The Internet’s An Ecosystem

Ten Ways To Help Save The Net — And Ourselves

The Ecosystem by Lililashka. Vector graphic by freevector.com

From Snowden’s revelations about mass state surveillance to the unfettered gathering of personal data for commercial gain, it’s easy to stop believing in the power of the Internet to make the world a better place.

By taking a big-picture view, we notice the positives and acknowledge the victories, and this makes the issue more approachable.

But when we begin to think of the Internet not as a tool but as an ecosystem, we can zoom out and get a different perspective — one that paints a more positive picture. And, since we are all part of this ecosystem, the more people that get involved, the better the outlook.

Mozilla is a nonprofit organisation working to keep the Internet open and accessible to all. In January 2017, they launched version 0.1 of a pioneering project to gauge the overall health of the Internet.

“We don’t usually speak of the Internet as something that can be healthy or unhealthy,” says Solana Larsen, editor of Mozilla’s Internet Health Report. “But if you can begin to think of it as an ecosystem that’s healthy in some parts and unhealthy in others, then you can start to have a constructive conversation about what can be done to make it better.”

By taking a big-picture view, we notice the positives and acknowledge the victories, and this makes the issue more approachable. “Even people with high technical understanding are feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin,” says Larsen. “I think that’s what’s so important about a project like this — measuring the advances, the gains.”

In an ecosystem, what happens on one end has an effect on the other, even if that effect is subtle. We’ve put together the ten key things you can do to help keep the Internet — and, by extension, yourself — healthy and safe.

1. Encryption and Apps

Over 50 percent of websites are now encrypted with https, which means the connection is private. Without it, it’s easy for anyone to track your online behaviour, data and identity, and, if they’re malicious, exploit it. Pay close attention to whether your favourite websites use https. To check, just look for the letters at the very start of the link in your browser address bar. To be extra safe, install HTTPS Everywhere, which automatically encrypts your browsing. When it comes to your messenger apps, choose those that use end-to-end encryption, so no one can snoop on your conversations.

It’s important to know that while using https is a good start, it doesn’t offer full protection. It’s not a safeguard when using a public network. Plus you can still be tracked through cookies in your browser — this Lifehack article offers some good advice on how to limit commercial surveillance. Governments are also increasingly impelling internet service providers to store and share your online behaviour — and not just in the US — so it’s worth thinking about how to hide your browsing history from your snooping ISP.

Some people say that privacy is only a concern when you have something to hide. It’s not. Privacy is a crucial part of a healthy democracy, protecting the safety of those who speak truth to power, for example.

We stand up for free speech even though we may have nothing to say, and we fight for human rights even when ours are not directly being abused.

2. Manage your preferences

Whether it’s the Facebook privacy page or your computer’s operating system settings, you do have a certain amount of control over how your personal data is used and shared. Such data is hugely valuable to companies, so these days the default settings are wide open. Get into the habit of checking your preferences in your apps and online accounts, to make sure you’re not giving away more than you want to.

If you want to be well and truly freaked out, install a service that visualises how companies track you across the Web.

3. Password integrity

It might seem obvious, but choosing a strong password is one of the easiest ways to protect your online data. Many people still choose hackable passwords, such as common single words. A bot can simply fire off every word in the dictionary (and add on numeric combinations) until it guesses the right one, and once the hacker is in, you’re vulnerable — especially if the account under attack contains sensitive information like your email address, bank details, and so on. If you find it impossible to keep track of all your online logins, install a password manager like Encryptr, which generates and stores them all in one place.

4. See who’s tracking you

If you want to be well and truly freaked out, install a service that visualises how companies track you across the Web. Mozillla’s Lightbeam shows you who’s lurking over your shoulder when you visit a website. Trackography by Tactical Tech lets you see who’s tracking you when you read news online — gleaning information about your political and religious affiliations, for example.

