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Mozilla teaches U of T students about the potential and pitfalls of the digital world

U of T students discussed how the internet can harm and help people around the world at a session at Mozilla headquarters in Toronto (photo by Romi Levine)

Between obsessively checking social media accounts and binge-watching Netflix, it’s easy to take the internet for granted.

But as the world becomes more connected, concerns about the safety, privacy and autonomy of internet users are becoming issues that are hard to ignore.

To help his students better understand the role they play in shaping the future of the internet, Paolo Granata, an assistant professor of book and media studies in the Faculty of Arts & Science, took his Social Technology and Networks class to Toronto’s Mozilla headquarters.

Mozilla is an organization that creates free, open source software, including the Firefox internet browser, and advocates for responsible internet use and governance.

“The internet is not just a service, it’s not just a utility or a tool to communicate – it’s our world,” says Granata. “We can have a proactive approach to make the internet a healthy place.”

This year, Mozilla published the Internet Health Report, an extensive look at how the internet is accessed around the world, zeroing in on issues like safety, who controls the internet, and who is being excluded from accessing it.

Students were given a chance to analyze some of the data Mozilla looked at when creating the report, and were encouraged to draw their own conclusions about its positive or negative effect on internet users.

“It’s one thing to be able to use technology like it's a body part, but it’s quite another thing to understand its implications in society, politics, and the environment,” said third-year student Margot Alais. “There's a lot of things I hadn’t considered before taking courses like this.”

Mark Surman with Paolo Granata at Mozillas Toronto office (photo by Romi Levine)

Mark Surman, the executive director of the Mozilla Foundation and a U of T alumnus, reminded students that more and more devices are now connected to the internet – and even the cutest and cuddliest of products can be the subject of serious privacy threats.

He was referring to internet-connected stuffed animals called CloudPets, which allow parents to send voice messages to their kids through the toy using cloud computing. The plush toys were at the centre of a data breach earlier this year, where email addresses, passwords and millions of voice recordings were leaked.

“I think CloudPets may represent a threat almost as big to democracy and to society as Donald Trump,” said Surman. “It's scary, not in the specifics of the CloudPets but in the fact that we are basically moving into a completely pervasive computing environment.”

Despite the horror stories, student Mitchell Jaramillo says he’s still optimistic about technology’s ability for good.

“But I think with how prominent social media and social technology is and all the potential it offers, we’ve barely scraped the surface of what it can do,” he said.

Now armed with a more critical understanding of how the digital world works, Mike Hoye, engineering community manager at Mozilla, encouraged students to think about how they can play a more active role in keeping app-makers, telecom companies and tech giants accountable.

 “So when the time comes and when you inherit the belief, the power – when you inherit the world – you'll have a clear sense of what's important to you, of what right and wrong is.”