The Internet is sick. Here’s how Mozilla is making it healthy again

mozilla internet hackathon event 1904

The suggestion that the internet is unwell sounds a bit goofy, but according to the Mozilla Foundation — a non-profit Silicon Valley organization which believes the internet should be a public resource that is open and accessible to all — that’s exactly the situation we find ourselves in here in 2018. And it may have a point.

While the internet as a global system of interconnected computer networks is healthier than ever, the idea of the internet may be suffering. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the internet was envisaged as a utopian medium through which liberal values of inclusiveness, tolerance, and free speech would be disseminated throughout the world. Sure, the real world may have problems, but all of these could be solved in the non-hierarchical, free, non-judgmental realms of cyberspace. Right?

Things didn’t exactly work out like that.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is to help people see the bigger picture.”

Last month, Mozilla published the first in what it promises will be an annual Internet Health Report. This report consists of research and analysis carried out by a range of researchers, engineers, policy makers and more, intending to measure how well the internet is measuring up to its utopian early promises. “By [internet health], what we mean is whether the internet is healthy from a human perspective; not looking at industry trends or new technologies on their own,” Abigail Cabunoc Mayers, a project lead working on web openness at Mozilla, told Digital Trends. “It’s more about how the internet is impacting our lives.”

Like a yearly medical check-up, the Internet Health Report covers a litany of different measurements. However, two concerns that are particularly spotlighted include fears about the consolidation of power among a few big tech companies, and fears of fake news and its links to the popular advertising economy seen online. Both of these play a part in what has, for many people, marked the most pessimistic period since the internet’s inception.

The 2018 Internet Health Report Mozilla

“A lot of the conversation right now does seem to show a bit of disenchantment with the promise of the internet,” Samantha Burton, Mozilla’s director of insights, acknowledged. “But part of what we’re trying to do is to help people see the bigger picture. Although there are really concerning trends right now, there are also some really great things that are happening with these technologies — and the impact they are having on our lives.”

Mozilla’s Global Sprint

But Mozilla doesn’t just want to diagnose the problem. It wants to help treat it too. Last week, the Mozilla Foundation brought together thousands of open source activists and engineers at more than 60 events, in locations as far apart as Portland, Toronto, London and New Delhi, for its Global Sprint event. Their goal? To collaborate on close to 160 open-source projects designed to create positive change online. “People just work 9-5 in their time zones, but because of the magic of time zones that equates to around 50 consecutive hours,” Burton said. “People can collaborate online or in person.”

“No part of it can ever be owned by any individual or group in perpetuity.”

The projects created at Global Sprint aim to encourage web literacy, openness, privacy and security, and decentralization of web services. There are too many projects to mention every in the most cursory way (check out the full list of projects here), but there are a few standouts.

One is ETER, a community-built air quality monitor for teachers and students in Argentina. On a micro level, the project aims to build and install tech for measuring particle pollution in Buenos Aires. Beyond this, however, the goal is to promote web literacy by teaching the community to build an open-source air monitor: one which can be improved by the community and used for whatever future projects they can come up with.

Another project is the Open Humans project, in which users can upload their personal datasets from sites like FitBit and 23andMe to a private account, and then choose to share them with researchers, nonprofits, and citizen scientists.

Or how about Commons Platform, a social media platform which tries to invert the Facebook formula by making a big point of user privacy? The idea of the Platform is that everyone owns their own data. Founder Sophie Varlow likens the premise to public land: “No part of it can ever be owned by any individual or group in perpetuity.”

Can a hackathon change the world?

As both Cabunoc Mayers and Burton note, a couple of days isn’t close to enough time to develop a fully fledged product — let alone to unpick the larger challenges the internet poses. In many cases, these problems are so tough to deal with exactly because the problematic and beneficial aspects of online life are so wrapped up with one another.

“What we’re trying to encourage people to do is to see how we can take control of shaping this technology …”

A tool that allows anyone to share ideas equally? That’s great until the ideas are harmful ones. Anonymity to allow people to speak their mind with impunity, free of usual social stigmas and regulations? Same deal. As the cultural theorist Paul Virilio once said, all good consists of some bad, and all bad consists of some good; the invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck.

So why bother with a hackathon at all? Because the idea of interacting with people from around the world, of all collaborating in the name of a greater good, of thinking about problems without an immediate eye to commercialization, but with the limitation of a tight deadline, is a fundamentally good one. Previous, non-Mozilla hackathons produced concepts such as the “like” button for Facebook, which helped change the way we interact online. (Given the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, arguably for the worse.)

mozilla internet hackathon event abigail cabunoc mayers portrait
Abigail Cabunoc Mayers, Practice Lead, Working Open at Mozilla

What if those same principles of creativity and out-of-the-box thinking could be harnessed not just for individual projects, but for a larger collective reimagining of what the internet could be? That’s absolutely a tall order — but, then again, Silicon Valley was built on those kind of challenges.

“We really want people to see that we can and should take control of shaping the internet of the future,” Abigail Cabunoc Mayers said. “What we’re trying to encourage people to do is to see how we can take control of shaping this technology that is a big part of the society we live in. It’s not about being passive and letting decisions be made for us. We can really be a part of building the future that we want.”

We’ll have to wait to see how many of the projects from this year’s Global Sprint project wind up living up to their potential to know for certain how successful this year’s event has been. But as the basis for opening a dialog about reclaiming the internet for the masses? We certainly think Mozilla — and Global Sprint’s participants — are thinking along the right lines.

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