Are you a conscious chooser? How your decisions can shape the internet's ethics

Mac user thinking

Tech is no longer just about convenience – it's about principles. The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the introduction of GDPR are forcing companies to be more transparent about the data they collect from us and how they use it – but is that enough?

Mozilla, creator of Firefox, says that real change has to come from within the industry itself. Tech companies have to want to work differently, and as a users, you have the power to vote with your logins.

Mary Ellen Muckerman, VP of product strategy and services, calls these people 'conscious choosers' – the type of people who vote, read labels and are active in their local communities. These people see the companies they use as a badge that represents their values.

Staying in control online

"We did research in the US and Germany and Brazil, and what we found is there is this cohort of people out there who they represent roughly 20 to 25 percent of all internet users," Muckerman told TechRadar.

"These people understand that they can vote with their wallet in the real world – they are more likely to boycott something, for instance – but they were a bit stymied when it came to exercising that same type of impact and control in the online world."

The future looks promising for all us us who care about privacy and security

Mary Ellen Muckerman

That's changing, she believes, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that people are now realizing that the choices they make online can have a tangible impact.

"You see a lot of different polls coming through in terms of how many people actually took an action as it relates to their Facebook behavior," said Muckerman. "That's about 20 to 25% of Facebook users, so that's a nice correlation with the population we found to be conscious choosers.

"That's a sizeable number of people. This group generally correlates to the millennial population as well. We think that the future looks quite promising for all of us who care about privacy and security, and care really about being able to be in control of the decisions that we make online."

The 25% of users pushing for change – the conscious choosers – are fighting against a status quo that distances them from their own data.

"Technology companies haven't been doing what's in the best interest of people," said Mozilla's chief marketing officer Jascha Kaykas-Wolff. "There’s an expectation that they’re this strange hybrid of a robot and a lawyer. What technology companies do as businesses has so many different applications, the only way that an individual can understand that is to have legal expertise and robotic stamina to be able to read through it. With thousands of words on hundreds of pages to hit the terms of a service agreement, it's a kind of farcical consent."

That farcical consent was highlighted neatly at a recent art exhibition – the Glass Room, curated by Tactical Tech and presented by Mozilla. The show offered dozens of striking visualizations of the way companies use and share our personal data, and just how far their reach extends.

Alphabet Empire 3, La Loma & Tactical Tech

Alphabet Empire 3, La Loma & Tactical Tech. Exhibits at the Glass Room highlight how data is used and shared; this map illustrates all the connections between companies owned by Alphabet

One exhibit showed a man reading the full terms and conditions for Amazon's Kindle service aloud – a process that took over eight hours, and was still going when the exhibition closed for the day. Yes, all the data is there, but it's totally unrealistic to expect users to read and comprehend it all before agreeing.

"We've been investing in things like the Glass Room and making sure that there's a kind of an easier entry into understanding how companies interact with us," said Kaykas-Wolff. We think that's important, and we think more organizations need to be taking a similar stand."

Leading by example

While legislation like GDPR is forcing companies operating in the EU to take a long, hard look at how they handle their users' data, Kaykas-Wolff believes the best approach is for tech organizations to take the lead rather than waiting for their hand to be forced.

"Change is gonna come in three different ways," he said. "It’s gonna come from organizations stepping up and saying ‘I recognize that I'm not contributing to this ecosystem in a way that helps it be healthy over time’; it could potentially come from individuals saying ‘I'm not okay with what's going on with my information’ and they're gonna force a change by voting with their wallet; or it can come from Brussels, from the UK, or from DC.

"GDPR is important overall, in that it puts individuals back in control and there are punitive damages if organizations don't uphold what the law states, but GDPR is only about a specific region. Our opinion is that every company that's interacting with people's data needs to treat people the same way, which is putting them in control in any country that they're in and when we think about the implications for GDPR for Mozilla in particular."

The Glass Room

The Glass Room © David Mirzoeff 2017 – the concept of the Glass Room is transparency, which Kaykas-Wolff believes will soon become a requirement for tech businesses to succeed

Kaykas-Wolff says putting users in control has always been one of Mozilla's key principles – and it's the same all over the world. He gives the example of sponsored posts in Pocket – a service that lets users bookmark articles to read later, and suggests other posts that they might enjoy. Pocket suggestions appear when you open a new tab in Firefox, and as of Firefox 60, these can include the occasional sponsored post – or ad.

Hey, we're gonna participate in this business model of the internet. It's OK, but here's a better way to approach it if you care about individuals having control of their data

Jascha Kaykas-Wolff

"There's nothing wrong with advertising," he said, "but the approach for advertising I think has gotten a bit out of control. When any of us choose to go anywhere on the internet, what's happening right now is that our information is being kind of sucked up – hoovered up for lack of a better term – and advertising companies are trying to figure out how to create that magic growth equation so that they can sell the most expensive ads and get them in front of you. The problem with that is that all of our information is being sucked up into the cloud, and then we don't have control over any more.

"Our approach is vastly different than that that the data doesn't get sent to Mozilla. It happens entirely inside of the desktop browser or the mobile browser, and what's really important is that as an individual who chooses to use Firefox, you can actually turn that on and off. So we're basically saying, ‘Hey, we're gonna participate in this business model of the internet. It's OK, but here's a better way to approach it if you care about individuals having control of their data.’"

Whether you choose to use Firefox and Mozilla's other tools or not, the choices you make could represent a tipping point for the tech industry. As the number of conscious choosers increases, companies will no longer be able to sacrifice transparency in the name of convenience.

"I'd forecast that a decade from now [transparency] is going to be the requirement for an organization to be successful," said Kaykas-Wolff. "This is the evolution of the way the businesses need to operate and we're just now starting to see the front end of it this is the beginning of a trend I think is here to stay."

Cat Ellis

Cat is the editor of TechRadar's sister site Advnture. She’s a UK Athletics qualified run leader, and in her spare time enjoys nothing more than lacing up her shoes and hitting the roads and trails (the muddier, the better)