Power

They left Mozilla to make the internet better. Now they’re spreading its gospel for a new generation.

The leaders of major tech-reform projects have one company in common on their resumes: Mozilla.

They left Mozilla to make the internet better. Now they’re spreading its gospel for a new generation.

"Whether you're a market person or an engineer or a lawyer like me, Mozilla is a home for doing the ethical work," says Amba Kak, a former policy adviser at Mozilla.

Photo: Amba Kak

In 2016, when Josh Aas left Mozilla after more than a decade, only about one-third of all websites were encrypted. Most people in most places on the internet were basically walking around naked: Anyone could see where they visited, what they wrote and who they were, if they tried hard enough.

In 2021, almost every U.S.-based website has a lovely green lock that indicates encryption. Most users might not know the difference, but everyone has a little more privacy and a lot more security than they did just a few years ago, due in large part to Aas. Aas left Mozilla in 2016 not because he was bored or because he wanted a higher salary, but because during his time at Mozilla, he grew so obsessed with privacy and security that he couldn't let the work of encrypting the internet go undone. In 2013 he founded Let's Encrypt, a nonprofit that helps millions of sites encrypt for free, and now, Aas gets much of the credit for making real what seemed impossible when he started (and Mozilla gets the rest).

Peter Dolanjski is fighting for a similarly impossible standard. The director of product at DuckDuckGo and former Mozilla director of security and privacy products wants everyone on the internet to be able to automatically opt out of ad tracking everywhere they travel online. He's one of the early advocates behind the Global Privacy Control, a standard that launched in October 2020 that browsers and websites can adopt to allow users a universal opt-out from ad tracking.

Some of the early GPC adoptees and endorsers are Mozilla, Brave, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CafeMedia, and DuckDuckGo, and some have committed to the standard because many of them used to work with Dolanjski at Mozilla. "I simply tapped into the network that I built at Mozilla," he explained. The GPC was an initiative that Dolanjski supported before he left the company, and Mozilla later endorsed the plan because he brought the company back into the conversation, according to Marshall Erwin, Mozilla's chief security officer. "People take their values with them when they leave," Erwin said.

The story of the open-source, ethics-oriented internet is usually a patchwork collection of hero tales, renegades sacrificing riches for the chance to take on the Big Tech machine. But if there's a single thread connecting these fairytales, it's Mozilla. Aas, Dolanjski and others who work on these kinds of projects share that common name on their resumes, and a set of Mozilla-related ideals. With those values, they're not just pursuing the quest for a better internet; many are reckoning with Mozilla's, and the open-source community's, history of exclusivity and sexism to make the industry a better and more inclusive place, too.

Values-oriented by design

Since its founding in the late '90s, Mozilla has been the bastion of open source and internet privacy. While the internet became more divided as it grew, driven by the rise of data monetization, Mozilla remained the place where the founding values of the early internet could never disappear. The company had its ups and downs — Firefox was rarely the dominant browser, and many Mozilla products have limited reach today — but its principles haven't wavered, and it punches far above its weight in terms of influence. It's the company fighting for user privacy and doing it in the most transparent way it can, no matter where that fight might take it.

It's not that Mozilla is "better" than other tech companies, or more inherently moral. The structure of the company literally forces it to be values-oriented. The Mozilla corporation is a for-profit company that licenses trademarks from the not-for-profit Mozilla Foundation, and the main condition of that license is the requirement that the values of open-source and the free internet be paramount in software development — Mozilla is legally required to be ethics-oriented.

"It's complicated, having a foundation own a for-profit company, but it actually created clear guardrails that allowed us to think about business in a different way," said Denelle Dixon, the CEO at Stellar Development Foundation (which supports an open-source blockchain network) and Mozilla's chief operating officer and former chief business and legal officer. During her time at Mozilla, the legal requirements allowed Dixon to both strike a partnership deal with Google and also feel comfortable criticizing the company when she needed, because she was beholden to a mission.

"I don't think a lot of companies can say that, even for-profit entities that are public and have investors in them. One of the challenges that we have in our world is that they actually are beholden to their shareholders and they have to drive shareholder value, and there's no other peg or values to guard against that," Dixon said.

That structure is compelling for people who want to believe that there is "another" kind of company. "Whether you're a market person or an engineer or a lawyer like me, Mozilla is a home for doing the ethical work. I know it's a bit corny, but when we say the web we want, it's also kind of the world we want," said Amba Kak, a former public policy adviser at Mozilla and now the director of global policy and programs at NYU's AI Now Institute.

Plenty of older tech companies spawned networks of industry leaders. Mozilla has, too, only it's a different kind of group: a collection of values-driven engineers, marketers, program managers and founders. Most of them share a common story: Looking for a sense of purpose in tech, they took a financial hit for the chance to become part of the company's cult-like obsession with openness and privacy. Though the company had its flaws, they left feeling deep loyalty to the mission, and a sense of betrayal from those who went on to work for the tech giants Mozilla has been battling. Among the 12 alumni who shared their stories with Protocol, most were quick to say they do not fault people who work for the industry's leaders, and are just as fast to blame the companies themselves for what they see as societal ills they've created.

