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.
And, as the Mozilla Internet report makes clear, there is one more issue that is raising privacy issues, and that’s the phenomenal growth of the Internet of Things (IoT). According to some estimates, there will be 30 billion objects connected to the Internet by the year 2020, and all of those connected devices could theoretically be collecting information and data on users. That could lead to a real IoT security problem.
Mozilla illustrates this IoT security concept with a brief summary of all the devices in everyday life that could be tracking you (including baby monitors), without you even realizing it. It is not out of the realm of possibility that there could become a gray market for this data, with networks connecting IoT devices trading information and data to the highest bidder.
And there are other issues related to IoT security – including the ability of hackers to put together a botnet of devices that have been infected with malware in order to carry out distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on Internet sites around the world, similar to the famous Mirai botnet attack. In the future, these botnet attacks could become even more malicious, raising the specter of security threats for medical devices and other IoT products. Without the proper safeguards in place to govern machine to machine interactions, it is conceivable that any IoT device could pose its share of security challenges, including the potential for IoT attacks against critical power infrastructure.
The spread of fake news and the broken online advertising economy
Perhaps the most visible sign of health problems affecting the global Internet has been the rampant spread of fake news. You can isolate any of the usual suspects for the spread of this problem – ranging from Russian propagandists trying to sway U.S. elections to underemployed teenagers in developing countries around the world looking for quick, easy website traffic – but there is definitely a problem with the Internet when you cannot trust and have confidence in what you are reading online.
The root problem, according to the Mozilla Internet Health Report, is that it makes economic sense for many people to traffic in fake news. That highlights the problem of the broken online advertising economy, where the demand for website clicks and visits has become so intense that it has made it expedient for companies, brands and marketers to embrace sensational, scandalous and clickbait-worthy articles.
Perhaps the most obvious examples are all the fake news stories that surrounded the 2016 election in the United States, which resulted in the election of President Trump. Both Trump supporters and supporters of Hillary Clinton began to create fake news stories designed to go viral. These stories often included false claims, and were deliberately created to gain the most traction on social media. Thus, for example, when supporters of Donald Trump came across one of these fake news articles in their Facebook newsfeed, they would be very willing to share this content with their friends, in a nearly endless cycle.
In such a way, real news and fake news began to blur. Without fact checking, it became impossible to know how much of a story might be true, and how much might be false. That made it easier to spread false stories and believe fake news. Spreading fake news articles was something that was done maliciously, too, by people in countries not even connected to the United States, all in the hopes of getting some free website traffic. Even mainstream news sites, including CNN and the New York Times, began to be suspected of running their own biased fake news stories to support some candidates and detract from President Trump during the presidential campaign.
Other issues covered by the Mozilla Internet Health report
In addition to these three critical issues covered by the Internet Health Report 2018, Mozilla also took a closer look at issues such as openness, digital inclusion and web literacy. All of these are essential for a safe, healthy and functioning Internet. In the best of all worlds, everyone would be welcome on the Internet, regardless of geographic location or income level.
In developed markets such as the United States, concerns about a “broadband divide” between the richest and poorest members of society are no longer as strong as they once were, but they are still of relevance elsewhere in the world. In general, says the Mozilla report, there are positive signs about both affordability and access. It is getting both easier and more affordable to connect to the Internet, and that offers the prospect of getting more diverse users onto to the Internet.
While there have been improvements in both affordability and access, the Internet Health Report notes that other issues related to openness and inclusion – such as the problem of online harassment – still need to be taken into account. Moreover, the report delves into the problem of censorship in some nations. Popular messaging apps such as Whatsapp, for example, are routine targets for Internet shutdown and censorship. And some nations, notably China, are also guilty of selectively shutting down parts of the Internet in ethnically diverse regions of the country that have become pockets of online dissent.
Finding solutions to the three critical issues facing the Internet
Throughout the Mozilla Internet Health Report, there are numerous examples of how users, businesses, and policymakers can do more to address the three critical issues. Users need to take a more active interest in data privacy and Internet security issues.
For example, consider the example of IoT security. There is a lot that device makers can do to make sure that security features are included in devices from the very beginning. And, in the interest of IoT security, there is a lot that they can do in terms of being able to spot potential security breaches in operating systems. The overall security of a company or government agency is at risk if a single connected device does not adhere to current guidelines for IoT security. As the IoT grows exponentially over the next few years, it is easy to see how IoT security will only become a bigger and bigger issue.
Or, consider the steps that users could take to address the problem of Big Tech players collecting too much data about them online. What basic facts should be available to these Big Tech players? Often, on social networks such as Facebook it is far too difficult to adjust any privacy settings. In many ways, we assume that these Big Tech companies are protecting us from malicious hacks and inadvertent data breaches, but that is rarely the case. Considering security may be new for many users, but it is more critical than ever, given the rise of big data and the centralization of control by several Big Tech giants.
For businesses, one of the basic security solutions simply requires them to embrace encrypted websites via the HTTPS protocol. By moving from HTTP to HTTPS, they can ensure themselves that user information and data is not at risk from hackers or bots. And users will have the peace of mind of knowing that too, which will make them more likely to trust companies with their data.
Finally, a word must be said about the current state of Internet passwords. This is perhaps the starting point for Internet security on the web, and too many people simply ignore this fundamental issue. In the report, Mozilla studied the Top 50 passwords used, and the results are staggering. By far, the most popular password is “123456,” followed by “password.” Rounding out the Top 5 were easy-to-crack passwords such as “12345678” and “123456789.” Even the laziest hacker could obtain easy access to sensitive corporate information simply by guessing any of these popular passwords.
The health of the Internet in 2018 and beyond
Mozilla uses the term “health” in the Internet Health report primarily to focus attention on the fact that the ability of the Internet to remain a fair, open and accessible resource is based on people. These people – whether it is government officials, business leaders or everyday people – will determine the future of the Internet and how healthy it remains. It is up to them to devise the right security solutions for the biggest challenges facing the Internet, as well as to agree on what needs to be simply re-thought, versus what needs to be reformed or regulated.