The internet has turned into a giant shopping mall
The past year, by most accounts, hasn't been the best in the history of the internet. From alleged election hacking to Cambridge Analytica, the internet has made headlines for all the wrong reasons lately.
This week, the Mozilla Foundation released its annual Internet Health Report, examining the trends that are both worrisome and encouraging online over the last year. Mozilla is the not-for-profit company that makes the Firefox web browser.
It's well worth a look, with lots of case studies and good advice.
In a wide-ranging interview, Mark Surman, the foundation's executive director, sat down with Spark host Nora Young to talk about the state of the net, and where we go from here.
In a week punctuated by testimony from Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to the U.S. Congress, Surman said that the increasing concentration of power online has to be considered the greatest threat to internet health.
And although Zuckerberg was asked a great deal of technical and non-technical questions, Surman noted that Zuckerberg deflected the questions that matter most.
"The sins of omission are that they're not talking about the collection of data," he said.
And although he said it's good that Facebook and internet data collection are making headlines — it means people are paying attention, at least for now — it shows just how centralized online power has become.
Concentration of power
"What has happened is this decentralized system has become the most monopolized, 'oligopolized', centralized media system we've ever had in history, it's just flipped upside down," he said. "It really is unprecedented, and it really is ironic. It's power that is bigger than governments, bigger than nations."
He said the comparison of the big five tech companies — Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft — to the oil monopolies of the last century is apt.
There's really nobody that can enter and compete on social media.- Mark Surman
"There's really nobody that can enter and compete on social media," he said.
This makes platforms like Facebook a "honeypot" when it comes to those trying to deceitfully influence public opinion. "They only have to go to one place."
Despite the promise of the internet, where anyone, in theory, can be a publisher, a creator, or have influence, "we live in a big shopping mall designed by these companies." And it's a mall that's hard to step away from.
Fat vs. lean data
A big part of the problem is that the tech oligarchs are indiscriminately recording every last bit of personal data they can scrape from the web or their platforms, he said, in order to sell advertising.
"Data does a lot of great things, for us ... but we really don't need to vacuum up everything to have a sustainable ad economy."
Rather, he said, we need a set of guidelines about what data is collected, and how long it is kept. That way it's kept "lean," and makes people less vulnerable when that data gets in hands of unscrupulous players.
Surman believes it's within the power of individual users to, "wake up and demand better ... that might be faster than laws."
What is likely to be happen, and what Zuckerberg intimated this week in his testimony, is that platforms like Facebook will end up offering a paid version for those who can afford it, which scrapes less data.
"The people who can't pay for that are the people who are going to get a crappier internet experience," Surman said. "It's a kind of economic colonization that outstrips the colonization from the 19th century."
Humans built the internet, and it's up to us to decide what we want it to be.- Mark Surman
How to heal the internet?
Surman said it's time that governments go after the tech titans with anti-trust legislation. Canada might be the perfect place to do that, he suggested.
"Canada is a third space between Europe and the U.S.," he said. "We also have a lot of values where we balance profit and public interest. We have a real opportunity to be innovators in the kind of regulation that lets the internet thrive."
Ultimately, it's going to come down to public will to restore the internet to the vision of its roots, as an open and free democratic space.
"Humans built the internet, and it's up to us to decide what we want it to be."