Working for a cause

People who join Mozilla "have a very romantic notion of what the internet can be," said Nick Nguyen, the founder of VietFactCheck (which helps Vietnamese-Americans combat misinformation). He left Mozilla last year after four years as VP of Firefox product to become a stay-at-home dad and launch his fact-checking effort.

In 2008, when Nguyen first worked for Mozilla, tech companies offered enough for a young engineer to make a down payment on a house. Mozilla wasn't one of them.

But the company still paid enough for more than a decent living, so opting to work there became about values. "Mozilla had the reputation of being an exciting company where you could really go toe-to-toe with giants," he explained. People joined because they wanted to hold tech companies accountable to their claims, rather than help further them.

"People at Mozilla are not making the primary choice to be there solely on the basis of compensation, so you end up getting people who are driven by something else," said Dolanjski, who still revels in the sense that he's fighting against industry goliaths.

Joining Mozilla was an honor for Johnathan and Melissa Nightingale in the mid-2000s. (The two met during their time at the company, thrown together during long hours in the early years of Firefox.) "If you cared about the future of the internet, Firefox was the only hope. It was the only group of people you could see out there," Johnathan said.

The big flaw

Mozilla wanted open-source zealots, a hiring practice that served the company's mission but also became its biggest flaw, according to the Nightingales. "That interview process selected a lot for whether you were already part of the in-group. Same jokes, secret handshakes, very gatekeeper-y," Melissa explained. When she was hired, there were more men named Mike than the total number of women.

It wasn't that most hiring managers were intentionally discriminating. Open-source was meritocratic, and so people believed there was no need for a conversation about inclusion, according to Melissa. People believed so firmly in the good they were doing that they never thought to consider the exclusive discrimination created by a meritocracy-obsessed, mostly male culture.

"A lot of the Mozilla diaspora would say, 'Boy, we really botched that,'" said Luis Villa, a former legal fellow at Mozilla and the co-founder of Tidelift, a startup trying to create a sustainable business model for open source. Because breaking into open-source work usually requires volunteering, it's inaccessible for engineers who can't afford to make financial sacrifices. "But that's no excuse for the industry," he said.

And so for Villa, the Nightingales and others like them, the same ethical obsession that drove their intense privacy commitments is now shaping their work to make the industry accessible. Villa's Tidelift doesn't want to make open source financially sustainable just to ensure its future; a viable financial model would also remove some barriers to entry for people who cannot afford to pursue a career in the field.

Mozilla's commitment to openness in its mission has also made its efforts to reform culture in recent years more believable to some alumni. Company CEO Mitchell Baker is renowned for her obsession with transparency and honesty, which has helped people to trust Mozilla's intentions over the last few years. "It wasn't always accommodating and respectful as it could have been. There's still a lot of work to do in terms of diversifying the workforce, but those sharp elbows have definitely gone away a bit. And it's not because of one particular hiring initiative, but a commitment from the top down," Erwin said. He joined the company six years ago, and remembers a more masculine, aggressive culture in the early years compared to today.

"A lot of tech companies are reckoning with this right now, and Mozilla definitely has work to do. But I've always felt supported as a woman working here," said Emily Kager, a Mozilla engineer for Android who's famous for her TikTok comedy dissecting sexism in tech. According to Kager, most people at Mozilla today can't imagine being silenced for speaking up about any kind of issue, whether it's political, ethical or cultural. And when they leave, people bring that with them.

Paying it forward and reckoning with the past

When the Nightingales left Mozilla (both after more than six years), they floundered at first, struggling to figure out what they'd lost. It was a sense of purpose in their work. In the end, they only found it by launching their own company, the Raw Signal Group. The mission isn't open source and privacy anymore, but they're training startup leaders based on the lessons they learned at the company (both good and bad). Raw Signal Group is a Certified B Corporation, meaning the company has committed to certain social and environmental goals and then been evaluated for them.

Like the Nightingales, former Baker chief of staff Jane Finette teaches business leaders, and she gives away as much as she can from her business. Finette has taken the "open and decentralized" concepts from Mozilla and applied them to a coaching fellowship for young female leaders. The nonprofit has about 180 volunteer coaches who make most of their decisions independently, and they've successfully mentored more than 1,000 people this way. "Mozilla taught me not to be a control freak," Finette explained. "I don't think that I would have been able to create the coaching fellowship if it wasn't for these skills."

At Tidelift, Villa is trying to pay open-source maintainers so that they can focus on their communities in a way most companies aren't able to do. "Mozilla, because of its scale and reach, forces you to think about these things in a sharper, harder way, and apply these values in the real world in a way that open source doesn't get to do," he said.

And Aas, at Let's Encrypt, has a new and even more ambitious mission for himself. He wants to rewrite the basic software of the internet in new languages to make it "memory-safe," which means getting rid of all C and C++. It is an objectively crazy idea.

"A lot of programmers say that isn't going to happen. But most ambitious ideas take time to execute. This is a project where we will make some incremental progress, it should take 10 to 20 years, and that's OK because the internet isn't going anywhere. We need a long time horizon for this to pay off," he said. And it just so happens that's the same philosophy Mozilla applies to itself.

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