Internet Health and IoT

By Michelle Thorne

The ThingsCon report The State of Responsible IoT is a collection of essays by experts from the inter-disciplinary ThingsCon community of #IoT practitioners. It explores the challenges, opportunities and questions surrounding the creation of a responsible & human-centric Internet of Things (IoT). For your convenience you can read it on Medium or download a PDF.

“The true impact of activism may not be felt for a generation. That alone is reason to fight, rather than surrender to despair.” — Rebecca Solnit, The Guardian1

Reading the news these days, it’s easy to believe that we’re living in a bad science fiction novel: government agencies openly admit they are using IoT to conduct surveillance at unprecedented levels2; a botnet took over webcams and connected devices around the globe and temporarily brought down major websites3; irresponsible businesses are leaking their customers’ private data and treating digital security as an externality4. All of this is happening against the backdrop of rising far-right nationalism, ongoing wars, and climate change.

Visiting the workshops of local manufacturers and craftspeople in Ahmedabad, India to create products together. Image: Michelle Thorne

Confronted with these realities, one might turn to pessimism. Nothing that I do will make a difference. We are all doomed. Or one might be optimistic and think I’ll sit this out. It will all work out in the end. Both pessimism and optimism are fatalistic. Neither option will motivate anyone into action.

That’s why I believe now is the time for honest reflection and earnest practices. It is why I’m committed to efforts like ThingsCon to advance responsible IoT and why I lead a program at the non-profit Mozilla called the Open IoT Studio which carries a similar mission. The actions we take today may not result in immediate change. But history is rich with examples of how acting in responsible, healthy ways has inspired people living on the other side of the globe or even living generations later.

Take for example the courageous act of whistleblowing by Edward Snowden. He has said that he was inspired by Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers decades earlier — years before Snowden was even born.5

This example, along with several others, are presented by Rebecca Solnit, a journalist at The Guardian and writer of the book Hope in the Dark. She outlines the inheritance of civil disobedience. It spans centuries yet is linked by specific individuals and collective action that emboldened later generations and people living in different circumstances:

[N]on-violence is a strategy articulated by Mohandas Gandhi, first used by residents of Indian descent to protest against discrimination in South Africa on 11 September 1906. The young lawyer’s sense of possibility and power was expanded immediately afterward when he traveled to London to pursue his cause. Three days after he arrived, British women battling for the right to vote occupied the British parliament, and 11 were arrested, refused to pay their fines, and were sent to prison. They made a deep impression on Gandhi.
He wrote about them in a piece titled “Deeds Better than Words” quoting Jane Cobden, the sister of one of the arrestees, who said, “I shall never obey any law in the making of which I have had no hand; I will not accept the authority of the court executing those laws …” Gandhi declared: “Today the whole country is laughing at them, and they have only a few people on their side. But undaunted, these women work on steadfast in their cause. They are bound to succeed and gain the franchise…” And he saw that if they could win, so could the Indian citizens in British Africa fighting for their rights. In the same article (in 1906!) he prophesied: “When the time comes, India’s bonds will snap of themselves.” Ideas are contagious, emotions are contagious, hope is contagious, courage is contagious. When we embody those qualities, or their opposites, we convey them to others.

Solnit describes how British suffragists inspired an Indian man to lead his country’s independence from British rule twenty years later. Gandhi, in turn, inspired Martin Luther King Jr., who studied Gandhi’s methods and met with his heirs in the late 1950s. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement built on the techniques of non-violent direct action, which were later implemented to end apartheid in South Africa, advance the environmental movement and advocate for many more social causes.

At the Mozilla Foundation, we argue that the internet today requires similar activism and interventions. The internet is a unique public resource. It’s an unprecedented tool for creativity and self expression. The internet enables us to learn, organize and innovate in ways that can influence other pressing issues — be the societal, economical, political, environmental. By 2020, there will be five billion of us on the internet. Few technologies have impacted so many people in such deep ways.

