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The Internet Is Sick

The nonprofit behind the Firefox browser starts a project to monitor signs that the Internet isn’t free or open enough.

Since Tim Berners-Lee published the first Web page in 1991, more than three billion people have gotten online. Business and socializing have been transformed, and many fortunes made. But the Mozilla Foundation, which makes the free Firefox browser, says that all is not well with the Internet.

In a new “health report” on the global network, the nonprofit cites phenomena such as the dominance of companies like Google and the 56 times governments shut down the Internet in 2016 as evidence that the openness and neutrality that made the Internet catch on are being subverted.

“This thing that really promoted entrepreneurship and democracy risks becoming the opposite of that,” says Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla foundation.

Although Mozilla’s diagnosis also describes positives—such as the fact that nearly half of humanity is now online—Surman hopes to convince the public to think about the Internet like other endangered public resources. “Like the environment, the Internet is something all of us live in and are surrounded by and rely upon,” he says.

Mozilla’s report was drawn from existing sources of data on what people, companies, and governments are doing on the Internet. The foundation plans to release updates annually. It will also start doing research to generate new streams of data on the Internet’s vital signs.

One thing Surman hopes to get is data about who benefits most from the online advertising that supports so many sites and online services. “Does advertising democratize or open up more diversity in publishing on the Internet, or does it reward well established large players?” he says.

Surman also wants to get data that makes it possible to compare what customers of different Internet service providers get for their money, whether inside one country or across the world.

Ellery Biddle, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and advocacy director at anti-censorship blogging network Global Voices, says Mozilla’s health report is a welcome attempt to put together a broad picture from many different issues often looked at by advocacy groups in isolation.

But she also argues that Mozilla’s analysis sometimes falls into the common trap of comparing today’s Internet against the notional electronic Eden of the Web’s early days.

For example, Surman describes today’s mobile app stores and giant social networks as gatekeepers preventing the kind of freewheeling competition that was possible when the Web first got going. Biddle argues those gatekeepers have also helped get millions of people online by providing easy-to-use, safe spaces for people to communicate and explore. “I agree with many of the concerns about the walled gardens of Facebook and the like, but it’s more complicated than that,” says Biddle.

Surman defends the idea of using simpler online times as a yardstick, but says he’s not trying to re-create them. “That was the golden era and you won’t get back to that,” he says. “But going forward we have to make sure that the Internet is there to continue to provide opportunities and human connections—the things that made it great in the first place.”

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