Saturday, 04 February 2017 03:32

Mozilla Thinks That The Internet Is Under Attack, They Are Not Wrong


What’s that thing Bill Gates said? “The Internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow.” When Robert Kahn and Vincent Cerf laid the bedrocks to what we call the modern cyberspace in 1973, they envisioned the Internet to be a storehouse of information, a massive, decentralized library that housed the collective brainchild of every great thinker in the free world. It was supposed to be the one solution to every problem. Have a question? Well, here’s your answer. Unfortunately, though, the reality has never been that simple. The internet is no magic wand, it can offer no single solution to all of life’s problems. Instead, just like all of humanity’s greatest inventions, it’s a very complicated and highly precise mechanism. One with exceeding capability and admirable outreach. However, as with any other mechanism, the internet is shaped by the people who use it, for better or for worse. In the last decade, we saw this beast take center stage in much of the world’s greatest events, socially, economically and politically. From human rights crusaders to advocates of political reform, from scientific visionaries to cancer patients in need of funds, everyone made use of the internet as a podium for sharing concerns and asking for assistance. In inventing the internet, we unleashed a hydra. What remains to be seen is whether we can control it.

“It’s not honest to roll that answer off as saying we didn’t have any idea what we had done, or what the opportunity was.” - Vincent Cerf in an interview with Wired Magazine, 2012.

“The internet is deep waters,” said Cassandra, mother of three and my next-door neighbour for the last six years, “I could never trust my kids around it until they are older”. She is a good parent, Cassie, but her concerns for her children’s safety sometimes extend to the point of paranoia. In this case, though, her concerns are quite genuine. From pedophiles lurking behind false social media accounts to cyber-bullies looking for easy prey, the last few years showed us just how dangerous certain places on the internet can be for the underaged. The keyword here is ‘certain places’. “This is something I think about every day as a parent”, said Denelle Dixon, Chief Business and Legal Officer at the Mozilla Foundation, while also making known that her own approach was that of teaching her children to use the internet responsibly rather than having them shut out of the system altogether. The reason? As parents, we often think it best to keep our kids away from the web until they are a certain age. The problem with this attitude, however, is that teaching someone to use the internet sensibly while they are still young goes a long way towards making them responsible netizens when they are older. By shutting them out of the cyber-scenario altogether, parents raise ignorant children who have no idea how the internet works and are unfit to participate in it even when they are old enough. In fact, as evidence would suggest it, a recent report found that two-thirds of teenagers in the UK can’t even tell the search results away from the advertisements on Google.

The aforementioned is one of the many points brought forth by the Internet Health Report released by the Mozilla Foundation on January 19, a comprehensive document that chronicles the failing health of the internet as we know it. A quick web search reveals that the number of websites currently live on the internet is as many as 1.1 billion. While that sounds like a great victory for free speech champions, dig deeper and you will find that about 60% of the traffic that goes into these 1.1 billion websites is essentially directed towards behemoths such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, while only 40% of the web traffic goes to the rest of the internet. For the average user, ‘surfing the internet’ consists of nothing but performing a search on Google, updating their status on Facebook and uploading a picture on Instagram. It is sad how the internet, which is supposed to be a gladiator of free speech, is essentially controlled by a few large content providers with their own corporate agendas. What’s more, content providers aren’t the only ones fighting to take control over the internet. Network companies such as AT&T and Verizon have long opposed the free and open environment that has made the internet such a great medium of communication.

When I spoke to retired FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, now a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute, he expressed clear concerns over the imminent collapse of the structures and regulations that he put in place during his tenure at the FCC to keep the internet free from the grasp of network overlords. The new administration’s largely corporate outlook, combined with their public dissent over the current ‘net neutrality’ regulations, are a strong indication of troubled times according to Mr. Wheeler. He expressed his obvious distaste for the duplicitous ways of net neutrality opponents such as AT&T, going above and beyond to say that the free internet is something that must be protected at all costs. As for reducing the corporate hold over the internet, Mozilla Director Mark Surman recommended implementing open source standards for programming and design on the web, something that his organization has already taken great interest in lately.

“If we have proper legislation in the networks, the rest will fall into place on its own.” - Tom Wheeler, Senior Fellow at the Aspen Institute and Retired Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

When it all started out, the Internet was heralded as the one platform where everybody could open up to each other secured by a veil of anonymity. However, the way corporate interests have been using the internet as a weapon for surveillance has presented it as a threat to the very privacy it was supposed to defend. Just last December, the widely used note sharing app Evernote made a seemingly innocuous change to their privacy policy, one which basically allowed its executives to snoop around people’s private notes in order to improve its machine learning technology. In the meantime, almost every website that you visit today inserts a delicious cookie into your web browser that allows it to track your every moment, from the sites you visit to the location you are in, and in some extreme cases, even the sensitive data you share online. Adwords, the interest-based advertising giant from Google, is especially known for its behavioral targeting technology, which now uses personally identifiable information in an attempt to shove more lucrative advertisements down your throat as you surf the web each day. When it comes to safeguarding user privacy, the internet clearly lacks the necessary legislation and infrastructure required to secure the activities that occur as a result of the myriad new opportunities offered by the infobahn.

The last five years haven’t been all bad for the internet. Several educational programs such as the EU Code Week and the New York Public Library TechConnect have sprung up in support of web literacy. Intense activism has led to the formulation of net neutrality laws in the US, UK and India. More and more instant messaging applications are offering ‘end-to-end encryption’ technology as an initiative towards securing privacy. However, if we were to just sit down and compare the ups and downs, we would find that the bad greatly outweighs the good for the internet in the last half-decade. The internet may be the ultimate platform for personal expression, but it isn’t entirely self-sufficient. Every now and then, it requires careful guidance to shove it in the right direction. While the last few years have clearly shown us that such guidance has been inadequate, it may not be too late to get behind these issues while there is time, at least, that is what I would like to believe.

Author : Harold Stark 

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