Race, Labor, Power: Mozilla’s 2020 Internet Health Report
Mozilla’s annual open-source report unpacks how humanity and the internet collided during an extraordinary year
The past 12 months have been some of the most memorable in recent history — both offline and online.
As the COVID pandemic swept the globe, billions of people turned to the internet to stay connected, work remotely, and gather vital information. At the same time, the most vulnerable among us lacked internet access, and social media platforms enabled the spread of dangerous pandemic misinformation and conspiracies. And as the world faced a painful reckoning about race, the internet allowed people to organize, protest, and commiserate. But it also enabled harassment and surveillance.
This dichotomy — the internet’s vast potential for both good and for harm — is at the heart of Mozilla’s latest Internet Health Report, publishing today. It’s our fourth-annual examination of how the internet is intersecting with society and with billions of lives. And it’s never been more timely.
Says Mozilla’s Solana Larsen, editor of the Internet Health Report: “In a year of global protests, a pandemic, economic uncertainty, and so much more, it has never been more apparent that human health depends on internet health. In our 2020 report, we examine how the internet is entwined with issues like race, labor, power, equality, and truth — both for better and for worse.”
Larsen adds: “The Internet Health Report doesn’t just diagnose and analyze. It also seeks solutions. In this 2020 edition, we focus on the code, the laws, and the norms we need to ensure so that the internet helps, rather than harms, humanity.”
"We examine how the internet is entwined with issues like race, labor, power, equality, and truth — both for better and for worse
Solana Larsen, Editor, Internet Health Report
This year’s report unpacks internet health through a variety of mediums. Three spotlight articles — longform journalism — examine three of the biggest stories playing out online: The racial inequities of data and algorithms. How gig work is trampling labor rights. And the stunning lack of transparency into how and why major internet platforms operate. These spotlights include deep reporting and rich interviews with experts.
A data visualization slideshow provides a pithy summary of an unforgettable year. We visualize which internet giants have accrued the most power and money; how quickly COVID misinformation spreads online; the toll that data processing takes on the environment; the frequency of internet shutdowns; and far more.
A mosaic of 100 interviews with influential thinkers provides global insight into what is helping and hurting people online. Experts from more than 40 countries share stories of healthy and unhealthy moments for the internet around the world in 2020. A digital minister in Taiwan, a human rights activist in Kenya; a elections analyst in the Czech Republic, and 97 others contribute their thoughts.
And a high-level analysis ties all of the above together in a 1,300-word essay.
Top findings in this year’s report include:
- The ‘tech-lash’ is finally bearing fruit. Since the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, public perception of the tech industry has changed from rosy to hostile. In 2020, that public opinion began to manifest as real change. Big Tech is facing more antitrust threats. Facial recognition bans are becoming more common. Tech employees are increasingly raising their voices about insufficient diversity, labor rights, and contracts with military and law enforcements. Whistleblowers are coming forward more with concerns. And new data models are emerging as alternatives to big tech. These are just some of the volte-face explored in the 2020 Internet Health Report.
- The internet is splintering. The so-called “splinternet” is becoming a reality, with access to large swathes of the internet being increasingly restricted at a country level due to social or political conflict. Censorship, surveillance, and content manipulation are closing off opportunities for people to participate openly and securely online. Indeed, in 2020, there was an internet shutdown in progress every single day of the year somewhere in the world.
- Technology’s inherent bias is becoming more evident. Example after example revealed that the internet and artificial intelligence are neither colorblind nor neutral, and that inclusion cannot be an afterthought. Facial recognition misidentifies dark-skinned faces, search engine results reinforce harmful stereotypes, and the tech industry remains overwhelmingly homogenous. At the same time, the Movement for Black Lives has lit a fire under new and old conversations around racial justice and technology around the world. Critiques of technologies that surveil, discriminate, and oppress based on biased data have grown sharper.
- Gig work is trampling labor rights — but gig workers are pushing back. As the world enters a new phase of computing — AI — labor rights are at an inflection point. Sprawling internet platforms and sophisticated apps like Uber have created an ecosystem of gig workers deprived of basic labor rights. They earn astonishingly low wages, report to capricious algorithms, and have little or no legal protections. At the same time, new initiatives to rethink and rebalance power over data are giving gig workers some leverage against the tech industry they work within.
- Big Tech is getting bigger. In 2020, seven companies predominantly controlled the internet and its infrastructure: Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook, Tencent, and Alibaba. And four of the most used social media platforms are owned by Facebook: Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. Meanwhile, even “Smaller Tech” depends on Big Tech: When you use Netflix or Zoom, for example, you’re using Amazon Web Services. Bolstered by the pandemic, Amazon’s profits rose nearly 200% in 2020.
- The most powerful AI is inscrutable. The AI powering consumer tech platforms — like Facebook’s newsfeed and YouTube recommendations — is a globally influential force. These technologies influence what billions of people see, read, and, ultimately, believe. Yet they are opaque. Up to 70% of videos watched on YouTube are recommended by algorithms without any oversight — which leads to recommendation loops that sow misinformation, reinforce false and harmful narratives, and polarize and radicalize populations. The biggest platforms don’t disclose how they develop and train their algorithms, and there are few mechanisms to hold companies accountable for their impact in the world.