If the Internet was a patient, its health would be so poor that it risks not only its own wellbeing but that of everyone around it.
This characterization comes from the mouth of Mozilla executive director Mark Surman, who was summarizing the nonprofit’s annual Internet Health Report. The report, released on Thursday, relies on knowledge from researchers, developers, and Internet experts to explore how the Internet affects society, democracy, and the wellbeing of the humans that use it.
Three main threats to the health of the Internet persist, according to the report. And they should come as no surprise.
The first threat, Mozilla points out, is built-in racial bias from artificial intelligence systems. The report reiterates a problem that many ethics experts have been exploring for years: Systems are not colorblind nor neutral, and companies must take proactive measures to avoid building technologies that reinforce harmful stereotypes and discrimination.
Second, the lack of transparency from Big Tech is leading to real world harm. Mozilla refers to the recent riots at the U.S. Capitol as an example of how social media has aided in the incitement of violence and the spread of misinformation. These companies are largely “big black boxes,” and the public has very little understanding of how they work, Surman said.
And finally, gig work is trampling workers’ rights. Companies like Uber pay their drivers low wages, require workers to report to unpredictable systems run by algorithms, and have very little legal recourse and access to their own data if they have a problem, Mozilla’s report says.
But Surman said all hope is not lost. And like a really unhealthy patient that’s been consuming garbage for too long, all the Internet needs is a little guidance to whip it into shape. “The Richards Simmons of the Internet is somewhere,” he said.
But really, it’s more like the Richard Simmons of the Internet is everywhere. Simmons exists in the hiring managers, the product leads, the tech executives, and every single software developer and tech worker. These are the people who can actively change companies from the inside.
If they fail, the surrounding community can aid in the effort. Researchers, tech experts, and lawmakers have a role in helping hold tech companies accountable, Mozilla suggests. And, in the absence of a legal framework for the Internet, workers can unite for collective action (we’re seeing that with workers at gig companies and more recently Alphabet, which formed a minority union).
In Surman’s words, the Internet “isn’t terminally ill,” and hopefully Mozilla’s latest report will motivate everyone’s inner Richard Simmons.