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Internet health – curing toxic and throw-away economies

Emoji art from Mozilla's Internet Health report

What a time to be talking about internet health. Perhaps all eyes are focused this year on the true implications of the surveillance-based business models that underpin the internet. But we’d like to point out that Mozilla’s new report on internet health goes further, beyond the usual privacy and participatory lenses. The report contains a short interview with Ugo, who speaks of the environmental damage our consumption of connected devices does to the planet’s health.

On the eve of Mozilla’s report, the tweet below had us reflecting: the system-level crisis in public trust for Silicon Valley has a precedent. The place is the most polluted place in the United States, if measured by concentration of Superfund sites (listen to our podcast with research Jennifer Gabrys for more.)

In addition to the damage done to the planet by production and disposal of electronics, there are human costs. We are proud members of the Good Electronics network, bringing together activists for human rights and sustainability issues in the global electronics supply chain.

The workers in question had dared to find out more about potential occupational hazards related to chemical use in factories. (As we learned in a recent Parliamentary hearing, all of the Samsung phones sold in the UK originate from Vietnam.)

The issues with production are vast – not just affecting one company. We recently debunked Apple’s over-the-top claim of “zero waste” iPhones. Now they are trumpeting their 100% use of renewables – to power data centres, offices and stores – but we still have no notion of the massive Apple manufacture carbon footprint.

In this light, “internet health” has multiple, connected meanings. And the crisis in trust goes far beyond privacy concerns, it reaches deep into other connected institutions: electronic supply chains, threats to the “right to repair” and recycling systems.

We believe we need to radically change our relationship with electronics, pushing for better electronics with lower environmental impacts not just in the use-phase, but in manufacture.

As with internet regulation, one ray of hope in this area comes from the European Commission: its Circular Economy Package (and specifically Ecodesign Working Plan) has the potential to make consumer products more repairable, longer-lasting and resource efficient. We’ve recently signed an open letter to the Commission’s President asking to prioritise work on smartphones in policy efforts.

In the meantime, our only option, given the endemic problems in the opaque and complex electronics supply chains and difficulty of recycling, is to continue to repair them and use them for longer.

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