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Helena Vieira

December 5th, 2017

Mitchell Baker: ‘The internet was designed not to be owned by any one person’


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Helena Vieira

December 5th, 2017

Mitchell Baker: ‘The internet was designed not to be owned by any one person’


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

On 14 December the US Federal Communications Commission will vote on its chairman’s proposal to kill net neutrality, the principle on which the internet was built. Anyone can create a website, which can be seen at the same download speed as any other site. If the FCC’s chairman has it his way, the internet will look more like cable TV, in which providers charge different prices for bringing different sites to your computer screen. This is a very different scenario from the openness idealised by the people who helped build the internet. ‘”The internet was designed not to be owned by any one person”, says Mitchell Baker, Executive Chairwoman of Mozilla Foundation. She spoke with LSE Business Review’s managing editor, Helena Vieira, on 9 November, during Web Summit, in Lisbon.

Can you tell us a little bit about Mozilla, the relationship between the foundation, the corporation and Firefox?

The core of Mozilla is a public benefit mission. We exist to build at least a part of the internet that’s global, and a public resource. And by public resource I mean something that’s attuned to the whole needs of humans’ experience, whether or not they happen to be profitable. A resource that many can use, not just experience, but a public resource. We built everything open so other people can use it and benefit from it. We want the internet, at least part of it, to be a public resource. That governs everything that Mozilla does, and that’s of course reflected in our organisation. We’re a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organisation in the United States, which is what we mean when we say non-profit. In the lay language it means non-profit but it has a particular statutory requirement.

But in the US, it turns out, tax and accounting rules govern non-profits. It’s complex to be a non-profit that actually generates any revenue. At least in the US, authorities are used to non-profits that ask people to donate, but if you’re able to sustain yourself and generate revenue then it gets complex. So we organise ourselves with the identity and core of Mozilla as a non-profit and we have the subsidiary which pays taxes. Many people call that the for-profit, but no one at Mozilla does, because we don’t run it as a for-profit organisation. We run it to make the Mozilla mission more fulfilled. It happens to pay taxes. And we try to fight the IRS on what is a public benefit purpose. It’s the core of Mozilla, but when you put in revenue, ours comes through ads and search, it just gets more difficult.

Can you explain what is the open internet or the one that you idealised when you helped build it?

Years ago, for those of us of my vintage, we fell in love with the web. The internet existed as a transporting protocol layer and before browsers, it only had a command line interface. Scientists and their students would type the classic command line — blinking cursors on a black background type thing. But it was the web that sat on top of it that gave us links and the ability to reach information. Even today I say I love the web, really. But in broader conversation we talk about the internet because that’s what people know now.

What we love about the web, or the open internet, as we call it now, is that it was designed not to be owned by any one person. The architecture works in a very distributed fashion. The architecture is decentralised, by which we mean the network is a transport layer. It moves data back and forth, and you can be, as we say it, at the edges of the network, and contribute. So what that really means is that you could be in any location of the world, plug in a server and participate. Many newer systems are designed so that you have to have something at the centre that grants permission, or charges you. The internet is designed in a very different way. We’ve seen it be centralised, on top of that, through various applications, but the core architecture doesn’t require it. And that’s a very different thing. So we love that anybody could plug in a server from anywhere, and that could be from North Dakota, in the United States, or it could be from Bangladesh. One of the first times I ever encountered this conundrum was as a student from Peking University, in the days when communication was much harder.

Skype was created in Estonia… Imagine if they had to go to every telephone company in the world and say, “Hey, I’ve got Skype. Can I run it?” They’d say no.

We like it that in the core internet and web, the form of data doesn’t matter. To make it more understandable: you know that the web, the first layer that consumers ever saw, was designed for text, with hyperlinks. And then, guess what? Images came along. Images could be added easily. No one had to ask for permission and say, “I want to put pictures in”. Then, voice came along, and it could be added. No one had to go to some big, centralised owner and say, “Hey, I want to put voice”. I have a perfect example. Skype was created in Estonia, not in the centre of the technology world. Imagine if they had to go to every telephone company in the world and say, “Hey, I’ve got Skype. Can I run it?” They would say no. I mean, Skype took the money out of long distance calls. It was terrible and hard for the businesses of those companies,so it would have been rational as a business decision to say “No, I’m not destroying my revenue source”. It was very hard for those companies. But look what it has done for humanity. Long distance calls used to be expensive. If you’re a refugee, trying to call home, or you’re a migrant, or moving… Long distance communication used to be mostly for the rich, very expensive. Even in my early travels, I would plan and save up to be able to make a phone call.

It’s totally rational that the big national phone companies would say no, and totally valuable to humanity to be able to have it. And in the old pre-internet, pre-Web model, it wouldn’t happen. And now we have video. You can put video on the web. No one had to say yes. So, we also had a set of big aspirations. We fell in love with them because we thought the possibilities for communication and collaboration among people who were geographically not together was just immense. And clearly the ability to reach knowledge is still unprecedented. The knowledge we take for granted today, just 20 years ago was just not possible. That’s true for the conveniences of life, but it’s also true for the very important core knowledge of what’s happening. We have a very aspirational and hopeful view about global knowledge sharing, collaboration and communication.

Is the internet still open, the way it was built?

