Universitat Oberta de Catalunya

Mitchell Baker (English version)

Hopefully people trust Mozilla and Firefox because of who we are but underlying that is that you can go verify what we’re doing..

You have the coolest job description ever (Mitchell Baker is known, unofficially, as the ‘Chief Lizard Wrangler’) but… what do you do as the chair of the Mozilla Foundation?

There’s three or four things that make up the bucket of things that I do. I’ll just go through them and then I’ll order them afterwards.

One is to have an overall picture of all the things that Mozilla is doing. Obviously Firefox is the biggest part of that, but we also have Thunderbird, we also have the Drumbeat projects, we also have a lot of local communities that aren’t necessarily a part of any organizational structure but are the heart of Mozilla, and, so, to try and keep that whole set of activities in my head and be the responsible person for pulling them all together into one thing that looks and feels like Mozilla. We’re seeing more and more integration points between some of the Drumbeat activities and some of the technology innovation efforts. So there’s a need to have people thinking about, but ultimately somebody responsible for making sure all those things make sense together. So that’s one thing.

A second thing is the question of how do we do new things at Mozilla, and do them in a way that is Mozilla. We are an unusual organization —we sometimes use the word hybrid— because we’re a nonprofit organization pursuing the public benefit, but we do so through many techniques that are in the market. We try and make the web more open by putting Firefox in front of people. People choose Firefox sometimes just based on the product: it’s a good product, they like it, it works for them. But because they’re using our product it gives us influence, and the product itself is open and controlled by people and it gives us impact on the world. So we’re trying to move openness across the web, we’re trying to build into the web the part of it that’s all about individual empowerment. But we do that by putting products in the market. So we have this public benefit mission, but with market driven methods. And so, the question of how do we compete in the market and not be like the commercial players, how do we compete with our products, in the market, but not be just like Google or Apple or Microsoft. How do we make sure that we can succeed in the competitive marketplace, but be true to the heart of all what’s Mozilla, which is non profit, public benefit, individual empowerment. Those are questions that we think about continuously, because the market changes. Today we have the mobile market is really important, apps are really important… so Mozilla, to be effective with our mission, should have a presence in the mobile space, we should have offerings that make it clear that apps should be intimately connected with the web, we shouldn’t have to choose between apps and the web. So those are new things for us, and that has us competing in new areas, and competing in the commercial marketplace, so how do we do those things and be really Mozilla. A lot of people at Mozilla think about those things and, when it’s not clear, or when there are questions, I’m the person, not only ultimately responsible for it, but the person that people look to to say, “OK, I’m thinking about this in the right way, do you agree?”, that sort of thing.

So, maybe I’ll give a concrete example that might be helpful, and that’s the question of data, the information about you. It’s clear that the web today is gathering more and more information about you. And you may or may not even know, or have access to all that information about you that’s being gathered and bought and sold. And so, Mozilla’s mission is about individual empowerment, which means you should, if and when you want to, be able to understand what information about you is being gathered and, even better, to have some control over it. So we know we want to do that. At the same time we know that a lot of what’s exciting about the web today, the personal experience, is… personal. And so, we have to figure out how do we offer the kinds of personal experiences that people want and, at the same time, allow you to control that information and protect it if you want to. So, we can’t just say ‘oh, data about you should never move, there should never be any information about you on the web’. We can’t say that. It might be good for privacy, but it cuts off so much value, so much of what we like about the web. So, we’re not like a commercial company, which —many of them, not all— say “I just want all the information I can get so I can generate a good financial return for me and my shareholders”, we’re not that. So we have to figure out, if we offer a service and it happens to have some information about you, what’s the utmost that we can do to protect you? And it may not seem like the best market decision. We at Mozilla make decisions where we say ‘Yes, this is the way everybody else does something, but we’re doing it a little bit differently’, and the reason is we think if we do it differently we can have both good, rich experiences but also protect you, or let you protect yourself if you want to, and so it’s different. And so, those kinds of decisions, we’re trying to make them all the time, and do things differently.

There’s also a project piece about how do we organize and govern ourselves. We have a system, called the Module Ownership System, that started in the code side, so it’s very well developed for owning modules of code, and is early and developing for other activities. That’s the system through which we have delegated authority in specific areas to the experts in those areas. A big part of Mozilla is maintaining that system, thinking about how to expand it to activities that aren’t related to code, who has authority, how do we encourage those people who have authority to delegate it, to bring other people in. And so, there’s a part of what I do that is about those things.

And then I’d say, finally, I spend a lot of time trying to explain Mozilla and what we’re doing to new sets of people.

And that would explain the existence of both a Mozilla Foundation and a Mozilla Corporation, right?

