Mitchell Baker probes the most daunting obstacles to a free, fair and flourishing Internet
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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. As a nation and civilization, the myriad challenges our technological future presents can be overwhelming … Net Neutrality, Internet governance and the digital divide between those with and those without access. Unprecedented in humankind is the Web’s vast reflection – and often collision – of human values.
I could not imagine a more erudite chronicler of our digital past…or contemplater of our digital future than today’s guest. Mitchell Baker, named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential thinkers, she is Chairwoman of the Mozilla Corporation and Foundation …responsible for creating one of the world’s most successful Web browsers: Firefox.
Under Baker’s leadership, Mozilla is collaborating with The New York Times to facilitate more quality, civilized interaction between journalists and readers…and to diminish the role of anonymous Web commenter’s corroding our national discourse.
So we have a half-hour today to tackle with Mitchell Baker the most daunting obstacles to a fair, free and flourishing Internet…and I want to begin by asking Mitchell Baker about Mozilla’s newest initiative: How and when it will begin to be most effective and make a difference? Mitchell Baker, the floor is yours.
BAKER: Thank you. Well, we have a number of initiatives, so I could …
HEFFNER: Let’s talk about that one first, if we can.
BAKER: Which one? The news one?
HEFFNER: The news one.
BAKER: Yes. So one of the things that’s important to Mozilla is the free flow of information and the ability of people to think and work out problems for ourselves.
And so we build technology products that try to bring that into life. That’s why we built Firefox. And so news is a critical part of good civil discourse.
And obviously the Internet has disruptive to the news industry and to journalism. And we recognize there’s business problems that aren’t in our like core expertise. But technology and open technology and how to assist journalists and news organizations make better use of data, find it, use it, share it when it’s appropriate. Use it in stories. Check it. Build better systems for the display and contemplation of civil events.
So, we have a great partnership with the Knight Foundation, with the New York Times as well, with a range of other newspapers and journalistic organizations, in some cases globally, as well.
HEFFNER: But what gives us the least amount of faith in our Internet revolution may be … and I wonder if you agree about this … these nasty, vicious comments …
HEFFNER: … on news articles. And I really think that your effort is attempting to tackle this problem.
BAKER: Well, one thing about the Internet or “the web” is we see the whole range of human nature. So, we see amazing things and people doing really exciting things and then we see the … the negative aspects of human nature of which some of these comments are reflective.
So we are trying to build systems that, that give more choice. There’s some cases in which anonymity is really important. And certainly if you look around the world, it’s easy to see where doing away with anonymity would be a disaster.
So, we’re not trying to do that, but we are trying to help with systems where anonymity goes bad. Or in systems where it’s safe to have your name or a pseudonym. You don’t actually necessarily need to attach everything to you directly, so all your neighbors or friends know every comment you make. But to know who a person is so you can turn them off or there’s some responsibility or some association with you.
And so there’s some technical ways to do that. There’s also a lot of exploration. So one of the great things about the news organizations we’re working with is we found that spirit of exploration about “Let’s try some things” and see what works.
And that’s part of, I think the spirit of doing, making things like the world is available, we have some assets so, let’s, let’s try and make things better.
HEFFNER: I know what you mean. In governments that are not quite yet democratic and the Arab Spring is an example of anonymous folks posting, creating a conversation …
HEFFNER: … delivering on that. But I wonder, in our democracy, in America, if you find that a pre-requisite now for these news organizations should be to expect a certain level of civility in the discourse that is exchanged after the story.
BAKER: Ah. Ah. Yes. This is maybe a question of social norms and expertise and learning to live in a digital era.
You know at, at Mozilla … I’ll come to your exact point in a moment but … at, at Mozilla we are a … we’re actually a non-profit … we building products that look like commercial software products and work that way, but we’re a non-profit, public benefit organization trying to build a digital commons.
And so we build communities as well. And, and building a community that’s healthy is an art. And that’s new online. And so communities can go bad or the loud and nasty voices in a set of people can become all that you hear.
