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Now is the time to build a better internet, the coronavirus pandemic has shown we have a long way to go

Long ago we voiced the expectation that one day online life would become indivisible from real life – we have reached that point, writes Mitchell Baker

Monday 13 July 2020 15:52 BST
Internet use in the UK hit record levels during the coronavirus lockdown in April 2020
Internet use in the UK hit record levels during the coronavirus lockdown in April 2020 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A crisis upends the world as we know it, and change happens so fast it can feel disorienting. Whether the course of change is positive or negative depends on how quickly we apply our collective will. From fever tracking to contact tracing, crowdsourced science to online learning, we cannot rise to meet our current challenges without the internet.

In this crisis, we’ve seen an internet where humanity shines. It’s also shined a light on the ways our system has tipped towards misinformation, consolidation of power, increased surveillance, and online scapegoating. Accountability is lacking, and the power of technology is too often aimed at manipulating people into actions that are profitable for a few but damaging to many. This cannot stand.

As someone who has taken a consumer-first approach from the internet’s very beginning, I know how inertia can feel indomitable — until suddenly it isn’t. People, technology, and willpower can change the world fast. So we must demand something better. Technologists have a role to play building products differently. Citizens also have a huge role to play by making their voices heard. It's the combination of creators and consumers that results in industry-wide change. We can start with these five core elements:

We need dependable security. Our personal information should be shielded from hackers, spies, and strangers, with web traffic flowing securely to and from our banks, doctor’s offices, and businesses. Let’s Encrypt, an alliance Mozilla helped found, now delivers greater security to over 85 per cent of web transactions — while adding the “s” in “https://” — proving that improved security is possible on a large scale.

We can go further and do better. Imagine for example video-conferencing sites with deeper security protections from interlopers.

To bring an end to this pandemic, we all may need to offer up some health data, but that should not provide license for unlimited access forever. Today big tech companies use data to target us with advertising, governments use it to surveil, and machine learning tools extract it by the terabyte — all with almost no oversight. New models of data ownership such as data trusts are already pointing the way. It's time to build a world where individuals are able to control our data, keeping it to ourselves when we want, donating it for the public good, or possibly trading it for benefits like lower prices.

A better internet will help protect people from misinformation by changing the incentives for content platforms and giving users more content choices. Platforms like Facebook and YouTube have now shown they can direct people to accurate information about Covid-19, and have taken steps to shift algorithms to quell misinformation from going viral. On a better internet, content platforms will take these efforts much further by developing more transparent AI practices and working alongside researchers and governments to prevent the spread of misinformation before it’s too late.

In this crisis, we’re seeing more online kindness while also noticing how people are still scapegoated and shamed in systematic ways. It’s time to build products that reject the goals of using outrage to drive engagement. We’re already seeing companies join forces to institute Codes of Conduct for events and online forums. On a better, more respectful internet, our social networks should have ethics standards and built-in tools to help identify and stop harassment and threats of violence.

We now see just how important it is for everyone to connect to the internet, yet infrastructure gaps persist worldwide. Billions of people lack access outright and many more struggle to afford even basic connection. Without high-speed access, school kids are being left behind, the ability to work remotely is removed, and participation in ever more aspects of social life vanish. Globally, and even in the United States, it’s time to build an ecosystem of service providers which includes the big ISPs, municipal networks, community networks, and cooperatives.
 New regulatory, technical and financial models must be developed and implemented.

This is more than a utopian vision. In fact, change is not only possible but proven.

Fifteen years ago, the infant internet faced a similar crossroads. Should the way things work be mediated by a single company, Microsoft, with a monopoly on web browsers? Or should people have choices for how they get online and what happens once they’re there?

At that critical juncture, Mozilla tapped into and helped grow the open-source movement as an alternative way of working. Emerging from that movement came not only the Firefox browser but a push towards open government, open data, the rise of the sharing economy and collaboration as a strategy for innovation. This kind of broad, positive impact can happen again.

In this Covid-shaken world, I’m seeing signs that technologists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and innovators of all kinds are eager to rally to build the next generation of products and services for a safer, more humane online life.

Harvard president explains move to online learning

My organisation, Mozilla, is completely committed to this goal, and we’re looking for new ways to join with others to build a better internet. Our inaugural programme enlisted more than a hundred projects this spring, for example, and this summer our Mozilla Builders Incubator will provide technological, financial, and business support to dozens of start-up teams from around the world.

This is a beginning and we must go even farther. Improving online life will be a joint effort of many different groups. Mozilla is committed to doing all we can to work with creators, entrepreneurs and tech companies who want to build products and consumer experiences that elevate the best of human nature, rather than manipulate our animal brains with fear and outrage.

We will work with governments to help them recogise their role in shaping the networks that connect the world. We hope to be overwhelmed by the community of people choosing this path, and to become one of many centres of excellence in building a better internet. In any case, we’ll be investing our people, our time, and our finances towards this cause to fire up the internet we all deserve.

Long ago we voiced the expectation that one day online life would become indivisible from real life. The Covid-19 crisis has shown that day is here. Now we have the chance to improve not only the time we spend online in the future, but life itself.

Mitchell Baker is the CEO and chairwoman of Mozilla Foundation

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