As part of a broader initiative to support the creation of an open, safe and accessible Internet, Mozilla recently released its first-ever Internet Health Report. According to this report, there are three big challenges currently facing the Internet: Big Tech’s growing power, the collapse of privacy, and the spread of fake news. All of these challenges point to deeper problems with the Internet, including a broken online advertising economy and issues with IoT security.
Recent high-profile events – such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, are just symptoms of these broader problems. For example, as the Mozilla Internet Health Report points out, the Cambridge Analytica scandal was linked to Facebook’s nearly unchecked power to access private user data, as well as the ability of third-party vendors to access that data without the consent of users. Given Cambridge Analytica’s use of that data during the U.S. presidential election in 2016, the scandal is also linked to the spread of fake news and the ability of Internet to impact the functioning of democracy.
“While the steady drumbeat of headlines about privacy breaches and fake news may make it seem like the Internet is spinning out of control, the Internet Health Report takes a step back so that we can see the bigger picture of how all these issue connect and how they impact the everyday experience of living online,” said Mark Surman, Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation. As the report makes clear, the three challenges highlighted within the Internet Health Report are of special significance not only for policymakers, White House officials and business leaders, but also for the broader Internet-using public.
Big Tech’s growing power
One of the most important issues highlighted in the Mozilla Internet Health Report was the problem of big Silicon Valley Internet companies – including Google and Facebook – controlling much of the Internet. In some cases, such as digital advertising, Big Tech companies such as Facebook and Google have a near duopoly. In the report, Mozilla specifically notes that five U.S. companies control most of the Internet in nearly every country, with the exception of China, which has its own Internet giants.
A guiding principle of the Mozilla Foundation (creators of the Firefox browser and other open source tools) is that the Internet should be open, safe and accessible. Thus, when a Big Tech company like Google is able to monopolize an area such as Internet advertising or Internet search, it has very profound consequences for the very structure of the Web.
In many ways, Google is able to push through new changes and new formats that work to its benefit. For example, take the area of Internet search – nearly 90% of the world uses Google as its search engine, and that means Google can control how companies appear in search results. Any tweak to the Google search algorithm automatically impacts nearly every business in the world. When you add in the fact that Google Chrome is one of the most popular web browsers in the world, that is when you have a situation where power has been centralized, not decentralized.
Moreover, when it comes to pending legislation – such as a possible U.S. version of the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – these Big Tech giants can play a disproportionate role in making sure that any changes to the way the Internet works does not upset the current status quo.
The collapse of privacy and IoT security issues
Across the Internet, users are finally waking up to the reality that they are no longer in control of their own data. The current controversy surrounding Facebook makes that loud and clear. In the scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, user Facebook data was essentially handed over to a third party without the permission of users. Moreover, in many cases, it was not just user data that was compromised – it was also the data of friends and others in their social network.
And it’s not just Facebook that has managed to put together a comprehensive data dossier on Internet users – it is also Google. Once you are locked into the Google ecosystem – using products like Google Search and Google Chrome – then you are making your data available to Google across a wide range of devices and platforms. If you are also using Google Android phones, then the problem is only compounded, since Google is then able to combine location data with online data to put together very sophisticated advertising profiles of users.