And so part of what’s happening is learning to build accountability, responsibility and good communities online. And I think the news orientations and the websites that have comments are on the frontlines of that.
So I, I personally am not ready to say that every single thing that I do online or every single thing or comment that I make should automatically be tracked and associated to me.
Or that, that sometimes living in … that’s like living in a small village where everybody knows exactly what you do.
So I’m not sure that that’s actually the solution. But there is a, a solution of building healthy civil norms online and enforcement mechanisms for when some person can’t live in a, in a way that, that this community want to accept.
HEFFNER: Because it seems like the extent of patrol, if you will, is to remove content that would be considered offensive, flagrant, but not necessarily to bring the democratic values that we espouse as a country to the interaction that exists in the comment feature.
So, what are specific technological tools in the public interest at Mozilla that you’re hoping to develop to treat this problem and to be proactive, to anticipate what will further facilitate and foster that kind of conversation that is healthy.
BAKER: Civil dialogues. Two things. We, we tend to always think about communities. I talked about that first. So that there are a couple of things.
We, we have on a technology level, systems or ways or understandings of how to give you multiple identities. So, for example you could be … your main identity … you could be, you know, persona 5200 at some address and still that, that name and identity could participate in communities and have enforcement mechanisms. You could be known as that person. I think we’ve all seen, seen those people.
So our technical and, and technical thinking is along the lines of how do we allow you to have multiple identities. You might have all of your personal data associated with one. You might have an identity for when you comment on particular social issues. And that that identity itself could be known and thus if you’d behaved in a way the community didn’t like, you could be exiled or put on parole or you know, whatever that community wants.
But it’s not necessarily always one unified identity. And that way, if you have, you know a particular issue that sensitive in your community or sensitive globally, you can actually engage fully and in a responsible way.
So those are the kinds of solutions that we’re, that we’re working on. Plus on the news things … there are various other ways about looking at comments and, and so on.
HEFFNER: Is the intent, though, within the comment section of websites, specifically these top tier newspapers, to not only create this atmosphere of community that you’re describing, but actually enable people to be in a seminar?
BAKER: Ah, well that depends on the website. Or the news site. So, what we’re trying to do at Mozilla is offer options and technical expertise and technologists in the various news rooms. So that each newsroom or website can make the decision for itself.
BAKER: So one of the things that has been so powerful about the Internet … and the web is they’ve been built to allow people to make decisions for themselves.
Sometimes we say, “decisions at the edges”. So that each newsroom or each website can make a decision about does it want a seminar, does it really want maximum readership? And can trade off all the things that are important to that particular newsroom or website. And that we at Mozilla are not trying to make a centralized decision, that this is the way it will be or this is how you should run your news site.
HEFFNER: But should it always be educational?
BAKER: Well …
HEFFNER: … if it’s news …
HEFFNER: … if it’s in that …
BAKER: … news, yes.
HEFFNER: … milieu …
BAKER: … well, you know I have a … certainly a view of news … but there’s certainly a view of news as entertainment, or news as interactive that, that we see growing.
So I think what news should be is probably … you know, varies widely among people. I’m probably …
HEFFNER: I, I’m not …
BAKER: … closer to you, than many but, but I think …you know speaking as Mozilla, what we’re, we’re not trying to say that this is what your world should be … look like. This is what education must look like or this is what entertainment must look like.
What we do is we build technologies that allow competition, allow choice and that … at their core … are about each individual person … who having privacy and security and some control.
HEFFNER: So you’re imposing a more generalized sense or set of values than specifically championing the value of comments as furthering the education of folks who make comments.
BAKER: We … yes … we are championing open technologies that newsrooms understand so that newsrooms and other websites can choose where along that line they want to be effectively.
HEFFNER: It seems to me that news organizations have an opportunity to build readership that wants to look in a mirror at the story that’s being reflected in that …
HEFFNER: … particular article and see how it can be developed further on. Whether it’s an expose or a news column, but they want to further evaluate how this issue or subject is being treated in the future.