Mozilla’s heart and soul is a nonprofit, public benefit organization. And so, our core organizational structure is a nonprofit, and that’s the Mozilla Foundation. Most of us who spend all day working for Mozilla think of ourselves as working for the Mozilla mission. And so the organizational piece about the foundation of the Corporation isn’t really that important, but looking at Mozilla from the outside, sometimes it seems important. So, the organizing principle of Mozilla is nonprofit public benefit. Because we need to compete in a commercial marketplace, we need to produce Firefox in a way that’s better than other browsers so people choose it, there’s a part of Firefox that needs to look and feel like a professional software product. We also embody our mission in that product, but it’s got to be better than other products. So we compete in the market and we also generate revenue, through the search box in Firefox and search providers. And so, it turns out that once you start generating revenue… actually the difference is we pay taxes on it: because we generate revenue out of the product and tax law isn’t really clear about nonprofits and generating revenue, we just separate that revenue and pay taxes on it. That’s really what the organizational structure means, that’s what ‘MoCo’ is. We have this organization that fits the legal and tax requirements, but mentally and emotionally we are all working for the public benefit mission of Mozilla.

When the Foundation was born, you were only competing against Internet Explorer, which was getting quite outdated, already. Right now, there’s a lot of competition, with the Webkit browsers —Safari and Chrome—, Opera and even Internet Explorer 9, which is a quite decent browser. Has that changed the way you do things?

First of all, the vibrant browser market today, we consider one of our greatest successes. When we started building Firefox, the conventional wisdom was that the browser didn’t matter, it was really just another piece of the operating system, and that even if it did matter, consumers would never understand and would never bother to make a choice about browsers. We have demonstrated that all that is not true. The browser matters immensely: in fact, it’s a key point as to ‘do you have an open and high quality internet, or web, or do you not’. So we’ve been successful, and generated a market, actually. And others have entered it. Google is everywhere, I think: if you look at anyplace that’s important and interesting on the web, you’ll see Google doing something.

Competition fits our mission, so that’s a success. Competition is hard, it’s not comfortable, that’s why it’s competition. And so, we have generated a setting in which we also need to be our best, and do even better than we think we can. We’ve being doing that and that’s why: competition.

So, going back to your question, do we work differently? Yes, we do.  In the early days, what we were trying to do, not only was it impossible and irrelevant, but there was also no distribution channel and there was only Microsoft, one product and it was really ancient. What we are trying to do with our product hasn’t changed: the fundamental reason we build our products, to build the value of the individual into the internet. As the internet is being built, there’s a lot of commercial interest building part of it, and that’s excellent, we need that, that generates immense amounts of value that go into building the internet and immense amounts of value that get generated through the commercial setting, so that’s very important and we’re very clear about working as a complement to commercial interests. There’s also a lot of government interest in the internet, both good and bad. Some of it is really exciting, some of it is scary. And so, at Mozilla, we’re trying to weed in another set of strands into the internet, and those are the strands of individual empowerment, where what we build our product for is so that you can have maximum control, and it’s about respect for you, and your centrality to your own life. You may exercise it or you may not exercise it, and so we try to build good defaults into Firefox. So those are the strands that we try to build into the internet and that hasn’t changed, and we’re very focused on making sure that never changes: there’s no sense at all for us to be competing if that changes. But some of the logistics of how we compete and how we act have changed: we need to move faster. In a competitive market where there’s a lot at stake needs move fast, and so we’ve seen cycles in software, and the internet, and apps, and browsers as well get much shorter. And so, we have made a change. Having shipped Firefox 4, we are now on a different scale: future versions of Firefox will come out much more quickly.

It turns out not all consumers want new browsers all the time (laughs). Early adopters always want the newest thing, and the newest is always better. And so, for some new browser audience, with very small market share, faster can always be better. But we’re trying to make sure we move quickly and get new things in the market but that we’re not just changing things for their own sake. We want people using Firefox to be comfortable in using Firefox, and to continuously get better but not to be something new, or different or hard to use. So we’re working much faster, doing more things at the same time. It’s clear that the browser on the desktop is no longer adequate to meet our mission, and so we’re doing mobile development plus an apps piece.

And another way in which we’re changing is we’re trying to be much clearer about our mission and who we are and why. In the early days the idea of a browser itself was odd, I already mentioned people thought it was irrelevant and no one would notice and people told us consumers weren’t interested or intelligent enough to understand a new browser. So just talking about a browser was odd. Talking about a browser and a public benefit mission, it was too many odd things in there. But now, today, people understand browsers and so, talking about what we’re doing and why, and building new efforts, currently through Drumbeat and our innovation efforts… enough people understand Firefox now that we can talk about openness and individual empowerment and use Firefox as an example of other things that might happen. For example, I’ll use Universal Subtitles, which is a Drumbeat project that Mozilla is supporting. That’s about using many of the same principles of openness and individual participation in the content area, in the video area, so if a video is produced in one language, English or Russian or whatever, it’s easy for people who speak other languages to translate it or find translations. So that’s about when content creators are interested in having their content available in languages, finding good, easy, open ways to do that.