When we install an app, we grant all kinds of permissions to the provider. Effectively, it’s like letting a stranger into your home to look around and rifle through your drawers. But since data is immaterial, these intruders can pass on your digital possessions for a profit, and you’ll never even know. ReCon is a kind of virtual private network (VPN) that you can install on your smartphone. It runs an analysis of the personal information that’s being transmitted from your phone, and lets you see, via a web page, if there’s any leaks. Lately it’s revealed popular apps (think Instagram, Twitter, Spotify) leaking highly sensitive data like password, full name and date of birth, and GPS location.

Another, similar, service is The Haystack Project. An academic initiative, the app (currently only available for Android) also lets you identify leaks and find out who’s selling your personal information without your permission.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
“The healthiest thing about Internet is that it’s still possible for anyone in the world to make a website, at relatively little cost”

5. Create!

“The healthiest thing about Internet is that it’s still possible for anyone in the world to make a website, at relatively little cost,” says Larsen. Whether it’s WordPress, Medium, Tumblr, social media or another of the million and one tools available, people can share their thoughts, ideas, personalities with the world on an unprecedented scale. It’s something we can easily take for granted, but one way to celebrate it is to keep doing it, and to encourage others to, too.

The Internet is built on openness, and to acknowledge that fact and support open source, we can choose products created in this spirit.

6. Support open source

“So much of the goodness that flows from the Internet is thanks to the fact that it is an open system: free for anyone anywhere to learn and build on,” says Mozilla’s report. When companies own products, processes and data, the lack of transparency is not only a security risk, it also causes the Web to fragment and power to accumulate in the hands of a tiny number of massive corporations. The Internet is built on openness, and to acknowledge that fact and support open source, we can choose products created in this spirit. Here’s a list of the 20 most popular pieces of open source software.

7. Report bullying and promote respect

The Internet can sometimes feel like a hostile place. The anonymity and distance it allows seems to encourage and facilitate bullying behaviour. The rules of our complex social contract are just catching up with this new and rapidly growing form of interaction. Of course, the responsibility should not fall solely on us end users — governments, Internet service providers and online platforms have a clear duty of care — but there are a few simple things we can do, such as report bullying we witness happening to others, and leading by example by promoting respect online.

You go into a shop and try on a pair of shoes. After some deliberation, you decide not to buy them, and leave. The salesperson pretends to accept your decision, but secretly follows you around for the rest of the week…

8. Install an ad blocker

In case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of companies competing for your attention online. Whether you’re reading the news, scanning your newsfeed or playing with a free app, ads are everywhere. Despite the constant barrage, it’s easy enough to tune out, so what’s so bad about ads if they mean we can access a product or service for free? The main issue with ads today is that they are based on information that’s being tracked about you across the web. Imagine this: You go into a shop and try on a pair of shoes. After some deliberation, you decide not to buy them, and leave. The salesperson pretends to accept your decision, but secretly follows you around for the rest of the week, jumping out at opportune moments to dangle the shoes in your face. He’s suddenly there at your kitchen table. Now he’s hiding under your bed. If there was a way to discourage that kind of behaviour, you’d be all for it, right? So, install an ad blocker and tell the companies involved how you feel about these tactics.

9. Donate your tech

We’re encouraged to regularly replace our digital devices, as companies constantly release newer models with upgraded features. A lot of the time, there’s nothing technically wrong with the old devices, so instead of throwing them away or recycling them, it’s possible to donate them so that others can benefit. Many electronics dealers have a trade-in programme, so check with your local shops or favourite online stores to see if they accept donations — you’ll be surprised how many of them do. The World Computer Exchange is on a mission to bridge the digital divide, refurbishing old tech and providing it to schools and libraries in developing regions. If your device is in full working order, check with local charity shops and community organisations, in case they can take it off your hands.

10. Protest and resist

Points one to nine in this article can all be seen as small but crucial acts of resistance that collectively have a positive impact on Internet health. Protests often happen at the national level, so look out for news on your country’s digital rights laws, join marches, sign petitions, and support NGOs and other organisations who make legal challenges and lobby governments.

Organisations like European Digital Rights (EDRi) — an association of civil and human rights organisations from across Europe — and Tactical Tech are doing great work to raise awareness about digital rights and their erosions and abuses.

It can feel overwhelming to try and resist the ways technology exploits us, but small acts do make a difference — because we’re all part of the ecosystem, remember.