And for my view it seems like news organizations have not yet made links to the future through the news stories as they reside on their respective websites. And, and ProPublica, for example …
HEFFNER: … is one organization that really believes in investigative news and therefore it creates stories and then develops on those stories in a way that could fuel the comments to have an impact on what comes next …
HEFFNER: … and I’m wondering in your conversations with folks at The New York Times and the Washington Post, the two organizations with which you’re working, if they’re concerned about that. They want readers input to fuel the next story, the next expose …
BAKER: Well, let me broaden that for just a moment and say with the Internet and web technologies, they seem familiar now, but they’re still very new. And so the sense of what’s actually possible with an interactive engagement with your audience is, is pretty new right now. And so looking forward in this history … in news and journalism … and true across the board, actually … it’s true in education, it’s true in, we’d call it entertainment. You know, I think many sites are looking for how to have forward looking engagement with their users.
And so, it’s true in news, we see it in news, but we see it everywhere as well. And so, these are things that are still underdevelopment. We don’t actually know what they are, there’s the inviting people to participate … there’s the keeping it civil, as you described. Then there’s, in some cases … not a new something …but there’s a coercion to try and keep …
BAKER: … people engaged and participating and so, we’re still in the middle of a wildly innovative period of what’s really possible. But certainly the, the effort that we’re making is, in part, general … because the Internet … we’re, we’re a general Internet organization.
What, what is human interaction with the Internet like? And in part focused on news because these questions are so crisp and clear and related to news and they have so much energy because of the importance of journalism and civil society and debate and citizen interaction in, in our life.
HEFFNER: So, let’s turn to some of the challenges presented by the Internet that I mention in the opening.
You have the issue of digital divide, a lack of digital literacy in certain underprivileged communities. You have the issue of net neutrality, the idea that certain multi-billion dollar companies are going to have fast lane to internet access.
What, what is to you the most important issue to grapple with today?
BAKER: The most important issue is sort of our approach to the world. So, the most important issue is, is really like human perception and interest and engagement.
Maybe it’s true of all things … but, but certainly of the internet. So all of the issues that you raise are live today. In many cases they’re, they’re sort of counter-intuitive. And so …
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
BAKER: I mean … there is a huge … there’s a big impulse in sort of human interactions to have a highly centralized hierarchical systems. So, the Internet was built differently and it’s been so effective and powerful because it is actually very different. It’s not a centralized system … the web … is not a centralized system. There’s no one place you go to ask for permission, it’s really based on innovation and you’ve got an idea or a problem … Here’s a system in which you can try it out.
And so that sounds great when you see it and when you see the Internet in action, it’s really amazing. But there is this very strong impulse to go centralize things. And so …
HEFFNER: Capitalize, too?
BAKER: (Laugh) Well, if creating value is a, is an important endeavor.
HEFFNER: And that was part of the founding. You were at Netscape …
HEFFNER: … from the beginning.
BAKER: Yeah. So, the economic engine, or the commercialization brings huge benefits. We, we can see that. And it’s in the Internet or the web or the network that we’re living on is odd right now.
It’s not run by a government or all governments and, and certainly it wouldn’t be innovative if that were the case, because it’s just much too new. And yet, if it were all private that would be disturbing, too, because it’s the foundation of so much of our lives now …
BAKER: … and so that’s why Mozilla exists. You know that’s why … we are a non-profit in this odd technological space is the commercial engine is really important. It brings value, it brings in immense amount of innovation, but as human beings, big parts of our life are not about spending money. And so there should be some part of the Internet that’s about civil society, social benefit, public benefit, how are you safe and secure. So all of these things are up in the mix right now.
HEFFNER: Mmmm. One of the things that is important, that you highlight is Internet governance and I wonder … in an ideal universe, where you are in charge …
HEFFNER: … and, and Mozilla’s impact on this is formidable already, but I wonder specifically how would you government the Internet for the current age? Because you, you talk at length about the different stakeholders here …
HEFFNER: Government, private entities. What’s the best way to manage the Internet today?
