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The Community Podcast #18

Solana Larsen: How to Keep the Internet Healthy

Today, April 24, 2019 Mozilla released their third annual Internet Health Report. The Internet Health Report asks important questions about the Internet: is it healthy? Is it safe? How open is it? And who is welcome?

We took the opportunity to talk with Solana Larsen, the editor of the report, about what she and her team found out this year. After all, this is not about Instagram being down. It’s about the state of an ecosystem that billions of people depend on for their lives and livelihood.

Solana shares how Internet health can be measured, why digital rights, digital literacy and Internet governance are important and how each of us can contribute to improving the Internet’s well-being. And let's tell you this upfront: Solana is both worried and optimistic about the future - listen and you'll know why.

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Screenshot from Severin's interview with Solana on April 16, 2019

Interview excerpts

We selected and transcripted some interesting parts of our conversation with Solana, so you can read and share them.  


The Internet Health Report

The Internet Health Report is a compilation of stories and data and analysis about the things that make the Internet either healthier or less healthy. It's a report that Mozilla publishes once a year, that's made in collaboration with hundreds of people, and where we try and take stock of where are we and where we should be going. It's one time a year where we look at the Internet in its entirety [...] as one big ecosystem where things are connected and where the way things work at one end of the Internet can affect how things work at the other end. We're thinking about things that affect our personal lives, what our children have access to or how we’re targeted by ads or whether we're under surveillance, depending on where we live in the world. And then we also think about what are the global ramifications, what are the ramifications for my city or my country? It just all gets very overwhelming, so we try with the report to look at things across five different issues. It's a framework where we try and simplify–look, these are the different things that you need to think about: privacy, openness, control, who owns things, who decides how things work. And you also need to decide how people are able to, or how people should be able to learn about the things that affect their lives. And then when you look across all these issues and you think about, okay, here are a bunch of things that are going wrong, but here are also really a lot of things that are getting better, and individuals, people in projects who are working to make things better and actually having results. And I think that one thing that's often missing when we think about the Internet is thinking about the things that you really can make a difference on and celebrating the people and the initiatives that are really having an effect because it's not all just going downhill. There are a lot of things that are working extremely well, and that we just take for granted.

This is the third version of the Internet Health Report that's coming out. And a lot of the issues repeat in a way, you know, the big companies are still in control of way too much, and have way too unfair an advantage, but there are also things that are moving forward. In the world of regulation, for instance, there have been some really significant experiments, attempts to codify what it means for privacy to exist in the digital realm. I mean, of course there's things like the GDPR in Europe, which is held up as an example, but there are a lot of other attempts I think to figure out how responsible should the companies be, how responsible should the government's be? In the realm of Internet governance too, we've been at different stages with the Internet of either wanting the governments entirely out or, in other parts of the world, wanting the governments to take over everything – and like finding this balance between what should the companies rule, what should the governments rule, and what role should civil society play? I think we're moving towards a better understanding of how these different things have to work in concert with each other, in order for good things to happen or better things to happen. So, you know, fines for big companies, even the debates that have happened with Mark Zuckerberg and the US Congress – we are at a different stage of interrogating the way that things work, so that's a positive. It's always this push and pull, new threats are showing up rapidly, I think AI is one area where all the risks that we're used to suddenly seem much greater, you know, it's like all the regular risks of the Internet on steroids, because the scale of what we're trying to do with technology and with network computing is so much bigger than what it used to be, and also the ramifications for different populations around the world. And so, I mean, there's a lot that is really terrifying, but we know a lot better, as a global community, what some of the things are that need to happen to improve things. Whether there's political will, or will from the companies – that remains to be seen, but I think we know a lot more about what needs to happen.

