Mozilla is trying to save the internet one user at a time

Mitchell Baker joins the Source Code podcast to talk about blockchains, browsers and why the only way to fix the internet is to understand it better.

Mitchell Baker

Mozilla CEO Mitchell Baker is trying to figure out how to fix the internet and run a successful company all at the same time.

Photo: Mozilla

Mozilla had it so good for so long. Thanks to a seemingly bottomless pile of money coming from Google every year in exchange for placement in the Firefox search bar, Mozilla could spend most of its time advocating for user privacy and trying to build the browser the world needed, even if it wasn't the one the world wanted.

But that arrangement doesn't work anymore. Google has become the kind of data-collecting behemoth Mozilla likes to advocate against, Firefox has hemorrhaged market share as Chrome has become the industry giant and rather than being free to fight for a better internet, Mozilla risks being beholden to the one that exists now.

That's what Mitchell Baker, the CEO of Mozilla and the chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation, is trying to solve. Over the last couple of years, that has resulted in hundreds of layoffs and lots of reorganization inside the company as it tries to become more self-sustaining and less reliant on Big Tech's big checks. Mozilla has to think differently about its products, its users and its advocacy work, all without compromising the core values that make Mozilla different and give it outsized influence in the industry. "If we're not making decisions based on that," Baker said, "then let's just go to the big places where it's easier. Competing with these giants is hard!"

Baker joined the Source Code podcast to discuss what's happening at Mozilla, why she thinks web browsers are still so important, how blockchain and crypto might reinvent the web and why, after two decades of thinking about the internet's technology questions, it's time to spend more time thinking about its human ones.

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You can listen to our full conversation on this episode of the Source Code podcast. Below are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

I've talked to a lot of people who think we are due for a huge comeback for the open web. They say app stores are a bad idea, the way we structured mobile is not quite right, that crypto and blockchain are going to lead to a renaissance in the open web. Do you buy that narrative?

Yes. A change is coming. The question is just the time frame, and what's actually required to make it happen. The new technologies — both blockchain and peer-to-peer protocols — can take a while to get here. Because as we know, it's not just technology and business model and revenue. It's also social understanding and consciousness. And what we learned with the web is you need the use cases and the tools that make it easy for people before it really takes off.

But how long it takes to have a new model that's not app store or not mobile? I think that could be a good long time. That requires the excitement and the vision of something different. The long-term development of tools and technology, and then, increasingly, of use cases and products that people respond to.

There is this belief that the open web is sort of a panacea and a solution to all problems. That everything that we have run into now is the result of too much power being centralized in the hands of a small number of companies, and that by giving these tools and possibilities back to the open web, that we instantly solve all of these problems. That feels to me like a gross oversimplification, and maybe like a pendulum swing back too far.

Technology does not solve human nature. And what we're experiencing on the internet now is all human nature. Good, bad, ugly, you name it. There are some things about the open web that we cherish and want to revive. Those are underlying values, I would say. Transparency, of course, but also the ability for more people to participate, more opportunity for more people, more level playing field ability to create, those are all things that the open web signifies. And we need those.

What we need, though, is a system that has more accountability in it, because even going to a new system won't solve human nature. And even though right now, it seems like blockchains can sort of semi-magically solve many of these issues, once that becomes mainstream, we will find that there are the same kinds of problems. Centralization, and the centralization of economic power, and the ability to continue to develop assets in new areas like data, those tendencies will remain.

And so I think the move back towards exploring decentralization gives us a new opportunity, but just the open web alone isn't it. We need to have the sense of accountability and responsibility that goes along with openness.

I think that's where the early open web and open internet got lost. The technology and the systems developed at such speed, but the accountability mechanisms were social. They were for a very heterogeneous group: a set of almost all men, who all knew each other and understood and had some shared purpose. So accountability mechanisms didn't grow. And that's something we need to pay attention to as we move forward into new technologies.

The question of governance comes up so much more often than I expected when I talk to people about this stuff. Whatever the next generation is, people seem to have eyes wide open that we need systems that are bigger than an individual's decency to keep these things running the way that we want them to.

The governance pieces in the early days were all about software. And we did have governance systems for software: open-source licenses. In the early days of open source, we talked about them as constitutions. And you felt that the license described the kind of community that you wanted to work in, what you shared, what you didn't, how people opted out, if you thought the project was going the wrong way, how you might pick up leadership yourself. And so we had a very robust system of governance. But it was very early on and very focused on technology. On the code.

Only later have we come to understand that we need governance that's really human in its nature. And so at Mozilla, we operate under a manifesto, which sets out the traits of the internet and online life we're trying to create. And we updated that in 2018 to add a few principles that are very explicit about this, about decency and facts and building software that encourages a positive sort of engagement and civility and thoughtfulness rather than outrage and violence.

And so now as we go forward, we can build on some of the things we learned from software and the open-source license era. But it needs a much more human focus as well.

Let's talk about Mozilla, particularly as a profit-generating company. It's been a couple of years of pretty serious transition with the Mozilla Corporation. How's that going? Where do you feel like you are in that process?

Mozilla's been through a big transition over the last couple years, I'd say maybe … 75% done.

