The Stat e of the Web
Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker on How the Internet Has Fallen Short of the Dream
Just over a decade ago, Mozilla wrote a manifesto for the web to ensure that it would remain open and innovative to all. Ten years later, however, Mitchell Baker, Mozilla chairman and author of the Mozilla Manifesto, accepts that the online world has not fully lived up to the aspirations. Lucy Ingham finds out more
In the early days of the World Wide Web, optimism was king. The HTML-based internet would be a brilliant, open place where ideas and knowledge could be shared and obtained with ease, free of the corporate dominance that shrouded meatspace.
As the web developed, many worked to keep this dream alive, and in 2007 Mozilla launched the Mozilla Manifesto, ten principles around the promotion of online “openness, innovation and opportunity” that form the backbone of the non-profit organisation’s approach to the digital world.
“First of all let me say that Mozilla manifesto is aspirational: it sets out the world we want,” says Mitchell Baker, executive chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation and author of the Mozilla Manifesto, at a talk at Web Summit.
However, the way that people think about and use the web has changed considerably in the last decade, prompting Mozilla to consider rewriting its manifesto in response.
“I am engaged in a project to expand and extend the manifesto to speak about the aspirations,” says Baker.
“We have this saying from long ago: we love the web. But new generations don't even use the term 'the web' or they don't know what it is, and then the last billion people often doesn't know what the internet is. It's Facebook, I mean literally so.”
But in a world where major brands increasingly dominate digital space, and net neutrality is being dismantled, Mozilla’s aspirational approach is increasingly looking naïve. So how much does the online world live up to the Manifesto? And is the future of the internet as open and bright as it once seemed?
Is the open and accessible internet under threat?
Of the ten principles that make up the Mozilla Manifesto, the one that is arguably most under threat is number two: “the internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible”. But while some may argue that the advent of siloed content and social media giants such as Facebook has restricted this, Baker remains relatively optimistic.
“Since it was written, a billion and a half more people are online and engaging, and so there's some really positive stuff there,” she says. “Of course, is it really open? Probably less so than it was.”
Since the manifesto was written, a billion and a half more people are online and engaging, and so there's some really positive stuff there
In some cases, she sees a move away from the proliferation of cordoned-off online spaces.
“Increasingly I think the app store model doesn't work for very many people, so we need a new layer of it,” muses Baker.
However, she does see a darker thread to the web that poses problems to the open dream.
“We imagined that the Web was a tool for collaboration, for learning, for innovation in a decentralised way, where you didn't have someone in the middle of you and your customers, and for problem-solving,” she says.
“Those things are happening, but the last few years are also showing us the expression of the web for the poorer side of human nature: how to incite violence, how to manipulate people, how to engage in a range of behaviors that have nothing to do with our aspirations and all too much to do with being a human, I think. “
The end of net neutrality: a death knell for the open web?
Of course, one of the biggest threats to the open web in recent times has to be the decision to repeal net neutrality in the US. But while many are eager to point the finger of blame solely at the American government, Baker believes more should have been done by online advocates.
“The open internet or open web group failed because it was all too easy to say 'oh net neutrality, yes, and if you don't have enough capital to pay for it, well too bad for you. Or just wait’. So I think we could have done better,” she says.
However, the question of net neutrality is an issue that is far wider than just the situation in the US.
“The response is now limited access globally and metered or differential access in the United States. All of which I think is the easy way out, but not the right way out,” she explains.
I think the FCC is heading back to a system the United States knows very well: we call it cable TV and we hate it
For most basics, you know many countries have a subsidised baseline level. In electricity; sometimes in water in the US and telephone service, might well be an internet service. The research that we've done, we've seen – particularly in India which rejected a Facebook-controlled Free Basics system – was that people, including people with limited incomes who cannot afford unlimited access, what they want is their access limited by time, but not by content.
“So if you're actually going to sponsor some sort of baseline level, the key aspect is time. Human beings are smart everywhere and if people who don't have capital to pay, have a limit and that's time, they can allocate according to what they need or what they want.”
This approach of limiting by time rather than content is to Baker the approach advocates should be pushing.
“That's an issue that we just have to address with an act of will,” she says, adding that the US now seemed set to take the content-limiting approach.