To preserve the internet as this public resource, we must fight for its health.6 It is an ecosystem. Signs of poor health in any part impacts the whole. In recent years, we’ve described these five issues as critical for the health of the internet: privacy & security, digital inclusion, web literacy, decentralization and open innovation. Internet health should become a mainstream issue.

Importantly, our understanding of what the internet is will also change. The Internet of Things can be seen as an evolution of the internet — a third wave. The first wave came as fixed desktop internet, and the second wave was internet on mobile devices. Now with IoT’s “billions of devices connected, trillions in generated revenue, zettabytes of multi-directional data,” as O’Reilly Publishing recounts7, the challenges facing internet health will be orders of magnitude greater as it enters this new third wave. The issues of internet health we’ve faced in past eras will be amplified by the sheer size of IoT.

As this technology becomes more deeply infused into our everyday lives — by orders of magnitude — it’s important to look at it critically, especially with an eye towards social good and the public interest. What happens when most people and most things are creating networked data all the time? How will algorithms connect to our physical environment and influence decision-making, relationships and power structures? How do we respond when countries with large scale poverty and limited regulation are increasingly the testing ground for more extreme Internet of Things experiments? As often as the Internet is used to foster learning and promote justice, it’s also used to exert control and exacerbate inequality.

As IoT practitioners and advocates for a healthy internet, we must ask what impact we want these new technologies to have in our lives, our organizations, our cities and our societies. At this critical moment, we must ask not what is possible, but what is responsible. Together we must fight for a healthy internet of things.


Michelle Thorne leads Mozilla’s Open Internet of Things Studio, a professional learning network committed to making IoT more open. She’s published Understanding the Connected Home and regularly facilitates programs that advocate for equality through digital empowerment and innovation through open, collaborative practices. She’s based in Berlin, Germany.

ThingsCon is a global community of IoT practitioners dedicated to fostering the creation of a human-centric & responsible Internet of Things. Learn more on ThingsCon.com, join an event near you, and follow us on Twitter.

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons (CC by-nc-sa) license. Please reference the author by name. To link to this page, you can also use the shortlink bit.ly/riot-report.


  1. From “Protest and persist: why giving up hope is not an option” published March 13, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/13/protest-persist-hope-trump-activism-anti-nuclear-movement. ↩︎
  2. In a 2012 interview in Wired, CIA director David Patraeus called the surveillance implication of the Internet of Things “transformational… particularly to their effect on clandestine tradecraft.” https://www.wired.com/2012/03/petraeus-tv-remote More recently, James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, stated that, “Intelligence services might use the [Internet of things] for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials.” https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/feb/09/internet-of-things-smart-home-devices-government-surveillance-james-clapper. ↩︎
  3. “The 2016 Dyn cyberattack took place on October 21, 2016, and involved multiple distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS attacks) targeting systems operated by the DNS provider Dyn, which caused major Internet platforms and services to be unavailable to large swathes of users in Europe and North America…The activities are believed to have been executed through a botnet consisting of a large number of Internet-connected devices — such as printers, IP cameras, residential gateways and baby monitors — that had been infected with the Mirai malware. With an estimated throughput of 1.2 terabits per second, the attack is, according to experts, the largest DDoS attack on record.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016_Dyn_cyberattack ↩︎
  4. For example, the CloudPets stuffed toys leaked details of half a million users. The company’s data was compromised and leaked information including email addresses, passwords and voice recordings of children and their parents. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/feb/28/cloudpets-data-breach-leaks-details-of-500000-children-and-adults. ↩︎
  5. In an conversation between Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden in July 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/07/daniel-ellsberg-snowden-honored-his-oath-better-than-anyone-in-the-nsa/375031/. ↩︎
  6. Read more about Mozilla’s position and research on internet health in our Internet Health Report: https://internethealthreport.org. ↩︎
  7. See “The IoT is IT in progress” and other articles about IoT and the new hardware by O’Reilly: https://www.oreilly.com/ideas/the-iot-is-it-in-progress ↩︎