What does it mean to run a business? And how do you run a business in a way that you're proud of? And how do we diversify away from desktop search, or in addition to desktop search? It is the model of the web so far, really — the model of the internet is advertising and ecommerce. And advertising has been highly centralized into a few platforms. So on the one hand, we're part of that system, and trying to get out of it is not that easy, actually.

But as we've talked about, there's change in mindset and change in technology. So the question of how to approach customers has been a big transition for us, from "build the product" to actually, "let's look at what people are using it for." Where do they get value out of it? What do they want from it? What can we do that's different than others are doing?

We've done a fair amount of transitioning about data, which is an interesting thing at Mozilla, because the privacy and security gene is so strong at Mozilla. For many years, we've struggled with data. For a long time, we didn't even have telemetry — data about the product. And when Chrome first came out, you know, there was no question that Chrome was better. But part of that was Google had instrumented in a way that at the time appalled us.

We were wrong to think that we could build an internet-wide product without telemetry and without understanding what was happening when people used it. So we did, we built a telemetry system, with a fair amount of thinking about: How do we treat data? What's our responsibility? How's it good for customers?

For many years, we were like, "We want as little data as possible. We don't want it, we don't want it, we don't want it." And now we're at a point where obviously you need it for the product, it's becoming increasingly obvious that we need it to be able to have impact in the world. If we want to change the way data is used, we have to engage.

I would think it would be easy to start from that principle and land on, "We're going to build a better ad network." Maybe the idea here is we have to rethink how advertising works on the internet, and do it in a privacy-preserving way. Everybody wins, everything is fantastic. Is that something you've thought about? Is that an obviously terrible idea?

A privacy-preserving ad network is a phenomenal idea. I'm a believer that ads aren't going away. And also, of course, for people who don't have money to spend on subscribing and paying for content, it's valuable.

And so how they operate is a phenomenally important system. And that's one reason why, in our policy work, Mozilla continues to push for transparency, and even bulk ad disclosure. And that's because right now, we don't really understand what's going on. Sometimes the statements of the platforms about what's going on don't seem to match what you look at. I'm thinking of the Facebook statement that organizing for Jan. 6 didn't occur on their platform. Maybe that's true! We don't have the data. It doesn't look true, though, right? And so understanding what's going on is key to whatever regulation comes, so you get good regulation, but also key to competition, and key to understanding what's happening to our society.

As a smaller organization in the scheme of Big Companies, what do you make of the argument that some of the regulation that's being considered, and some of the things that, say, Facebook is advocating for, serve just to shore up those companies' dominance because they have giant teams who can do compliance? You're both advocating for the space and very much in this space. What is all this going to do to you at the end?

At Mozilla, we start thinking about the broader system first. And I know that might sound hokey, but we actually really try and do that.

That's a tough thing to do when you have to make money at some point!

Yes. And that's why we keep the manifesto front and center. If we're not living for the manifesto, why be here? If we're not making decisions based on that, let's just go to the big places where it's easier. Competing with these giants is hard! And the number of people are successful at it is very low.

So when we look at legislation, we do try to wear multiple hats. One is from a system level. The other is as a technology vendor. We have a public benefit mission, but we're still in the market with products. And so we try to think about, well, what is it like to actually live up to that? And what does it do to a business, to bring that piece in as well? Sometimes that means it's hard to have a totally clear, crisp, absolute answer, because we're also thinking about our good intent and our mission and our shareholder who wants public benefit. Boy, that would be hard to lose.

The other piece we haven't talked about is interoperability and competition. And if we could enable that, a lot of these questions would be easier. We'd have more examples, we'd have more choices, we'd have more experimentation, we'd have different kinds of data, we'd be able to see what really worked, we would be able to see if consumers really had a choice.

Transparency is step one, but interoperability could easily be step two, and we do need ways to be able to enable competition without having to build the entire stack.

Is that why Firefox still feels like the right tip of the spear for a lot of your work? In terms of not letting the internet fall into one company's hands, Firefox is kind of like the last guard sort of standing at the wall.

We continue to believe in Firefox, for a few different reasons. That's one. That's our system-level reason. Two, it's a very powerful tool, both for the system as you describe and also for consumers. Unlike the mobile system, the browser can represent you. If you think about your phone, when you put an app on your phone, the app on your phone is built and controlled by the website or the service or the provider, and there's nothing in the middle. Maybe the operating system will do a few things. Usually it tries to protect you from malware, and maybe there's some terms in the App Store.

But the browser is different. Because you're going to a website, you might view it through web technologies, but the browser can act on your behalf. And that's why we care about it. It's a rare tool in the system where we can impact how the website treats you. Websites don't always like this: The number of websites that want to send malware to you is very high. Or people use ad blockers — that's a problem for the system, and you can see publishers are struggling with it.

But there are simple examples: You can change the size of text or a font or do what you want in your browser, across your experience, whether or not the website likes it. And so we continue to believe the browser is important because it's so rare to have this tool that's in the system, that has an equal participant in standards, where we can represent you. And then to learn from that, you know, and move from that.

Hirsh Chitkara
Hirsh Chitkara (@ChitkaraHirsh) is a researcher at Protocol, based out of New York City. Before joining Protocol, he worked for Business Insider Intelligence, where he wrote about Big Tech, telecoms, workplace privacy, smart cities, and geopolitics. He also worked on the Strategy & Analytics team at the Cleveland Indians.

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