“I think the FCC is heading back to a system the United States knows very well: we call it cable TV and we hate it and we know what it looks like, and it’s allowing the internet to be converted into a 20th century model.
“It's going to be a real loss and trying to recover from it will be long and steep, just like I think the parts of the world that take the easier route, the Free Basics route, it will be a long recovery period for their citizens to actually understand the riches of the web or the internet, and find their way into it.”
Trading online privacy for convenience
Another of Mozilla’s principles that is most under threat is number four: “individuals’ security and privacy on the internet are fundamental and must not be treated as optional”, and given how significant a concern privacy is becoming, it is interesting to note that Baker did not originally plan to include it in the manifesto.
“I just wrote it originally with security, because I thought your sense of security depends on your sense of privacy,” says Baker. “But it's become important to identify them separately: we have security issues, and we have privacy issues.”
While clear that these topics are now far more distinct than she considered them ten years ago, she is keen to note that both are under threat.
“The security of the system is clearly inadequate and being exploited by state actors, by black hats, by commercial organisations. And so I think in the last couple of years we've seen the beginning of a serious effort to really address that,” she says.
“That's an area where we have cybersecurity, and then it gets wrapped up with back doors and encryption and very complex ways, and so it's easy to get distracted. And I think the path of the liberal Western governments to want to limit encryption so they can have back doors is deeply disturbing on two levels. There is the individual liberty that we think of as the heart of Western democracies, and yet we find them adopting statutes that sound like the statutes in China. You know they're very, very similar.”
Baker draws attention to the encryption debate, particularly around the suggestions that governments should have backdoors in software to, for example, monitor terrorists.
“The reality is that once you add a backdoor it is very unsafe,” she says. “And certainly in the United States we're limited because we end up in this fight with the government about national security and we’re not making progress on the underlying cybersecurity issue because that knot is there.
“Either we have to figure it out or some other part of the world, which isn't having that fight, needs to figure it out because the encryption piece is fundamental.”
I think for some generations a certain amount of privacy is gone
Away from security, however, is privacy, and in some senses, for Baker, the battle has already been lost.
“I think for some generations a certain amount of privacy is gone,” she says. “What the future is like, and can we reclaim it or how do we reclaim it is an issue,” she says.
However, a concern she is keen to draw focus to is essentially the flipside of privacy.
“I think this attention economy, and what we're learning about how easy the attention economy makes it to manipulate people, that may be the thing that forces us to change,” Baker says. “It turns out lots of people say they want privacy but most of us trade it for convenience and free things really quickly, and we haven't solved this abstract privacy convenience.”
Nevertheless, if privacy is to be reclaimed, there needs to be a more fixed sense of the form this would take.
“Tracking, manipulation, creation of civil strife, fueling both sides of an issue to create violence, those are much less abstract than privacy,” she says. “And so those things may in fact help us figure out what we want to reclaim, because the attention economy is where all the money is right now, and where the energy is, and taking data to fuel that economy.”
She remains concerned, however, that this attention-focused online world is leading to something worse.
“Sometimes I think are we creating an addiction economy, and addictions are fun when they're entertainment for a while, but we know that addictions go side-by-side with some destructive behavior,” she says. “Bad for the individual, bad for society and I think – I'm hopeful – that the tech industry now will be more open to social science research about what's happening.“
Can the web really enrich human lives?
Privacy and security aside, has the web lived up to principle number three of the Mozilla Manifesto: “the internet must enrich the lives of individual human beings”?
“That's pretty abstract, but it was meant to capture our aspiration that the internet reflects all aspects of our humanity,” she says, adding that while there is also a principle about economic activity being critical, this is an aspect of the web that she believes remains vital.
“Hopefully our infrastructure enables us to do things that aren't all about monetising,” she says. “As a human being, some things I do are driven by purchases and the fact that people want to monetise it is fine, but a lot of my relations to my community, or maybe it's my church, or my faith, or my kids, or my hobbies, or my health, or you know my relationship to my government, having all of that driven by how much I am monetisable with each click is not healthy.
We've seen some great steps forward in the last 10 years and then some really difficult things
“And so that principle was meant to reflect that at the core of the technology, we aspire that it represents the breadth of humanity, whether or not it's generating revenues.”