I know it's called a report, but it's really not. It’s not like this heavy academic thing. It's a light and accessible read. Every topic that's described is described in not so many words, and in a way that's really easy to understand. It's such a wide range of topics – I would never expect everybody to know everything, it's not meant to be read from one end to the other. It’s meant to be browsed, and you can look at the headlines and see what kind of topics interest you, and you can dip in and out of different topics. You can choose things that you would like to read later, create a reading list that you can share with other people. I think everybody has a different perspective of what it will be for them, and that's the kind of conversation that I'd love for us to have, you know, to zoom out and think about the Internet in its entirety and maybe shift our perspective on what we can do in our own work to make things better.


What is a healthy Internet?

What does it mean for something to be healthy? What does it mean for a person to be healthy? It's a kind of fluid expression that's open to interpretation. And you know, there's no such thing, in the human realm, as a perfect human health. It's not like now you're healthy and you never have to exercise or eat healthy again. It's a constant process of maintenance and assessment and, you know, there is no perfection in sight. And I think the same is true of the Internet. There is no such thing as a perfectly healthy Internet because it reflects human life and society and all our imperfections of governance and business. And so we can strive to have a healthier internet and we can strive to have a healthier relationship to the Internet, and that's what this is about, it’s about thinking about it in these kind of holistic terms, thinking about it more as a healthy ecosystem, where you're thinking about balance–like, you know, the rain forest is never immune to influences that are in the atmosphere and all over the world, but what can you do to make these ecosystems healthier and appreciate how they adapt to things that are happening on the planet?


Solana’s journey on the Internet

My history with the Internet started when it was still a dial-up connection and a modem. The first time I used it was for a high school assignment, and it was in Usenet forums at that point. I was asking for reactions to a book that had been written about Denmark, and I got dozens of responses from different parts of the world and it was really this exciting window on perspectives from people all around the world. As I went into journalism when I grew older and went to university, I think I always was very focused on the internet as a way of thinking about communication and politics and how you could change the media and how you could change how democracy works.

I was on the extremely optimistic and curious side of trying to think about how we could use the Internet for global understanding. I'm half Danish and half Puerto Rican, and one of the first projects I worked on after I graduated from journalism school in London was a website called openDemocracy that still exists today. At the time it was one of the first serious publications for global analysis that involved people from all over the world. A lot of times we were reaching out to famous writers, famous professors and asking them to publish something on the Internet. And for many it was the first they had had anything published on the Internet at all. A lot of newspapers were still not fully online. And we were just beginning to explore what it would mean to discuss these topics of global importance, like the war in Afghanistan and Iraq or the ramifications of 9-11 or any number of topics that felt urgent to discuss from more perspectives than you would get from traditional mainstream media, especially in the anglophone world. So later I started working with Global Voices. I was the editor, for several years, of this global community mostly run by volunteers, where we covered international news through the words of bloggers and digital activists around the world, and especially in Latin America, Africa, Middle East, Asia–basically outside North America and Europe. We tried to supplement  what was being reported in international media or, in some cases, you know, we were the only ones talking about what was happening in Madagascar or any number of countries are crises. At that point, the international media hadn't quite figured out how to use social media and the Internet, so we had early partnerships with Reuters, with BBC, with many big news organizations who were still trying to figure out what their attitude towards the Internet should be and how they should be using it both as a source and as a medium for reporting.

So that's how I started on all these topics and later, around the time I left Global Voices some years ago, I was feeling very depressed really about the Internet, around the time that the Snowden revelations happened, after the Arab spring, when people were really disappointed. A lot of the people who I knew either personally or just from reading their writing on Global Voices were jailed. There was a lot of violence directed towards people who had been working in the Internet sphere, and just a real sense of gloom about everything that we had been so optimistic about. And when Mozilla approached me about working on this report, I was in a moment of soul searching and trying to figure out what is there still to be optimistic about in this Internet situation. And for me it's not only just about Internet. The Internet on its own is not interesting. Regaining some hope and optimism about the problems that we're facing being something that we can turn around is something that I've been able to recover in working with Mozilla. And the reason is that this is in large part a community of technologists that have an entirely different attitude to what it means to fix a problem, especially a technological problem, compared to a lot of the people in the activism and media world have. They have a kind of institutional memory of how the Internet was created and are closer to the decisions about how things work. A lot of times before, I felt like Google and Facebook and these were like mythical organizations that were very far away from me and very difficult to approach. And now suddenly I feel like, you know, it's like the emperor's new clothes or something, you know, they're just companies like any other; yes, they're really big and powerful, but it just seems a little more approachable when you're working with people who are so close to the technology that's being developed. Bringing together these worlds of media and activism and technology and policy is something that's really exciting to be at the center of. And the Internet Health Report is a publication where we try and convene a lot of these different perspectives and try to break the silos between these communities and have an open and frank conversation about what’s possible. And you know, it's just a publication, it's about 40, 50 articles about vastly different topics, but when you look at all of them, there's a common theme about, you know, trying to look at the invisible structural factors behind things and try to understand how this came to be, and how we can make it better. And for me at least–I don’t know for everybody who reads it–it gives me a sense of optimism and a sense that we have, as humanity, some agency about figuring out what should happen.