That’s the movement of many of the ideas of open source software and Mozilla into the content, because it’s clear that things like video and multiple languages are really important. And so, because Firefox has been successful enough, we can talk about some of those other things and actually help some of those other kinds of projects move forward. And also grow new kinds of communities. In the very early days Mozilla was mostly a technical community with a small outreach, or community marketing, I guess you would call it. And today we’re a bigger technical community with a much larger outreach. There are many more people involved in Mozilla who aren’t involved with the software itself. And the change we’re making is to try to expand that even more.

A few months ago the Mozilla Drumbeat festival took place in Barcelona, and it was amazing. Could you explain what Drumbeat is?

Drumbeat is trying to bring the same Mozilla values to new areas of the web. Drumbeat is trying to take the openness, transparency, individual participation, individual empowerment, local communities, multiple languages, your ability to take responsibility for yourself when you want to, your ability to have some impact on your own life, when you want to, and to make it both possible and fun to build those traits into areas of life other than Firefox. What we’ve found is there is a lot of people in the world who want to do something useful and fun, not just sit at home and do nothing. And many of those people find their way to Mozilla, and lots of those people are involved with Firefox, thousands upon thousands… But building Firefox is almost building the infrastructure of the internet, and there are many people who are interested in building, for example, open education. How would I either build or participate or be a student and learn in an educational system that isn’t the standard one we understand. Maybe I didn’t get into the university I was interested in, maybe I went to university ten or twenty years ago and I need to keep learning, maybe I’m in a part of the world where there aren’t any universities. There’s a lot of reasons where learning needs to go on over one’s lifetime and the standard university system isn’t great at that. And, of course, to learn well one has to be engaged: it’s an individual participation event. Ultimately, whatever we learn is our own opportunity and our own responsibility, so it’s a perfect area to find the things that made Mozilla successful and see if we can apply them in the educational space, because motivated people who want to learn, making tools and groups available to those people is very productive. And so, our early Drumbeat program is about education. We have a firm stand (?) about education.

There are also some programs about news. How do we bring the access to information brings us into the news world. We know that the news organizations are struggling from business models, and they’re also struggling with technology, how to be relevant. The amount of information available today is immense and, so, we could actually have news presentations that are far deeper and richer than were possible before. And Mozilla can help a lot with the latter. We’ll see what happens with the business piece, our real expertise of course is The technology. So we have a pretty significant effort on how to bring the open technologies and access to information, that we understand at Mozilla, into news organizations around the world.

Those are some examples of Drumbeat, which is an effort to build the strands of openness and individual empowerment into areas other than the core infrastructure.

On May 4th, Harvey Anderson, general counsel at Mozilla, explained in his blog the controversy between Mozilla and the Department of Homeland Security. One of the DHS’s units, ICE Homeland Security Investigations, seizes Internet domains that allegedly infringe on US intellectual property legislation. As an answer, some Firefox extensions have been developed to circumvent those seizures. ICE asked Mozilla to retire Mediaafire, one such add-on. Mozilla’s answer, as Anderson explains, was to not retire that add-on and to publicly request ICE for clarification on some aspects of their request. What’s your take on the subject?

Earlier I talked about Mozilla’s role in weaving a set of strands into the fabric of the Internet. One set of strands, we know we’ll be there, is government, both positive and negative: governments do some great things and some governments can do some very scary things. As the Internet gets built the role of government, or each different government will get built as well, and so, what we’re starting to see now is, I think, lots of the strands of government involved in the Internet being developed. And some are very positive, as, for example, the open data initiative of the US government, and some others, is very positive: that is the government building strands of the internet in a way that’s exceptional and positive, and hard for anybody else than the government to do, because they have the data. So, some of these government built strands are very positive. Or many of us, and certainly the Mozilla view on them is they’re very positive, because they’re about taking information, where the owner of the information chooses to make it available, in this case to its citizens. So there are very good things happening.

There is also a bunch of things about what’s the role of government, and how does it interact with the Internet, that aren’t so clear. And there’s a bunch of government responsibility to criminal activity that is going to involve the Internet in some fashion, and I think many of us, including many of us at Mozilla, would say those are positive too. Because in some way, some form of government protection and national security and crime, and things that we expect our government to deal with, and if they’re going to deal with it effectively there’s some connection with the Internet.

