Mozilla Firefox boss warns that public turning on tech firms over privacy

Internet, News

Public opinion is turning against big technology firms over their mishandling of user data, the head of non-profit tech firm Mozilla has warned.

Mitchell Baker said the public realisation of how much data was being gathered by tech giants such as Facebook and Google and how that data could have an impact on democracy was turning people off social media and other services.

Mozilla is the company behind the Firefox web browser, which includes features to stop websites tracking users as they move around the web. Firefox is the third most popular web browser in the world, according to figures from StatCounter published in May.

“I think what’s happening is that the consequences of them (tech firms) are becoming clear and the flaws in the system are showing up,” she told Radio 4’s Today programme.

“Whether it’s data, whether it’s the disruption of democracies, whether it’s the ability to target people so precisely, there’s just such evidence that if you really want to – via the information that Facebook has – you can actually manipulate people pretty effectively on a one-to-one level.”

She said she could see and feel an attitude change among people towards Silicon Valley firms, and that people were now responding to Mozilla “differently” because of its robust attitude towards privacy.

The firm’s chairwoman said some had previously perceived the company has “whiners” because “we’ve been talking about privacy, the big platforms, the lack of interoperability, the data addiction economy, for some time”.

Facebook has been at the centre of several data scandals around user privacy, and alongside Twitter, Google and other platforms has been the subject of a debate around the rise and impact of misinformation and how this can be used to instigate political interference.

The impact of internet services on wellbeing and mental health has also been under discussion over the last year, with both Apple and Google introducing tools to enable users to manage their screen time and app usage.

Governments in several countries, including the UK, are now debating the introduction of more robust regulation to better hold tech firms to account.

In April, the Government published its Online Harms white paper, which called for a mandatory duty of cure being placed upon internet companies and enforced by a new independent regulator.

Ms Baker said the increased interest from regulators was inevitable given recent events.

“I think it’s actually to do with the effect of technology on society and we’re seeing that across the board, so one is privacy, one is elections, one is the way the algorithms drive you into perhaps unproductive content or extremist content because that keeps you engaged. So those range of things,” she said.

She praised Apple for its own “public privacy focus” and added that while each firm “moves at its own pace”, Mozilla was “starting to see privacy show up in products more”.

Chris Price
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