Mozilla the underdog

The vast majority of people at Mozilla work on Firefox, and Firefox is used by around 300 million people around the world, it’s a browser with a significant market share, maybe just under 20% on desktop computers. It used to be higher, but Chrome is eating everything at Google. The Google machine is quickly gaining power and Google uses Chrome to advance their other interests, they use it to sell ads, they use it to gain information about you, they have all these other products, and the browser is a way to help them in their other business interests. Safari is a product of Apple, but Apple's main interest is to sell phones, so again, the browser for them is a way to make money on something really entirely different. The goal of Mozilla is just to let you browse better. There isn't any kind of hidden agenda or a profit motive. It's a nonprofit. And the whole concept and philosophy of the project was to create an alternative, to make sure there's a noncommercial alternative that puts users at the forefront of decisions. And now, the we're talking about this message is Internet health, but it's really wrapped up in, in all these different issues that I'm talking about. How can you make it a better experience? How can you make sure that the Internet is something that is positive? And so the money that Mozilla is able to get through Firefox, a large part of it, is put into things that the foundation is doing. We also get a lot of donations from people around the world. And what we do these days is, in large part, we have a lot of fellowships, people who work on Internet research around the world, people who work on Internet activism, we've been involved in digital literacy projects all over the world, lots of activities around open source programming, and diversity in open source programming, and involving women, involving people from different parts of the world, working with students, young people–really a pretty vast amount of topics. And there is also a small policy team, who partly works in Europe, in Brussels, trying to advance policies that are good for the Internet and good for people who use the Internet, and are kind of a voice of reason against much, much bigger companies who have much greater lobbying powers. And so being able to use our position in the market as a serious technology provider but at the same time with civil society and nonprofits sensibilities, I think is why Mozilla is exciting as an agent of change.
We also have advocacy campaigns like petitions and those kinds of things where we push for specific changes,
we just had a campaign yesterday where we were asking–Apple did a whole bunch of ads on how great they are for privacy–and we just did a petition saying well, if you're so great for privacy, why don't you change how the ad identifiers work on iPhones? Why don't you reset the ad identifier every single month, instead of leaving it to users to do themselves? Another campaign was about IoT toys, Internet connected toys that are really insecure, and we called on Walmart and Amazon and other online retailers to take these things off the market when they were proven to have security flaws. And a lot of times, because you're a big company and because you have a lot of users and big mailing lists, you can push for change in ways that it can be harder to do if you're small. So it's an advocacy and policy and, you know, a strange mix of different interests, but what keeps it all together is the fact that we have this technology. Mozilla is also working behind the scenes often to make sure that new technological developments are happening in ways that aren't just dominated by the big companies. So, with virtual reality, for instance, a lot of the big companies would love if they had control of both the headset and the technology, so you could only view their VR on their headset–you know, these kind of closed environments for technical development–where Mozilla has said no, let's have something called web VR, let’s make sure that we have this interoperability between platforms. These kinds of decisions that get made behind the scenes about how the web works, about how the app ecosystem works – Mozilla is an influential influential voice here, and that's from the engineers all the way up to people who are more on the nonprofit or media side of things.


