The open internet is under threat, says a new report – and it needs your help

 

The internet needs your help.

That’s the message being pushed by Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, as the organisation launches the first version of a big new report into the health of the web.

“The last five years really started to erode some of the things that made the internet so great,” Surman told Business Insider in a phone interview.

Threats range from consolidation into near-monopoly control by big companies to hostile governments and censorship, he said – and he wants to raise awareness and encourage a mainstream movement to help tackle these issues.

“[It] impacts our economies, our societies, our democracies … if we screw it up, we screw everything up, for a very long time,” he said.

“Living in the digital age is not about go go away. We’ve unlocked something that will be with us for many centuries.”

‘The last 5 years really started to erode some of the things made the internet so great’

On Thursday, Mozilla launched its new internet health report – a document that attempts to gauge the relative health of the internet on a range of factors, from security to censorship, from openness to web literacy.

This project is also part of a larger rebranding for the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit organisation best known for building the Firefox web browser. After crowdfunding suggestions for a redesign, it unveiled its new logo on Wednesday .

“If we’re being super simple,” Surman said, “we built an amazing thing, one of the best human inventions ever, [that] unlocks a huge amount of human potential, creativity, and wealth … [but] the last five years really started to erode some of the things that made the internet so great.”

There are also some highly positive aspects, the 47-year-old Canadian said – pointing to access to the internet across the world as continuing to improve.

Consolidation is getting worse

A key concern of Surman about the modern web is consolidation – the increasing way a few major players have monopolies or near-monopolies in their sectors. Think Facebook, Google, Amazon, and so on. This, he argues, cannot be a good thing.

He stressed he’s not against the commercialisation of the internet, per se– but against its centralisation in the hands of too few people. “Does the commercial growth fuel access, and fuel the benefits we get from the internet as human and individuals? Absolutely yes.”

“I think the commercialisation of human communication has been an enabler,” and centralisation has some positive effects: “We can find each other, network effects, more people on the network.”

But, he continued, “in the case of instant messaging and social networks, there’s less and less competition, whether that’s through Facebook buying apps, Instagram and WhatsApp … [it is] by far the dominant majority controller of instant messaging in the West.”

“You get that consolidation, and then there’s no competition,” he argues. “Consolidation takes away opportunity for entrepreneurship.”

So what?

So what’s the point of all this?

“Our individual actions shape the health of the Internet ecosystem. Only by recognizing where the system is healthy can we take positive steps to make it stronger. Only by understanding where it’s at risk can we avoid actions that weaken it,” the report reads.

“This prototype – a snapshot of a moment in time in the life of the Internet – identifies five health markers that we believe are worth paying attention to and offers an initial prognosis for each.”

There are already plenty of organisations out there advocating for the issues – privacy, security, decentralisation, innovation, and so on – that the report discusses, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), or Open Rights Group (ORG) in the UK. But Surman draws a parallel between these efforts and the early environmental movement in the sixties and seventies.

At the time, it was “not seen as a movement at all, people didn’t think about it all.” The Mozilla Foundation executive director hopes that the Internet Health report, and others like it, will help brings these issues “to the fore” in the public consciousness – something that’s now more important than ever.

“We are seeing governments coming to power in North American and the European Union that have the wrong idea about the internet, that want to do things that will undermine security … that will further encourage the consolidation of power in a few hands,” Surman said.