Less and less. The core architecture and protocols of the internet and the web are still open and we still use web technologies in lots of things. Even people who have never heard of the web are still every day using huge amounts of web technologies. They’re not as open for a lot of reasons. There are a few experiences, the big platforms, clearly. We certainly weren’t aspiring to a world of five big companies that control almost everything. That’s not ideal. I may be unusual among some, but I think there’s clearly a role for government. I’m not an anarchist, and I think there is a role for government that is greater than defending the physical borders of the nation. But what exactly that is is still a little unclear. No, it’s definitely not as open as it was. Some of that is understandable because it’s now deep in consumer life and you expect governments to be involved. But there’s a fair amount of things that are happening that go beyond that. We think that net neutrality and full access for people coming online for the first time are important concepts. It’s also unclear if that will continue.

What went wrong is human nature… You can see human behaviour that is sublime in expressiveness, in relationship to others, and then you see humans do things that are degrading…

Fake news, echo chambers, hate speech, divisiveness… What went wrong?

What went wrong is human nature, first of all. Humans span a huge spectrum. You can see human behaviour that is sublime in expressiveness, in relationship to others, and then you see humans do things that are degrading, that even animals don’t do… You see people enjoying causing difficulties for others. We’re seeing a full range of human behaviour on the internet now, and I think we’re not exactly sure what the relationship to technology is. The business model is so often ads and those are related to how much time you spend in some place, and how much user-generated content you create that causes other people to spend time some place, so that ads that are well targeted can be effective at them, that’s the attention economy. It is a particular interaction style. I think only now, in a broad sense, is everyone starting to think about what that interaction style means. I think there’s a fair amount of work to understand it, and some additional work to make some changes.

You mention the business model, it’s a model based on taking private data from consumers whether they’re aware of that or not, and slicing, dicing and packaging it. It’s a surveillance situation… Is there any hope that we can collectively say we don’t want this?

I think for some people, for some set of experiences we might start to see subscription or services that ask you to pay. WhatsApp has done that. In exchange for that, the business won’t extract value from your actions. It extracts cash. But people have to decide and be able to pay for those things. I think it’s possible. I don’t know if societies really want to do that. It takes an act of will. I think that big platforms where this is happening are legitimately distressed and concerned about it now that they know it, but I’m not sure exactly what the answer is.

Do you feel people are working to find a solution to this problem?

From my vantage point, in the Valley, but not exactly of it, I think the election, the use of the big platforms in the US presidential election was a shocker to everyone. Really a shocker and I think legitimately, authentically, disturbing to most of us, and I would include the individuals who are associated with the big platforms there. I mean, they had a period of denial. We saw that. And maybe that’s the first phase of grief. And we do run into the question of what do you do to limit it for some, you’re going to limit it for all, so you do have another figuring out how good is the algorithm, and a bunch of questions will come out of this. So I think it’s a good-size chunk of work.

Tim Wu, from Columbia University, suggested Facebook becoming a public benefit corporation could help solve the problem. What do you think of this idea?

Well, I’m going to go back to an interview with Zuck that I read recently, in which he said “We’re going to make changes. It may take a while, but if you know us as Facebook you know we do as we say” and I’m paraphrasing him, or I should say, I’m paraphrasing the quote I read about him. And then he went on to say, “It may have some effect to the bottom line in the short term but I’m determined”. I do think there’s probably an effect to the bottom line if your goal is not to monetise every action of every human being. Almost by definition, you know at least the first order of facts. You can imagine a second order of facts of having a healthier environment and a bunch of other things that are better. So I think he’s determined and has a fair amount of control over Facebook. The control structure on Facebook is not one share, one vote. They’ve got a very specialised structure there.

But I think it’s difficult. It’s easier in a public benefit setting, because you can have a goal of sustainability or something but you don’t have the market pressure that you must grow every quarter. The sense that you get to a certain scale and you can reach everyone, it could be alleviated in that setting. But there are other difficulties. You don’t have access to the capital markets, you have additional regulatory stuff. The IRS in the United States went through a period of just deciding that open source was a detriment, it wasn’t a public benefit. You’re trying to create assets and distribute them to the world to use valuable software assets and the IRS just went wild for years and wouldn’t approve applications. So that’s a bunch of other stuff that is awkward in that sense.

Mozilla has been helping news organisations?

We have an initiative, the Mozilla Information Trust Initiative. We’re trying to understand information, misinformation, disinformation and malinformation. A student at the Oxford Internet Institute came out with the concept of malinformation, when the information is true but is released with harm, like with the John Podesta emails in the campaign. No one argues they are not true. They also put a bunch of these things together with processing power, social media and targeting power and identified computational propaganda, which I think is a really interesting way to understand it.

In your professional life have you experienced a stage with as much disruption as we’re seeing now?

I want to caveat my remarks because I think that depends a lot where you’ve lived. Certainly if you’ve lived in the Middle East in the last 3 or 4 years,American elections are not that disruptive. And I want to be careful there because the Russians managed to engage in covert propaganda that wasn’t understood in the US election, with some effect. I don’t want to make a mistake and assume like that’s the whole world. But certainly technology, climate problems, migration patterns, and the fraying of the Post WWII order, are all pretty significant right now.


  • This Q&A is part of a series of interviews during the Web Summit conference in Lisbon, 6-9 November 2017. The conversation was edited for clarity. 
  • The post gives the views of the interviewee, not the position of LSE Business Review or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
  • Featured image credit: Courtesy of Mozilla. Not under a Creative Commons licence. All rights reserved.
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Helena Vieira

Posted In: The Web Series

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