2020 was a big year for the internet. As Covid-19 spread worldwide and many countries descended into monthslong lockdowns, much of daily life moved online. Racial justice, mass surveillance, and America’s contentious elections took center stage, too — both online and off. Each year, the Mozilla Foundation takes the internet’s vital signs and publishes a report on its health. This year, it’s not looking good.
If you feel like you were online all the time in 2020, you’re not alone. According to the Foundation, use of the Firefox browser (a proxy for overall internet use) increased almost 15% overnight as many countries entered lockdowns in March of 2020. In the Foundation’s words, during Covid-19, “people all over the world depend more on the internet” to “learn, work, connect with family” and “survive.” The internet’s health, Mozilla concludes, is reflective of human health more broadly.
Control of the internet, though, has become increasingly concentrated. According to the Foundation, only seven companies (Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google’s parent company Alphabet, Facebook, and China’s Tencent and Alibaba) control the vast majority of the internet’s traffic and much of its infrastructure. Together, they’re among the largest companies in the world by market cap — beaten only by Saudi oil giant Aramco. The internet is a huge driver of financial value — and that value is increasingly concentrated.
This control is often hidden, too. Most people, the Foundation says, assume that when they use an independent web-based service, they’re interacting directly with that service. In many cases, though, popular apps, software platforms, and websites rely on infrastructure from the internet’s Big Seven. In the Foundation’s words, if you’re using “Netflix or Zoom, for example, you’re using Amazon Web Services” because both companies rely on Amazon to make their products work. Because so many other companies rely on them, the Big Seven’s control is probably broader-reaching and more impactful than most people realize.
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It gets worse. According to the Foundation’s data, four of the most-used platforms on the internet are controlled by a single company: Facebook. The company operates Facebook itself (the internet’s most-used platform) but also Facebook Messenger (#3), WhatsApp (#4), and Instagram (#5). The only service that rivals these is YouTube, which is operated by Google and is the second most-used platform worldwide. Chinese services like TikTok and QQ are making inroads, but they’re still tiny compared with Facebook’s combined might.
This creates major problems with regulation and the concentration of power — as well as stability in the event one of these services goes down. But it also creates major issues in terms of the flow of misinformation, especially during the pandemic. According to Mozilla, 8,105 YouTube videos containing Covid-19 misinformation racked up 71 million views on YouTube, Facebook, and Reddit before they were taken down. That’s almost as many people as those who watch the Superbowl — and that was only on one chunk of videos that Mozilla studied.
Moderation helps, but it doesn’t solve the problem of misinformation. According to Mozilla, “People with ideological and financial agendas spread disinformation deliberately. Simply removing content doesn’t improve the systems that determine what is amplified and what is deleted by a platform’s algorithms.” As the Foundation’s research shows, tens of millions of people can see misleading content — with real potential costs to health and public trust — before it’s taken down by moderators. Transparency is a huge issue here, too. The Foundation found that 70% of videos on platforms like YouTube are recommended by algorithms with no human input at all. Yet, “the biggest platforms don’t disclose how they develop and train their algorithms.”
Even when content is informative and posted in good faith, the scale of large services (and especially the A.I.-driven algorithms that power them) have massive impacts. According to the Foundation, “Training a single deep learning model for complex A.I. processes, like natural language processing, can emit as much carbon as the manufacture and lifetime emissions of five cars.” The internet often feels like an invisible entity to users, but it actually has a massive physical and environmental footprint.
Even with its massive scale, though, the internet isn’t available to everyone. Only about half of the world’s population is online, the Foundation found. Access issues are most acute in less prosperous regions, like parts of Asia and Africa. But they exist everywhere, including in wealthy countries like the United States, Mozilla says. Worldwide, men are 21% more likely to be online than women — and this gender divide holds across all regions, including North America.
Gender-related issues exist even for those who are able to get access to the internet. Across 14,000 young women and girls in 22 countries surveyed, the Foundation says, more than half (58%) experienced online abuse or harassment. Many said it was severe enough to affect their “feelings of safety and well-being,” and 42% said that it affected their self-esteem.
What keeps people offline and drives disparities in use? The Foundation found that the price of access is the most important factor. In parts of Africa, using 1 gigabyte of data can cost as much as 11.85% of a person’s gross monthly income. Given those costs, many people can’t afford to be online. And those who are online likely use text-based apps and services that consume limited data. With the high cost of access, remote work through video streaming (or even accessing websites with a lot of images) is likely cost-prohibitive for many people. Purchasing the devices needed for online access can be cost-prohibitive as well. In countries like Sierra Leone, for example, Mozilla says that the average worker would need to save six months of salary to afford a mobile device.
Here in the United States, the same access issues exist for those living at or near the poverty line. According to Mozilla, as of 2019, “only 56% of adults with a household income of less than $30,000 USD had broadband internet at home.” Mozilla points out that this disparity makes homeschooling or remote work impossible for a large sector of the population during Covid-19— including many of America’s most vulnerable children.
