A Conversation with Mitchell Baker, Chairwoman of Mozilla

Many innovations in the information and communication technology (ICT) industry are driven by technological developments, rather than by concerns for users’ needs and preferences,” writes Dr. Marc Steen, one of the world’s leading authorities on Design, “…this technology push approach brings a risk of creating products or services that people cannot or do not want to use….” (Human-Centered Design as a Fragile Encounter, 2012)

Technology push also brings with it a range of unintended or unexpected consequences, particularly at a time (as we are now) where technology can grow from the germination of an idea to sweeping ubiquity at a frightening pace.  As a society, we seemingly cannot adapt ourselves, our culture, economy and political landscape fast enough to cope with the momentum of technological advance, but things needn’t be this way.

Mitchell Baker co-founded the Mozilla Project to support the open, innovative web and ensure it continues offering opportunities for everyone. As Chairwoman of Mozilla, Mitchell   is responsible for organizing and motivating a massive, worldwide, collective of employees and volunteers around the world who are building the internet as a global public resource, open and accessible to all.   I caught up with Mitchell to ask whether we need a more human internet.

Q: How important is the internet?

[Mitchell Baker] It’s shocking how quickly this innovation [the internet] has become woven into the foundation of everything that we do. We talk about the internet, but it became a consumer tool with what we call the world wide web. In just 30 years, the internet and the world wide web have gone from being generally unknown to consumers to being involved in every aspect of life, and necessary for almost everything. We cannot look at society now and think about what is and isn’t working without considering the internet. There is no healthy society without a healthy internet.

Q: Was the internet designed with humans in mind?

[Mitchell Baker] The early internet was designed around protocols that were invisible to the user; and people thought about that very consciously, they wanted the internet to have a social aspect to it.

When we try to describe the internet, we have to think of layers. The bottom layer is the foundation; it’s a gift we’ve inherited and is deliberately not centralized. The foundation of the internet was built with the phrase decision making at the edges. It’s an odd phrase, but it’s important. The internet was really made to carry bits of information and the decision about what that information comprises resides within the machines connected to the internet. Most of us as individuals will never get to the bottom layer of the internet and act through protocols, but we all benefit from the open architecture they provide.

The systems we now use (at least the successful ones) exist at a scale that’s actually hard to comprehend as human beings. It’s not like a corner store, where the proprietor may recognize us and know our family and experiences. On Facebook, you are one of several billion people and at that scale, it’s easy to become a number, or simply a wallet. At that scale, it’s very hard to make any meaningful change as an individual. Yet when you look at the edges of technology, you’ll see the edges are actually humans – you and me. How can we actually make decisions that affect our lives?

I talk about this decision-making at the edges and the architecture of the internet because this is one of the rare and unusual things about internet technology that we work hard to protect. And we’ve seen it become more centralized and more decision-making get funnelled into fewer places on top of that. And so we also work, certainly Mozilla and lots of other people and organizations, to try and bring more ability for human beings to have a deeper, positive effect on their lives up into other layers.

It’s also really important to preserve that actual architecture of the internet, and so we often find ourselves involved in discussions that seem arcane and technical with these weird topics, decentralization or decision making at the edges. The reason is that this architecture allows the internet to function, and it also has some important social models built into the core.

The early founders of the internet were very clear; they had society in mind when designing and building the core foundation layers of the technical internet, and at Mozilla we try to build those design principles into our products.

We’ve tried to go from being a homogenous group to a distinctly diverse group. And you know, we’ve been quite successful in that internationally. Still we believe that the internet will work best when we have common goals, not just at the deepest layer in the architecture, but in the layers above it – the web, and even the people and communities who use it.

Q: Can we balance the public, private and civic goals of the internet?

[Mitchell Baker] We don’t currently have the accountability mechanisms in our digital life that we do in our physical life. In our manifesto, the ninth principle is very clear about commercial enterprise being important. It’s a huge driver of economic value and change and benefit, and it needs to live in some kind of balance with public benefit and the common good. And it’s very interesting because we’ve had this manifesto since 2007, when we adopted it. And that number nine principle didn’t get much attention until very recently.

The goals are wildly out of balance right now, for, I think, a couple of different reasons. One, we have a wave of centralization which has created a world where a small handful of companies control huge amounts of the wealth, power and resources that are responsible for our data, and information.

Two, we don’t have accountability mechanisms. So we also have a huge amount of anti-social behavior in our digital lives. Physical society has had tens of thousands of years to build cultures and norms, to build societies based on something other than violence, that provide opportunity, and hopefully prevent people reaching desperation. Even with these tens of thousands of years though, human society hasn’t got it right and you may be lucky enough to be born into a relatively stable society, or it may be into one which is in revolution and conflict.

The ‘Silicon Valley’ mindset is one where you race ahead and build technology, and if people adopt it and use it, you scale. Success in this mindset is measured in terms of numbers of users, revenue and valuation. How do these measures illustrate social good though? Founders need to think about the fact that what’s good for their tech and their business could also be good for society.

Let me give you an example. Prior to the Snowden revelations, the U.S. government had a pretty good reputation when it came to their relationship with the internet. Not only did they fund the early development of it, and not choose to control it, but they carried the flag for individuals, expression, autonomy and our rights online. Yet, Snowden showed us what was happening behind the scenes. Lifting this curtain showed the vacuum of accountability – and events like the Arab Spring illustrated the possibility of what the internet could be, and what it means to be human in the internet age.

Q: So do we need to perhaps look at different measures of success or different measures of impact or even agree on better ethical principles?

