Mozilla is best known as the maker of web browser Firefox, but the organization also has a philanthropic function. As part of that function, Mozilla has compiled a massive, graphic-laden assessment of the internet itself, dubbed the Internet Health Report 2018.

Fast Forward Bug ArtI sat down with Mozilla’s Executive Director Mark Surman to discuss some of the report’s key findings, including the scourge of fake news, consolidation of industry power, and how leaked data should be treated a “nuclear waste.”

“If you look at the headlines, it looks like we are having a pretty bad year for the internet,” Surman says. “On the question of data protection and the problem with the centralization of power in the hands of just a few tech companies, this is not a healthy place.”

In fact, as the Internet Health Report is being released on the same day Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is testifying before the Senate about the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Most consumers don’t understand the nuances of what Cambridge Analytica did. But in a nutshell, a lot of data was collected using survey tools that were valid at the time, Surman explains.

Approximately 270,000 took the survey in question, and their responses were sold to Cambridge Analytica, in violation of Facebook’s rules. Compounding the issue was the fact that before 2014, when this survey was administered, Facebook allowed app developers to collect not just the survey taker’s data, but also data from all of their friends. So that 270,000 actually affected an estimated 87 million people.

“Cambridge Analytics took all that data, put it in a database, and connected it to a bunch of other data sets,” Surman explains. “Then they sold that off as a way to target advertising.”

Is that a data leak? Surman has a better analogy. “It is not so much a data leak so much as it is a nuclear waste spill,” he says. “Something they didn’t want to have out in the environment got out in the environment.”

The nuclear waste example also reflects how irrevocable these data spills are. Facebook ended the policy of sharing friends’ data in 2014, but that didn’t stop Cambridge Analytica from holding on to what it had for at least another year, and possibly to this day.

“Nuclear waste also has a half-life,” Surman says. “A lot of user data is out there.”

The current reckoning is forcing companies to re-evaluate their role in the data economy. We simply collect too much data, Surman says. Many companies collect and store data on their customers by default and often don’t even know what they will do with it. Hopefully, companies are starting to recognize that is a risky proposition, Surman says. He hopes we move to an age of “lean data” collection.

Another thing the Internet Health Report Makes clear is that health of the internet varies greatly across the globe. Connection speed, data costs, and basic freedoms shift from country to country, and some countries are starting to pull ahead of the US. India passed net neutrality protections at about the same time the FCC rolled them back here, he says, so the internet may be healthier abroad.

Check out our full interview with Surman in the video above.

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