We tend to think of the internet as a wide-open platform for anyone, but a recent report from Mozilla shows how the promise of a free and open web is slipping away.
The company’s ‘Internet Health Report’ is less prescriptive and more subjective than many studies. It doesn’t query users or developers; instead, Mozilla itself takes a hard look at the world around us.
To start, it has identified three key areas of concern:
- Power residing mostly with Facebook, Google, Amazon, Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent.
- ‘Fake news’ spreading further and wider… and with greater ease.
- The clumsy Internet of Things (IoT) creating weak points.
The first two are almost hand-in-glove of late. After the 2016 election and recent news of Facebook’s clumsy handling of user data, we have learned a lot more about how ‘fake news’ is created and distributed. The echo chamber created by suspect information distributed on social media only invites divisions.
Google’s ubiquity likewise creates problems, according to Mozilla:
If no search engine can ever challenge Google, and no local apps can ever gain a sustainable market share, the opportunity promised by a free and open Internet erode. Open source challengers to social media giants, such as Diaspora and Mastodon, are few and far between, and they may at best deliver a proof of concept for an alternative future unless people can move their data freely.
Google also controls the delivery method. On desktop, Chrome commands nearly two-thirds of users. On mobile, it’s almost half.
The Internet of Things (IoT) – a phrase colloquially used for any connected item that’s not a smartphone, tablet, computer or smartwatch – also suffers from the dominance of Google, Amazon, and Apple. Mozilla asserts it’s harder for smaller firms to compete in an environment where users expect a long list of features and things like free (or nearly free) cloud storage. As Mozilla notes, the number of IoT devices will double by 2020, which only creates more weak points because “people buy things, connect them to the Internet and never think about securing them as long as they work.”
Aside from companies having too much power, there’s an alarming number of countries where social media or the internet proper is banned or limited, and the FCC’s reversal on Net Neutrality threatens the same in the U.S. Individual U.S. states have begun passing their own ‘net neutrality’ bills, which provides a sort of check and balance for the system. Internationally, things aren’t so simple: Russia, China and many eastern European and Middle Eastern nations block social media and silence opposition. Other places like Africa simply aren’t online; only about 20 percent of Africans have internet access, and it’s mostly from South Africa and Nigeria.
Mozilla’s report paints a dire picture for the web, and when judged in context of recent news items surrounding Facebook, we recognize it’s not good for any one entity – be it a business or a country – to command control of the internet. To that, the concept of a ‘free and open’ internet may actually be slipping away from us. Fortunately, Mozilla notes, security efforts are improving, and Facebook’s recent troubles are proof to all companies that acting in bad faith usually catches up with you at some point.