[Mitchell Baker] The internet has changed society in a very fundamental way, but we need to think about the measures we put in place to understand how technology could and should affect society. Technologies are emerging and moving so fast, that it’s very hard to build accountability mechanisms; not least because technologies can become ubiquitous before we understand them.

This expansive growth also makes it very hard to even consider what the limits of regulation would look like, and how they would be enforced. In many societies today, it’s unacceptable to be out on the street, to pick a woman, and decide you’re going to harass her, build a crowd around her, find her home address, threaten her kids and give a constant barrage of threats of assault, torture and violence such that she can’t even leave her home. For many of us, we live in a world where this would be seen as unacceptable, where we wouldn’t rely on the next person in the street to help but would reach out to laws and the justice system. We haven’t yet figured out how this works online.

We have not yet understood how our societies’ social and cultural norms copy into the digital world. What constitutes a threat? What constitutes reasonable and unreasonable? What are the mechanisms to prevent anti-social behaviors or to enforce action when they happen? The internet is humanity at scale and without limits; and that will require common goals, and common discussion for us to determine healthy ways forward.

The decision making at the edges that underlies the internet also gives us another gift. It means that people who would otherwise have little access to knowledge and collaboration can now access information, and tools which otherwise would have been extremely expensive and difficult to reach them with. The internet is magnified with human will, and we have every opportunity to allow it to become a democratizing (with a lowercase d) force for humanity.

If we don’t acknowledge and recognize those individuals who are currently disconnected; our world will become increasingly divided, and those in desperate situations will find it harder, and harder, to improve their lives.

Q: What would be your message to the generation that inherits the internet?

[Mitchell Baker] You have to put people first; you have to think about the society you’re living in, what’s good about it, and what kind of world you want. I love technology, it’s mesmerizing. Even the word web itself came from that magical quality of browsing and exploring; but we kind of forget the magic when it becomes so ingrained into our lives. For a lot of us, building technology is magical – it sucks you in, but you have to also consider how that technology can have a positive (or at least not negative) impact on the world. How can it help people find excitement, find decency, find connection, find education, find peace.

Not every great technologist is also a thinker on sociology or anthropology; but diversity is important as it helps teams think from a variety of perspectives.

In the future, I also hope we move from STEM to STEAM.  STEM education is great, but it exacerbates one of the critical problems with technology today. The idea that science, technology and mathematics are enough to build a world forgets the importance of the humanities. The A in STEAM refers to the arts, the humanities – ethics, history, anthropology, all the things that build our society, our culture. If I could snap my fingers today and make every STEM program in the world into a STEAM program I would do it now. Wow, what a great change that would be.


View Interviewee Biographies

Mitchell Baker co-founded the Mozilla Project to support the open, innovative web and ensure it continues offering opportunities for everyone. As Chairwoman of Mozilla, Mitchell Baker is responsible for organizing and motivating a massive, worldwide, collective of employees and volunteers around the world who are building the internet as a global public resource, open and accessible to all. Mitchell is deeply engaged in developing product offerings that promote the mission of empowering individuals. She also guides the overall scope and direction of Mozilla’s mission. Mitchell has written the key documents that set out Mozilla’s enduring mission and commitments – the Mozilla Public License in 1998, the Mozilla Manifesto in 2007 and the Mozilla Manifesto Addendum – also known as the Pledge for a Healthy Internet – in 2018.

Mitchell is a strong advocate for the open internet, open source, and the importance of connecting technology to its impact on individuals and society. She is highly regarded as one of the pioneers of the web and bringing the open internet to consumers. She was instrumental in Netscape’s decision in 1998 to release its source code to the public. This later led to the release of the Firefox browser and the creation of the Mozilla Foundation as a global technology force that spans software product development, educational initiatives, and participatory movements. After co-founding the Mozilla Project, Mitchell served as its general manager and CEO from 1999 until January 2008, when the organization’s rapid growth encouraged her to split her responsibilities and add a CEO.

Mitchell is a member of the Advisory Boards of the Oxford Internet Institute and the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. She is an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate with the Open Agriculture Initiative, and a Board Member of OpenMRS, Inc., which develops open source medical records systems for use in resource-constrained environments. She co-chaired the U.S. Department of Commerce Digital Economy Board of Advisors from its inception in March 2016 until August 2017, served on the United Nations High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, and the ICANN High Level Panel on Global Internet Cooperation and Governance Mechanisms. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Mitchell received her B.A. in Asian Studies from UC Berkeley and her J.D. from Berkeley Law.

TIME Magazine profiled Mitchell in its global list of “100 Most Influential People” under “Scientists and Thinkers”. Bloomberg listed her as one of the “25 Most Influential People on the Web”. She was honored as winner of the Anita Borg Institute’s 2009 Women of Vision Award and received the Aenne Burda Award for Creative Leadership in 2010. In 2012, Mitchell was inducted into the founding group of the Internet Society’s Hall of Fame. In 2018 she received the Webby Lifetime Achievement Award. She also received an honorary doctorate from the Universite Catholique de Louvain in Belgium. She has written op-eds for the Atlantic and CNN.com and appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press”, BBC’s “HardTalk”, CNN’s “Global Office”, NBC’s “Weekend Today”, France 24, the UK’s Channel 4 and NPR’s “Morning Edition”. She has spoken at high-level events like Tech for Good, VivaTech, Wired NextFest, World Economic Forum, Mobile World Congress, Web Summit, Collision and Singularity University.



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