BAKER: Well, we have examples of Internet governance that’s worked very well. So, for example, the Core Foundation of how the Internet works. When you type in a URL how do you get someplace? Where does it go? How does it get routed?
That is done by a system of organizations that are not government sponsored, they’re not private organizations, they are self-forming organizations around … in this case, technical standards and implementation.
So in an ideal world we’d have many players involved. Governments would have a role because governments are responsible for their citizens and … are responsible to their citizens … one or the other. And also the set of people actually building things would have a role as well. Because the technology is changing so quickly, regulation today if you’re not actually engaged in building something will just be wrong. (Laugh) Useless at best and really damaging at, at worst. So we would have a growth in the Internet related organizations like the Internet Society and like the IATF, maybe like Mozilla which brings understanding and engagement to more people.
So there’d be a government layer, there’d be a standards and technical standards layer and there would be effective groups that tackle problems … like the few I named and …
BAKER: … I could go on … but …
HEFFNER: Well I just was going to say that sounds like a very sophisticated algorithm here to create a success story for the next decade or … and beyond the Internet. So, what exists of what you’re describing now and how can Mozilla and the United States as a country insure that in the future we are on that road?
BAKER: Yes. So the core exists today, so the things that make the Internet work today live in this model. They’re not always apparent because those are often technical. So one key aspect is to continue to support the organizations that have been doing the work to date. That would be the IATF, Ican Internet Society … Mozilla tries to being that to another level. A level closer to more human beings. Because there’s a technical layer and at the technical level that’s a subset of people who participate effectively.
So Mozilla tries to bring that to the, to the next level. So some of the key things that we need to do, we do need to insure net neutrality. Because without that we will lose the innovative burst and we will lose the kinds of really new ideas.
Because what, what net neutrality means is that if you don’t have net neutrality you need to ask permission to do something really new. And if what you’re doing is disruptive of one of the existing players, you’ve not likely to get permission.
So I use the example of Skype … if you imagine the guys who created Skype needing to go to all of the phone companies and network operators and Internet companies and ask them if they could distribute Skype … you can imagine the answer would be “no” they wouldn’t see it that way.
And so if we actually want that kind of innovation we do need net neutrality. We need a level of web literacy and by that I mean in a … kind of in a fun sense. So when you talk about web literacy sometimes it seems scary to people, it’s got all that technology in it or really arcane … but web literacy is, is the ability to connect to the network and do things with it.
BAKER: And to have an idea and say, “Oh that would be really interesting, can I do that, or do I know somebody who can do that?”
And so I think in the educational and in the technical world, with our kids, building that sense of “oh go do stuff” is really important.
Thirdly, there are organizations, Mozilla’s one … there are a set of other ones as well, who are actively trying to build knowledge, engagement, communities … and so support of that would be helpful.
Like sometimes, sometimes people think, “Oh you’re a non-profit, oh, isn’t that cute?”
BAKER: (laugh) And … but, but really it … it’s not that we don’t know how to run a business or to be commercial if we wanted to … it’s that this level of civic and social interaction and, and having some commons in our lives is important.
So I think some support for organizations trying to build that would be helpful.
HEFFNER: Well, you might have just highlighted the most problematic element of contemporary Internet culture, which is this corporate take-over … Wikipedia … also non-profit …
HEFFNER: … I mean what those companies are after, the Facebooks and Googles and already existing, thriving public companies is different … is it not? Than what Mozilla and Wikimedia and the non-profit sector online is about.
BAKER: Well, non-profits are different, yes. Yes.