On this topic, Baker is positive, but clear that things are by no means perfect.
“We've seen some great steps forward in the last 10 years and then some really difficult things,” she says. “I think we're actually only now just starting to understand the depth of both violence against women, just how completely pervasive it is; the violence against non-dominant groups, which varies depending on geography.
“The effort of state actors, currently Russia but who knows who else actually, to manipulate people and to engage in propaganda and the effects of manipulation to keep people interested. The attention economy means you want people happy or engaged in your site, so we're only now beginning to understand that.”
In particular, she sees the responses to these issues as very much being in their infancy.
“I think it's pretty clear that that technical responses to it are early. First there was denial, and so I think there may be an intellectual understanding now that you have to get to a much deeper intuitive understanding of how deep the problem is, and then figure out the answers,” she says.
“So I don't think that even the tech platforms are anywhere near where they will voluntarily get to as they address this, and then beyond that whether or not particular governments require additional activities. We'll see,” she says, acknowledging that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has announced plans to engage with some of these issues, while highlighting concerns about how possible such actions really are.
“I don't know if intent alone, or one person's intent, is really enough for what the business model supports or how much damage to the bottom line in the short-term the organisation could take. You know, he asserts there will be some, but how much does it work? I don't know.”
The online world of tomorrow: the web five years from now
Given the way the web has transformed over the past decade, how does Baker anticipate it changing over the next five years?
“The best-case scenario has a couple of components, and one is that we learn how to adapt our technology so that it doesn't magnify hatred and violence,” she says, adding that while it cannot change human nature, its very design can have an impact on online behavior.
“Technology does build in interactive methods and styles, and I believe it builds in values, like attention. Are you happy enough to stay here? That's a value that gets built into technology,” she says.
Baker adds that her ideal scenario will also see a retreat on online surveillance in the west, expressing a hope that “the liberal western democracies get back to their values and stop moving in the direction of total government surveillance all the time”.
“We have immense problems with violence and terrorism and the need for policing. I am not a libertarian, I believe in government and that government functions for people, and the murder of civilians going about their daily business, that's a fundamental problem,” she says. “At the same time, we are democracies for a reason. You know big brother surveillance and watching is not going to end well.”
In nations where democracy is not as strong a value, she hopes that the practice of cutting access to the web ceases to be.
“In the best-case scenario they together have learned that the global infrastructure is a fundamental piece, so that turning it off either gets more damaging or there are more distributed networking bases so that it's harder to just turn things off,” she says. “And I do think that there is a role for a mesh and local networks in emergencies and in communities and societies where not everything needs to be totally centralised and go through the giant backbone.”
It is really not that hard to figure out what motivates people and create it when you can target at such zero cost
Acknowledging that this concept is “heretical” among proponents of the open internet, she expresses a desire for network architecture to also progress.
“I think that network architecture should not be frozen and fundamental as the core background and the protocols are. We are moving forward into a new era, and we should take the goals of the web and the interoperability that we have and move them into new areas of network architecture and management and understanding,” she says.
“And I think in a best case more people would have some sense of what the internet actually is.”
However, while she hopes for a more pleasant and less surveilled online world, she acknowledges that things could go the other way too. Her worst-case scenario then is “Big Brother”.
“Total tracking and surveillance, and corporate entities and state actors know more about me than I do, and know exactly how to manipulate me, which as it turns out for a human being if you know enough about them is not that hard,” she says. “It is really not that hard to figure out what motivates people and create it when you can target at such zero cost.
“And I would say in about five years’ time in a true worst-case scenario the forces that are good at targeting are obviously ascended, and that that is a setting of massive civil violence. We've seen that the Russians, they have Facebook pages on both sides of the issue encouraging groups to go to a protest at the same time and fight it out, so that's not that hard to do. And the worst-case scenario there is a ton of that happening: state actors, small local groups, you name it.”
While Baker acknowledges that the chance her best-case scenario will come to be is less than 50%, she remains hopeful that it will become the future we get to enjoy.
“I am a believer in an act of will, and I am a ridiculously naive believer, look at Mozilla, that small groups of people with technical expertise who actually care about the values and go out and build stuff can really have an impact on what happens,” she says.
“So I'm a heart-on-my-sleeve naive optimist that we could actually make a difference and change things.”