Covid-19 has had other impacts, too. Mozilla found that most major countries introduced contact-tracing apps during the pandemic despite limited evidence that the apps are effective. In some places, use of the apps is mandatory, leading to privacy and security concerns. In at least 20 countries, Mozilla says, authorities have used the pandemic as an excuse to restrict online speech and increase surveillance in other ways, too.
Some have gone so far as to shut down all internet access in their countries or to wall off their own country’s internet so as to increase control and surveillance capabilities. The Foundation found that in 2019, there was at least one internet shutdown per day worldwide, with many shutdowns allowing “for human rights violations to pass unchecked.” Some lasted hours while others lasted months or years.
Many shutdowns occurred in developing regions of the world. But mass surveillance and online control is a first-world problem, too. The Foundation found that Europe often tested new mass surveillance technologies like drones and facial recognition on vulnerable immigrant populations at borders as well as on children. In the United States, police agencies stepped up their use of license-plate readers, body-worn cameras, and other surveillance technologies. Parents and employers embraced surveillance tools, too — including software disguised as tools for monitoring kids’ screen time or workers’ productivity during the pandemic.
Overall, the Foundation found many concerning trends in the health of the modern internet. Many of these — like issues of access and surveillance — existed before Covid-19 but have worsened or accelerated due to the pandemic. Those directly related to poverty are likely to worsen in the years ahead as Covid-19 continues to affect the world economy.
At the same time, though, the Foundation found causes for optimism and hope. According to Mozilla, enforcement of Europe’s landmark General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — which protects privacy — has increased every quarter since the law was implemented. Fines for noncompliance reached their highest levels ever in 2020, which indicates that Europe is cracking down on violators.
Worldwide, citizens are fighting back against the indiscriminate use of surveillance technologies, too. According to Mozilla, “In Belgium, Morocco, and certain U.S. states, including Portland, California, New Hampshire and Oregon, new regulations or partial bans on facial recognition protect citizens from abuse of power.” Amid greater public awareness of tech’s concentrations of power, more authorities are examining whether tech companies have become monopolies or are abusing their positions of power, which is also likely to lead to reform.
Much of this change, Mozilla says, is driven by tech companies’ own employees. Protests and other collective action are on the rise among tech workers, according to the Foundation’s data, and reached their highest levels ever in 2020. Even blue-collar tech workers classified as “precarious” participated in collective actions. These workers (especially those in the gig economy) have found other ways to mobilize as well. According to Mozilla, more gig workers worldwide are mobilizing to demand access to unions, sick pay, medical coverage, and other benefits as well as to combat “dangerous and unfair working conditions.”
Diversity in the tech world is increasing as well, albeit too slowly. The majority of tech workers at the Big Seven tech companies are men, and these numbers have budged only slightly over the last six years, Mozilla reports. The Foundation also says that “growth in Black, LatinX and Native representation at Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft in the U.S. has been almost stagnant since 2014,” and diversity issues in tech tools like A.I. remain.
With A.I. in particular, many tech companies have adopted ethical guidelines for use of these sensitive technologies. These are a positive step, but Mozilla says they’re rarely binding, making them hard to actually implement and operationalize. European regulation on trustworthy A.I., though, could be a “game changer” according to the Foundation. Mozilla says that “upcoming proposals for A.I. regulation in the European Union will influence not only where A.I. development heads in Europe, but could eventually blaze a trail around the world, similar to the GDPR.”
Change can happen at the local level, too. Mozilla says that A.I. purchasing decisions from cities worldwide are driving positive change in the A.I. landscape, a trend that is likely to continue. New models are emerging, too, for more equitable use of data. According to the Foundation, “Across various sectors, many new initiatives are emerging that give people more control over their data and share the benefits derived from data collection more equally.” Healthcare, agriculture, and civic tech are leading the charge here.
Where can we go from here? Mozilla says that to repair the internet, the world should focus on three major pillars in 2021 and beyond — racial justice, labor rights, and transparency. Focusing on these would mean expanding access to the internet and eliminating racial and gender disparities in access, ensuring that gig workers have adequate representation and more power to negotiate and that the benefits derived from A.I. and big data are shared more equally across populations.
Mozilla’s report reveals an internet that’s increasingly unequal, fragmented, and inaccessible — and one that’s reeling from the world’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic as well as longer-term issues of racial, gender, and income equality. But at the same time, the report highlights positive moves toward more unity, more regulation, and more accountability across the web. Some of this comes from governments, but much of it comes from grassroots communities — especially those organizing to protest poor working conditions or to argue for more diversity in the world of tech.
The internet’s vital signs reveal a patient under a great deal of both acute and long-term distress. But with a renewed focus on healing, unity, organization, regulation, and equality, Mozilla feels that the internet’s prognosis is positive.