HEFFNER: But I mean you’re, you’re aiming at …
BAKER: Yes. Sometimes …
HEFFNER: … in two different directions that are in conflict. And I mean … Sue Gardner was here, too, and very careful not to undermine … you know, some of the innovation that is in the profit making business …
HEFFNER: And I understand that. But it doesn’t seem yet that people are aware of the imminent clash and on that net neutrality issue specifically. And the fact that if these non-profits don’t stand up and say, “We’re not going to allow a billion dollar company to have a greater right of access than a start-up. If we don’t stand up and say that … or if companies like that don’t stand up and say that, then the Internet is going to lack the innovation that made Skype possible.
BAKER: Yes. So, we are a non-profit for a particular reason. And it, it is so that our stakeholders are broader than shareholders. And so that for us, we have many stakeholders … volunteers … people spend a lot of time working on Mozilla. Our employees do and our, our global volunteers do.
So we have stakeholders, but the return on investment that we want is an internet that is safe and secure and where you have control and I have control. So, so the return on investment we’re looking for is different by definition …
BAKER: … and so it gives us some advantages in that we, we don’t have the same kinds of conflicts over quarterly return on investment. We do want to sustain ourselves so, so it’s not that money doesn’t play any role, but, but we’re not looking for that increasing financial return. And so that, that … that’s pretty different, actually.
HEFFNER: And that’s really the essence of this net neutrality issue … I mean the faster that a major company can access web users or navigators, the more money that they’re, you know, likely to make …
HEFFNER: … and so … is, is that it?
BAKER: Well, there’s …
HEFFNER: … is that why they’re pushing against …
BAKER: Well, there’s a lot of things, I think, in net neutrality.
BAKER: And, and building the network is hard. Right. And it does take, take resources and so, so there, there … I don’t want to dismiss out of hand the, the claim … especially in Europe of the network operators, that they’re just isn’t enough financial resources to build the network that’s required for the future. So. So, that is a legitimate business discussion and how much return on investment makes sense. But the idea that at first might seem intuitive that, “Oh yes, one thing I should do is, is be able to determine who gets better service, or who can access customers faster?”
It’s one of those ideas that on deeper reflection is, is a really bad idea for, for exactly the reasons you’ve described. That somebody new without assets or resources can’t access people. Or, me as a consumer or you, if there’s some great new idea out there … even if it were Skype, for example, you couldn’t get to it, or it would be slow. Because someone else had decided this is a business that can access customers, or this pay, paid for customers. So, we are really focused on the net neutrality piece.
HEFFNER: Are there any things that you can do as a web navigator to advance the interest of the little guy … or gal?
BAKER: Oh, we do a lot of things …
HEFFNER: But as a user … as a user …
BAKER: As a user …
HEFFNER: I’m wondering for viewers who want to take a side on this battle …
BAKER: So there’s a couple things … you know, when you chose your … if you have a choice in technology products, you know, you might look beyond the actual future set, or if the future sets are equal, you know make your choice based on that. The, the size of the Firefox user base does affect our ability to have impact. That’s why we care about it. And we care about it because that means people like our product, but it also lets us have impact. So there’s that aspect of it.
As you use Firefox periodically you will see notices or suggestions about how you might participate. We have both newsletters that give you ways to engage and also some times if something’s really serious, something in the Start page of Firefox as well.
And we’re not alone in doing that, but we are probably the leader in technology products in, in promoting the privacy, security and net neutrality … open, open internet values.
Now sometimes we align very closely with Google. So, you know I don’t want to say that we’re the only one out there. But that, that is why we exist. So that’s one and I think if you do care about net neutrality … you know we do, as you pointed out live in a democratic society, it is time to speak up.
Because the start ups that don’t exist yet … don’t have a voice and the small players don’t have the same kind of resources or voice either. So … classic … participate and speak up.
HEFFNER: Mitchell Baker, we have to wrap up now …
BAKER: We do?
HEFFNER: … but as I said to you off camera … as we were beginning … I’ve been with Firefox from the beginning, I’m been a friend of Firefox and I hope folks explore it because it’s a terrific application browser and it advances the cause of … in the public interest. So …
BAKER: Thank you.
HEFFNER: … thank you Mitchell Baker.
BAKER: Thank you very much.
And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.
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