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Where is The Internet Headed?

Jun 24, 2020 | Digitalization Trends

From AI to encryption and fake news, the internet is facing pressing  issues, but there are potential solutions, writes Solana Larsen

Over the past few months, you’ve almost certainly heard someone lament the state of the internet.

It might have been a friend or family member, who learned the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica breach was worse than originally thought. Or maybe it was Twitter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey, who recently acknowledged  his platform had been compromised by bots and trolls. Or perhaps you  heard it from Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, who  earlier this year wrote the web is “under threat” from big tech.

But it’s not all bad news. The internet’s original promise — a global  public resource by and for its users — hasn’t flickered out. Peer past  the troubling headlines and you’ll find positive ones, like new, strong data protection rules in Europe, bots that fight government corruption in Brazil, and free coding workshops for girls around the world.

In stories both good and bad, this much is certain: The internet is a  force tied to all aspects of life. What happens online impacts our  economies, our governments, and us personally. This connection is only  growing deeper: In the coming years, billions more people will come  online, and tens of billions more devices will further link the internet  to our homes, cars, and relationships. Today, questions like “is the  internet healthy or unhealthy?” aren’t academic — they’re existential.  To ignore these questions is to jeopardize everything from our  democracies to our economies our personal well-being.

So — is the internet healthy? And if not, what parts need  immediate attention? These are complex questions. But the nonprofit I  work at, Mozilla, is among the people and organizations seeking answers.  We published the Internet Health Report  on April 10, a sweeping survey of what’s helping and hurting the  internet. We compiled data from organizations like Access Now and the  International Telecommunications Union. And we spoke with a diverse  roster of experts: an engineer in Brazil, a cryptographer in Egypt, a  cyber violence expert in Toronto, a journalist in Afghanistan. Through  those conversations, a handful of the internet’s most pressing issues —  and potential solutions — emerged:

Intelligent machines aren’t always right

Artificial intelligence is all around us — tucked into our car  dashboards, living in home assistants like Alexa, or hard at work in our  web browsers. AI is currently revolutionizing everything from medicine  to transportation.

But too often, cutting-edge AI technology is monetized and introduced  to mass markets without a thorough understanding of its risks. The  consequences can be dire: An algorithm meant to populate news feeds can  instead promote lies and conspiracy theories. Or an algorithm meant to aid law enforcement can instead discriminate  against African Americans. Compounding this problem: The realm of AI is  highly centralized. The vast amounts of money and training data needed  to develop intelligent machines mean only a few companies — Google,  Facebook, Baidu — control most of the technology. Start-ups are left  out, and Big Tech grows bigger.

There are solutions: By making the datasets that train AI open  source, we can give newer, smaller AI companies a leg up. We should also  hold AI accountable — we need diligent watchdogs and strict regulations  to ensure it isn’t discriminating. New York City is an exemplar: A new law is putting the algorithms the city uses to dispatch its public services under the microscope.

Encryption is under siege

As more and more personal data migrates online — from medical records  and tax returns to family photos — strong security becomes paramount.  And in the fight against thieves and snoops, encryption is a first line  of defense. Cyber attacks affected hundreds of millions of people in 2017; without strong encryption, that number would be far higher.

Yet governments around the globe are actively undermining encryption. Anxious that encryption “enables criminals and terrorists,”  policymakers are pushing for backdoors — methods for law enforcement to  circumvent encryption. Governments are also seeking out software  vulnerabilities, and using those flaws to gain access to encrypted data.  Countries that recently passed laws that erode encryption include  China, Hungary, Russia and the United Kingdom.

Here’s the problem: If governments mandate encryption backdoors, the  bad guys will find them — and exploit them. Also, if governments hoard  software vulnerabilities without giving companies the chance to fix  them, the door is wide open for the bad guys to find and exploit these  vulnerabilities, too. Policymakers around the world should be passing  laws that strengthen encryption, not undermine it. And policymakers  should inform technology companies if they find a flaw, so it can be  fixed immediately.

‘Fake news’ is a symptom; treat the cause 

Fraud on social media — or “fake news” — has reached a fever pitch.  Conspiracy theories and blatant lies thrive on social media, sowing  discord, deepening partisan divides, and disrupting elections.

Governments are scrambling to find solutions. In Germany, a 2017 law requires  major social media platforms to block or delete unlawful content — or  face steep fines that range from 2.5 million to 40 million euros.  Germany’s law is already rippling across the world, with similar  regulations taking shape in RussiaKenya, and Venezuela.

While these laws aim to reduce misinformation, they also enshrine big  technology companies as gatekeepers. Suddenly, corporations like  Facebook and YouTube determine what constitutes “fake news” or “hate  speech.” The result might be less free expression, and more censorship, online.

Further, these laws treat the symptom — misinformation — and not the  cause: the internet’s hyper-targeted, ad-driven business model.  Outrageous content generates more clicks and engagement. And more clicks  and engagement generate more money. By building technology that values truth over outrage, or by teaching students how the internet really works, we can address misinformation more effectively.

These are just three trends shaping the internet in 2018. There are  countless others, from global net neutrality laws to the proliferation  of the Internet of Things. Every new technology and policy we introduce  alters the internet ecosystem — and, in turn, ripples into billions of  lives. As a result, technologists, policymakers, and everyday internet  users need to ask the right questions — “is this healthy?” — early and  often. And we need to commit to technologies and laws that uphold the  internet’s original promise: a global public resource by and for its  users.

 

Notes:

  • This blog post is based on Mozilla’s Internet Health Report.
  • The post gives the views of its authors, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
  • Featured image credit: Internet map, by Matt Britt, under a CC BY 2.5 license, ()], via Wikimedia Commons

Original Article: LSE / Solana Larsen / 2018

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