As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg prepared to face nearly half of the Senate today to explain what went wrong with his company's handling of personal data for millions of Facebook users, the Mozilla Foundation released a report that highlights the dangers posed to the entirety of the Internet ecosystem by the increasing concentration of control over how people experience the online world in the hands of companies like his.
Zuckerberg opened his remarks today by saying, "Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company" and that he and others believed that the tools Facebook created were a force for good. "It's clear now that we didn't do enough to prevent those tools from being used for harm as well," he admitted. The danger that Facebook executives overlooked, however, is described clearly by the Mozilla Foundation report.
Mozilla Foundation Executive Director Mark Surman explained the harm done by Facebook's platform clearly in a blog post today, describing the process of creating the 2018 Internet Health Report. As he and foundation fellows were discussing how to examine the topic of "fake news," he wrote, "I sketched out a list on a napkin to help order our thoughts:"
What the napkin said:
The Internet Health Report, which evolved from a prototype launched in January of 2017, is not a medical chart for the Internet packed with metrics. Edited by Solana Larsen and written by Mozilla Foundation research fellows, the report is an evaluation of "what's helping and what's hurting the Internet," and it focuses on five broad areas of concern—personal privacy and security, decentralization, openness, "digital inclusion," and general Web literacy. And Facebook's part in the health of the Internet is writ large across the report.
Of particular concern were three issues:
The foundation's report isn't all bad news—it highlights progress in affordable access and the adoption of cryptography. But the cautionary notes outweigh the optimistic ones, especially on the topic of consolidation of control over Internet content and collection of personal data. While the data collected and transformed into intelligence by the big social media and e-commerce vendors is vast, the Mozilla Foundation report warns, "The network control of major Internet services is only part of the grip they hold on our lives. Through sheer size and diverse holdings, a few companies including Google, Facebook, and Amazon—or if you live in China, Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba—have become intertwined not only with our daily lives, but with all aspects of the global economy, civic discourse, and democracy itself... they are big. Through monopolistic business practices that are specific to the digital age, they undermine privacy, openness, and competition on the Web."
That impact extends into the realm of "fake news," as the report points out, because "most people are getting at least some of their news from social media now." This enabled the Russia-based Internet Research Agency's efforts to distort reality by creating dozens of 'fake' Facebook pages, including "BlackMattersUS" and "Heart of Texas," as the report cites—using the language of US political movements to attract followers and spread misinformation—as well as organizing actual protests, "and once even a protest a counter protest at the same time," the report notes.
At the same time, thousands of "fake news" stories were created entirely to generate revenue from advertising—many of them created by people in one town in Macedonia. Social media platforms allowed these fraudulent articles to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for their creators.
Social media sites are a natural platform for this sort of deception and fraud, because it's where the eyeballs are. The reach of social media companies has continued to expand, as the report shows in this chart of monthly active users, in millions, for each social media platform. During 2017, Facebook managed to expand its monthly active user base from 1.87 billion to 2.17 billion, while expanding its reach into users' lives as millions more adopted Facebook's Messenger application and WhatsApp (each of which now has approximately 1.3 billion monthly active users).
The precision with which these platforms can be used to target particular types of users and to effectively distort their perception of the world around them makes the dominance of the Internet by Facebook and others even more dangerous, the researchers asserted.
The emerging Internet of Things poses its own sort of danger to the privacy and security of individuals. With 30 billion Internet-connected devices expected by 2020, the report's authors expressed concern about both the privacy impact of those devices and the threat posed by malware like the Mirai botnet that struck the Internet last year. The report warns that "the risk of all these insecure 'things' still exists, and the scale grows bigger with every new connected device."