after example revealed that the internet and artificial intelligence are neither colour-blind nor neutral, and that inclusion cannot be an afterthought. Facial recognition misidentifies dark-skinned faces, search engine results reinforce harmful stereotypes, and the tech industry remains overwhelmingly homogenous. At the same time, the Movement for Black Lives has lit a fire under new and old conversations around racial justice and technology worldwide. Critiques of technologies that surveil, discriminate, and oppress based on biased data have grown sharper.
- A lack of Big Tech transparency leading to real world harms. The recent shocking events in the US highlighted so clearly how social media platforms can be used as megaphones to incite violence and spread disinformation – something we have seen time and again around the world. Despite years of complaints, there remains a worrying lack of transparency about the platform algorithms, governance and community dynamics at the heart of these models, preventing greater understanding and accountability. As different regulatory frameworks are considered worldwide, we urgently need radically increased transparency – so together we can make the right choices to protect those vulnerable to harm.
- The promotion of a gig work model that tramples labour rights As the world enters a new phase of computing — AI — labour rights are at an inflection point. Sprawling internet platforms and sophisticated apps like Uber have created an ecosystem of gig workers deprived of basic labour rights. They earn astonishingly low wages, report to capricious algorithms, and have little or no legal protections. At the same time gig workers are pushing back and new initiatives to rethink and rebalance power over data are giving them some leverage against the tech industry they work within.
Other notable trends that the Report identified in 2020 include:
- The ‘tech-lash’ is finally bearing fruit, with tech employees leading change. In 2020, souring public opinion towards tech companies began to manifest as real change, with employees often leading that change. As a result, Big Tech is facing more antitrust threats. Facial recognition bans are becoming more common. Tech employees are increasingly raising their voices about insufficient diversity, labour rights, and contracts with military and law enforcement. Whistleblowers are coming forward more with concerns. And new data models are emerging as alternatives to Big Tech.
- The internet is splintering. In 2020, there was an internet shutdown in progress every single day of the year somewhere in the world. The so-called “splinternet” is becoming a reality, with access to large swathes of the internet being increasingly restricted at a country level due to social or political conflict. Censorship, surveillance, and content manipulation are closing off opportunities for people to participate openly and securely online.
- Big Tech is getting bigger. In 2020, seven companies predominantly controlled the internet and its infrastructure: Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook, Tencent, and Alibaba. And four of the most used social media platforms are owned by Facebook: Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. Meanwhile, even “Smaller Tech” depends on Big Tech: When you use Netflix or Zoom, for example, you’re using Amazon Web Services. Bolstered by the pandemic, Amazon’s profits rose nearly 200% in 2020.
- The most powerful AI is inscrutable. The AI powering consumer tech platforms — like Facebook’s newsfeed and YouTube recommendations — is a globally influential force. These technologies influence what billions of people see, read, and, ultimately, believe. Yet they are opaque. Up to 70% of videos watched on YouTube are recommended by algorithms without any oversight — which leads to recommendation loops that sow misinformation, reinforce false and harmful narratives, and polarize and radicalize populations. The biggest platforms don’t disclose how they develop and train their algorithms, and there are few mechanisms to hold companies accountable for their impact in the world.