When is it meaningful to be online? 

When you look at these global statistics about how many more people are coming online around the world, you rarely get the question okay, but what are people doing? When is it meaningful to be online? Is it meaningful if you're just using Facebook and Whatsapp? I think it's meaningful when you're able to use it for research. It's meaningful when you're able to use it for education in school, or to better take care of your children's health – you know, we forget how the Internet makes our lives better because we're used to it, in this part of the world, we’re used to just being able to pull up a Google map and know exactly where we're going, and to know what's what's happening in our country – all this transparency and ease that we just take for granted now. But I think we do need to get better at not just consuming aimlessly, of not just using these technologies for entertainment, of not just following the lead of apps and services that are designed to capture our attention and passively addict us to their systems. I mean, the crisis over disinformation around the world and the way that people are increasingly worried about the risks to public health and to democracy and electorial credibility – this is all tied in with how digitally literate we are, and that’s from the wealthiest parts of the world to the poorest parts of the world. Those are things that I think we share in common across humanity. And there's really a lot that needs to change in the educational systems to make sure that we understand what we're looking at, and that we understand how information is created, and how we can use the Internet ourselves to change our societies and environments. And I think, when you also look at the startup culture and what people are thinking about in terms of – if you wanted to make a new service or app, would you think about how to make the next million-dollar business, or how to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars of venture capital funding, or would you think about how you could use the Internet to improve society? 
And that's where I think there's a bit of a mismatch, where the Internet has been so commercialized in so many different ways that we’re missing the equivalent of, like, public service broadcast for the Internet. What is a public service Internet and what responsibility do civic institutions, organizations, public institutions have on the Internet? How should they be involved in innovation and development of advanced technologies as well? How do we fund that? How do we create the mentality that that should even be something  they're thinking about? [...] As things might get worse, with AI or other technologies where the risks haven’t been assessed, many times the solutions that will be developed will also need to use technology. It's one of the things that makes it so difficult to assess these topics, when the enemy and your friend is the same all the time. Like the governments are our enemy when they censor or when they shut down the Internet or when they survey, but they're our friend when they regulate in ways that are good for innovation and for competition and for the privacy of individuals. And it’s the same with big technology companies. They've enabled us to do the most incredible things and put extremely powerful technology in the hands of so many people. But they've also abused that trust in some ways and have found ways to profit on practices that are not healthy for society.

what gets Solana excited about the future of the social web

I think voice control technology is really interesting and not just from the perspective of “Oh, this is cool, we can talk to computers without looking at them or touching them”. It's an area that could be used for much more social good, for diversity, for inclusion. Mozilla has one project that is about people in different languages donating their voices. It's called Common Voice, and you can donate your voice. You read some texts aloud, or you can review what somebody else has recorded and contribute to creating an open source database of voices that are used for machine learning, so that computers can understand not just the languages that make sense from a market and commercial perspective, but also minority languages.
A really interesting stream of thought right now is around platform cooperatives: how do you create Internet businesses where the users are co-owners of the business? Like if you imagine, you know, what if all the people who use Facebook, were co-owners could have a more democratic way of deciding how it should work and what should happen. A lot of smaller companies are trying to break this cycle of VC funding and all the culture that comes with that, and try and think of different ways to fund small scale projects in the public interest. I find that really exciting as an experimentation field. To give an example, there's one woman who's created this project for medical research, and she's made a community of people who have a rare medical condition, who’ve given their data, they rent their data to the pharmaceutical industry and then share both the profits and the control over what happens to their data. Normally, if you give that kind of data to a pharmaceutical company, you will never see any piece of the profit or any kind of power in terms of decision making of which way the research should go or what should happen. And so, using the Internet and the tools that we have for these kinds of distributed collaborations, there's a lot of scope for doing things, even on a really large scale, once you start thinking about what would you like to do differently

After you browse through this year's Internet Health Report, reach out to Solana on Twitter and tell her what your favorite topics or ideas were. She'd love to hear your thoughts.