And then there’s some space in the middle, where things are not determined and it’s not clear and we see government actions that, just like commercial actions, appear to be closing, or affecting the openness of the Internet, or to bring self-censorship… So the general setting is, I think we’re in the middle of our, I’ll call it explanation, of how does the government process of moving to the Internet affect us. But this particular piece was one were we felt we didn’t understand what accepted government process or judicial process was being applied and, because we are trying to build the strands of individual empowerment, and transparency, we understood that it was important for us to ask these questions. Transparency, and knowing what’s going on, is an important piece of, we could say openness, but we really mean health of the Internet and health of government. So we thought it was not only important to ask those questions but also to let others know that we were asking these questions. We didn’t see a clear path. There’s usually some set of government requirements that are clear and fall within the local law. This one, we just didn’t understand. So, in order to answer your question more closely, transparency is a very clear value at Mozilla, individuals having enough information to look up and say, ‘yup, that’s OK with me’ or ‘no, that is not OK with me’ is a core value at Mozilla.

All of our code is open source: at the most basic level we started with this, so if you want to make sure Firefox is not secretly sending messages somewhere, you can do that. That’s what open source means: you, or your technically savvy friends, can go look at the code and say yes or no. Hopefully people trust Mozilla and Firefox because of who we are but underlying that is that you can go verify what we’re doing. And that openness and transparency, and creating the ability of people being able to go and check for themselves is key to what we are.

Finally, I understand you wrote, or were instrumental in writing, the Netscape Public License and then the Mozilla Public License, two of the most popular Free and Open Source Software licenses. To someone coming to the libre software world, the immense amount of different licenses can be daunting. How do you see that question?

I have a philosophical view and a practical view. My philosophical view is that the key point in open source and free software is the right to fork: that you can change it. That you can change it free of charge, of course, but the key freedom is that you can change or modify it. That’s what open source is about. So, as a philosophical matter, that has to be true of the license. If the foundation of what we’re doing is that freedom to make changes, if we say you can’t change the license, to me that’s fundamentally inconsistent, and I cannot reconcile a free software movement that says ‘but you have to use one of the two or three licenses we tell you. The code you can change, but only under the terms that we told you and even if you write new code of your own, you can’t pick another license and call it whatever’. To me, just philosophically, it’s not consistent. So my philosophical belief is that anyone should be able to write a license and, provided that it meets the right criteria for a free software or open source license, they should be able to write it and use it.

As a practical matter, 99.9% of the time you don’t want to do that. Because it means you’re off on your own, you’re in a little island, it’s very hard for people to reach you, it’s very hard to interact with each other, you’re actually not going to get much of the benefit of free software. So for a practical matter I am all for encouraging people to use one of the preexisting licenses and to try and keep the number of licenses small. I think that is important and in many cases you can find much of what you want under three or four licenses, so I guess I’d really encourage people to get familiar with those three or four, and if you come across something else, well… it’s pretty awkward.

We are just now finishing the process of revising the Mozilla Public License, and we will come out with the 2.0 version of that pretty shortly. We actually considered retiring the license, for exactly the reasons that you described. If we don’t need it, let’s have less, as a practical matter. We decided not to retire it and to continue to use it for the Mozilla project, for Firefox, for a bunch of reasons, one of which is that in the free software world there are really two ends of the spectrum: there are the GNU licenses –and the followers of the GNU licenses and the Free Software Foundation philosophy are often deeply committed to that license, and that philosophy– and at the other end there is the Apache license, and its followers are also deeply committed. And the Mozilla license is somewhere in the middle, and through that we have a community in which everyone can participate. In the Mozilla world we have a large number of people who are free software, FLOSS, Free Software Foundation advocates, who believe very strongly in that philosophy, which I have immense respect for that. And so we work hard to be an organization where those folks can participate and be comfortable in. We also have a large number of people who are really on the other end of the spectrum, who use the Apache license for all their work, who prefer to live in an Apache world, but also are comfortable inside Mozilla. That’s important: our license allows us to continue to do that and it allows, technically, within the license, a set of activities that work for Mozilla. And that’s why we use it.

And let me just add what I probably should have said at the beginning of that, which is, yes, the licenses seem kind of overwhelming, but it’s sometimes helpful, at least mentally or emotionally, to keep in mind the reason people care about them, or they feel those are the terms they are choosing to govern themselves by. You make a choice: it’s not like you were born into a particular governing system, you get to make a choice, but they’re often described as the constitutions, and so they generate emotional response, as you would expect from that setting.

Recommended citation: CÓRCOLES, César. Mitchell Baker (English version). Mosaic [online article], May 2011, no. 87. ISSN: 1696-3296. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7238/m.n87.1124.