- In 2020, technology’s true impact on society was exposed, a new Mozilla Foundation report argues.
- It examined how tech shaped debates over racial justice, labor rights, and corporate accountability.
- In 2021, companies will face pressure to build “responsible” tech, Mozilla’s president told Insider.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Technology and society have always been closely intertwined – from Goryeo dynasty printing presses spreading new ideas across the globe more than 700 years ago, to Google’s search engine helping people find those ideas today.
But 2020 was different.
“This past year, more than ever, human health was intrinsically tied to internet health,” argues a new report from the Mozilla Foundation – a nonprofit organization whose privacy-focused Firefox browser was built largely as an antidote to Google.
“Technology and society smashed together in a head-on collision” last year, Mozilla Foundation president Mark Surman told Insider. “It was impossible for anybody to ignore.”
Mozilla’s report focused on three areas where technology collided with major social issues: racial justice, labor rights, and social media companies’ lack of transparency and accountability.
“Technology has never been colorblind”
“The internet appears predominantly White and US-centric by default,” Mozilla’s report said, because it’s mostly built by – and for – “software developers, managers, and executives of technology companies who are rarely diverse in terms of race, ethnicity or gender.”
Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the digital divide as those without home internet access fell behind during online learning – hitting Black and Latinx students hardest. Amazon’s overwhelmingly White executives raked in record compensation as e-commerce sales soared, while its disproportionately Black and Hispanic frontline workers faced dangerous working conditions with low pay and few benefits.
Read more: Unequal access to high-speed internet could be the biggest obstacle to getting the American economy back on track
George Floyd’s death ignited nationwide protests against police brutality, social media documented that very brutality – which in turn enabled police to surveil protesters. Companies like Palantir and Microsoft that supply the government with surveillance technology faced backlash from employees who saw them as complicit in racist immigration and policing policies.
But tech’s most powerful figures weren’t always receptive to such criticisms.
Amazon’s top executives deliberately used a racist stereotype to discredit a Black whistleblower. Google ousted a Black AI ethics researcher who had raised alarms over how the company – and its products – treated minorities. Facebook all but ignored a massive advertiser boycott over hate speech on its platform and rejected many changes proposed by independent civil rights auditors.
“Since the beginning of the internet, calling out racial inequities of data and algorithms means facing denials and backlash,” Mozilla’s report said, referencing an effort in 2008 to build a racially inclusive web browser that received even worse backlash.
Still, the report argued: “The internet can help tip the balance to be racially just through the efforts of many people to rethink systems, question powerful institutions, and develop community focused alternatives.”
“Data rights are labor rights”
Even before the pandemic, a third of Americans had used ride-hailing apps like Uber or Lyft, and lockdown orders pushed more people to take advantage of delivery services like DoorDash, Grubhub, Instacart, Target-owned Shipt, and Amazon Flex (which also delivers Whole Foods groceries).
Globally, those ap
ps are powered by an estimated 50 million “gig” workers: contractors who don’t receive benefits like healthcare, paid sick and parental leave, and labor protections – and whose “bosses” are opaque algorithms that deny them access to and control over the data responsible for their livelihoods.
Read more: California voters approved Proposition 22, keeping ride-share and food delivery drivers as contractors – here’s what that means for companies like Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash and their workers
Mozilla’s report highlighted how gig companies’ ability to withhold data – from workers, regulators and, at times, even the legal system – creates a power imbalance that allows them to exploit gig workers. Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Grubhub, Instacart, Target, and Amazon have all been accused of using complex algorithmic pay models to obscure wage theft.
In response, gig workers are beginning to join forces to advocate for more control over their personal data and their algorithmic bosses, which they plan to use to hold companies accountable and push for better pay and working conditions, according to Mozilla.
“Data rights are labor rights, especially when it comes to the platforms of the gig economy. Leveraging data for the collective good is essential for the future of work and internet health,” the report said.
“Holding social media companies responsible”
Elections brought more waves of misinformation in 2020, and as companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Parler struggled to thread the needle between protecting free speech and preventing harm to their users and society, extremists used their platforms to plan a violent coup that left five dead.
Under public pressure, social media companies eventually decided to permanently ban President Donald Trump, who frequently helped propagate much of the disinformation, but observers – outside and within those social media platforms – wondered how the companies would tackle equally thorny problems around the world and whether there’s enough of a check on their growing power.
“Does it mean platforms will now step up and take greater responsibility?” the report asked. “Without more meaningful transparency and accountability around both human and algorithmic decisions by platforms, probably not – and certainly not everywhere in the world.”
The report discussed Facebook’s role in automatically censoring posts from anti-police-brutality protesters during the #EndSARS demonstrations in Nigeria, and criticisms of the company’s ad library – a tool that Facebook bills as evidence of its transparency, but which researchers argue proves the opposite.
Read more: Big Tech is in the hot seat in Washington. Here are the 19 most influential people shaping policy for the industry from the nation’s capital.
American lawmakers debated whether to rein in tech’s legal shield, while some on the far-right suggested replacing it with government speech police – an often contradictory debate that Surman called a “Section 230 circus.”
But, he added, it became clear that there’s “too much power in the hands of big tech, and we need to figure out, as a society, what to do with it.”
Mozilla’s report highlighted some of the emerging ideas about how to meaningfully hold companies accountable, from investigative journalism projects like The Markup that enlist everyday internet users to help them amass enough data to prove when companies aren’t living up to their promises, to Facebook’s quasi-independent oversight board.
“Whether you’re a developer or whether you’re a CEO or anyone else working in tech, 2021 is going to be the year to figure out what to do about that – in your products and your marketing and in how you engage with the world,” Surman said.
“Any time you’re creating something and selling something that has that much of an effect on society, you’ve got to either figure out how to design what you’re designing responsibly or expect that the people – and eventually governments – are gonna push back,” he added.
True to the spirit of its report, which focused on open source, decentralized, community-driven, transparent, and diverse solutions, Mozilla asked more than 100 people from around the world to chime in with examples of healthy and unhealthy moments for the internet.
From TikTok activists tanking Trump’s rally in Oklahoma, to internet shutdowns in India and elsewhere impacting 268 million people, to communities responding by building their own internet networks, it revealed the growing awareness of technology’s immense power – as well as the responsibility and challenge facing citizens who hope to ensure these technologies build more inclusive and equitable societies.