In a challenging year for the world, the internet helped us and harmed us like never before. With 2020 in the rearview, we combine research and stories about what can be done.
A Healthier Internet is Possible
Looking back on 2020
This past year, more than ever, human health was intrinsically tied to internet health. It was a year riddled with loss and charged with accelerated change, as the global pandemic and the climate crisis ailed everyone collectively, but also deepened inequities.
As numerous countries instituted lockdowns and school closures, we saw change of a magnitude that would have seemed impossible earlier. The already rapid pace of digital expansion picked up speed as governments, public health officials, businesses, startup investors (pretty much everyone) sought quick fixes for urgent problems.
Thanks to the internet, billions of people were able to connect safely with family, work remotely from home, order deliveries and attend school. At the same time, nearly half of the world’s population and a third of all schoolchildren, including many in the richest countries, still lack even basic internet access, a computer or a smartphone.
Around the world, the pandemic gave rise to countless new apps for contact tracing and movement control, and new uses of artificial intelligence for making decisions. While some of these technologies may be trustworthy and useful to limiting the spread of the virus, we have yet to realize the full extent of their limitations and risks. From shortsighted data privacy policies, to extensive tracking of citizens, workers, and students, pandemic-born practices will have consequences for internet health beyond the current crisis.
Reckoning with big tech
The seven companies that have consolidated power over the internet and its infrastructure saw their profits skyrocket and power increase as global dependency on ‘big tech’ grew stronger with pandemic lockdowns. At the same time, politicians in multiple countries sharpened and finetuned legal challenges to anti-competitive and privacy-eroding practices with an increase of court cases and fines.
Tech employees are increasingly raising their voice in protests for insufficient diversity, on ethics and rights, and against contracts with military and law enforcement and the continued negative impact on the environment. More whistleblowers have come forward with concerns about what they have seen or found impossible to change from the inside. Gig workers are pushing back against systems that keep them precarious, with few protections or insights into algorithms that decide their wages and work options.
The so-called ‘backlash’ against big tech now promises to bear fruit following years of extensive investigations into bad practices by social media platforms in particular, including rampant tracking, flawed content moderation, limited political ad transparency, harmful recommendations, algorithmic bias, tax evasion, fraud targeting minors, sexual harassment charges, and more. Around the world, disinformation and hate speech was accelerated by both human action and algorithmic recommendations in ways that benefited groups with agendas to destabilize and polarize societies.
Splintered but resilient
The pandemic has become another pretext for censorship of independent journalism and increased surveillance. When met with opposition or conflict, authorities around the world have frequently shut down or throttled internet connections in order to silence and censor. Digital rights advocates have successfully challenged the legality of shutdowns in Cameroon, India, Sudan, Indonesia, and Zimbabwe, but shutdowns can be difficult to document and prevent, particularly when they are brief or limited to remote regions.
The so-called ‘splinternet’ is already a reality, with access to large swathes of the internet increasingly restricted at a country level to enable more control. There is also growing distrust that social media and infrastructure companies who may be beholden to government agencies wield so much power over data and communication. In this new reality, retaining the web’s core ability to empower voices to reach global audiences and break down barriers to information will be critical to preserving its openness.
For millions of people, VPN connections are the only way to see large parts of the web. The anonymity and encryption people depend on for data security and free speech, is often maligned for enabling crimes. Meanwhile, illegal image-based sexual abuse of children and women is openly accessible on some of the internet’s most viewed and least publicly scrutinized websites. For the internet to be healthy, it should not be dominated by companies who profit from abuse, violence, racism, hate or disinformation. We must keep pushing to hold internet platforms accountable and enable better alternatives to rise.
Movements and uprisings
Still, the internet is where people come together and create ripples of change and solidarity. In 2020, there were mass protests in Hong Kong, Lebanon, Nigeria, Chile, India, Poland and many more countries. People chanted for democratic freedoms and human rights, for economic justice, protection from religious persecution, and for the protection and equal treatment of Black lives.
In the U.S. especially, 2020 was a year of reckoning with racism and police brutality. For big and small tech companies, 2020 has meant publicly acknowledging (often under pressure) that the internet is not colorblind and that diversity and inclusion efforts in tech have been lackluster. For digital rights advocates and researchers it has invigorated focus on ‘decolonizing’ the digital rights field as well as on rallying behind current and former tech company employees who raise their voices to expose bias and racism.
Not only is the internet used for organizing, witnessing, informing, fundraising and writing code to support and defend communities, but the health of the internet as an ecosystem also connects with the goals of people’s movements everywhere. Beyond the internet envisioned by corporate giants, we need to nurture and develop more opportunities for online participation centered on language diversity, open access to science, culture, knowledge, code, safe and secure digital spaces for all.
A quest for balance
The adversaries of internet health are often also its allies depending on the context. We need governments to regulate, but not over regulate. We need technologies to be sustainable and make our lives better, but not to block out competitors.
For the next half of the world’s population to come online, we will need to see public investments in infrastructure to connect both rural and urban communities, and policies to make the internet more affordable, including public access points in schools, universities and libraries. Improving the quality of access should include supporting community owned and operated infrastructure alongside solutions driven by governments or large private sector telecommunication and internet companies.
The coming year will be one to transform what we learned about big tech, especially in light of the pandemic and climate change, into actionable demands for reform and accountability with respect to people in all countries. In part, that means reining in the dominance of big tech, creating appropriate requirements for platforms to stem toxic information flows, and making sure data privacy and data rights are upheld. It also means applying greater scrutiny to corporate AI research and to the laborers at the ‘underbelly’ of technology companies who power many features that lead to seamless experiences for consumers: the content moderators, warehouse workers, data labelers, hardware manufacturers, the lithium and cobalt miners — the ‘invisible’ labor far from the free snacks of Silicon Valley. It is past due to address CO2 emissions from the enormous energy expenditures of the internet, including data centers and AI machine learning.
This year pushed us to isolate and self reflect. And in this tense and throbbing moment, we invite you to explore the double nature of the internet, the healthy and the unhealthy. Together, from different angles and intersections and regions, we can work in the direction of people over profits, and internet health and trustworthy AI over consolidation and control.
Spotlights this year
Our spotlight stories delve into ‘what can be done’ on three pressing issues facing the health of the internet today.