On the day Facebook’s CEO was scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill about a privacy breach involving the world’s largest social network, Mozilla released a report about the internet’s health.
The nonprofit foundation’s diagnosis? The internet needs help.
Mark Zuckerberg was grilled at a joint session of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees and at a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee over the fact that Cambridge Analytica, a political data consulting company that was used by President Trump’s campaign, accessed the Facebook user information of up to 87 million people without their consent.
The CEO appeared before lawmakers for the first time since Facebook and other tech platforms were used to spread U.S. election-related disinformation and propaganda linked to Russian trolls. Fake news is another issue the Mozilla report identifies as critical.
“ ‘Fake news’ has reached epidemic proportions worldwide and this is in large part due to the underlying online advertising economy, which rewards abuse, fraud, and misinformation,” the report says. “To stop fake news, we will need to look at radical changes in internet business models and regulation.”
What might those changes look like?
“We can build services that are just as good that collect less data, or maybe don’t keep it as long,” said Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, in an interview recently. “We should have a conversation about lean data vs. fat data. Are we collecting too much data?”
Another issue identified as critical in the Mozilla report is the consolidation of power in tech.
“A handful of big tech companies, including Facebook, Google, and Amazon, have become intertwined not only with people’s daily lives, but with the global economy, civic discourse, and democracy itself,” the report says.
Mozilla is the maker of the Firefox browser and other open-source tools, and a longtime advocate for an open internet. True, Firefox competes with Google’s Chrome browser. But Firefox also uses Google search.
Mozilla’s interest in pointing out the growing power of just a handful of tech companies isn’t to say that those companies are “bad,” he said. “We want to see an internet ecosystem and marketplace where users can trust the services they use and where things are open to competition.”
Surman sees the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica mess as a “flashpoint,” and hopes that consumers will be angry enough to demand more from companies.
“You saw that 20 years ago in case of Nikes and wages,” he said. “Nike turned around and is a great corporate citizen now.”
He suggested that tech companies can make concrete changes if they want to.
“By default, Facebook tracks you across the rest of the web,” Surman said. “They can switch the default. There’s a lot they can do very fast on data collection.”
The other critical issue the Mozilla report talks about is security in the age of the internet of things, especially as Surman says 30 billion devices are expected to be internet-connected over the next three or four years.