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Mitchell Baker: It’s dangerous for a substantial part of the Web to be controlled by just a few large private corporations

Who controls the Web? In the late 1990s, that question prompted a number of people to begin working to swing the balance of power over the internet towards citizens and away from a group of private companies. Their efforts gave rise to Firefox, one of free software advocates’ great success stories. Chairperson of the Mozilla Corporation, the organisation behind Firefox, Mitchell Baker was in Barcelona on 19 April to attend a presentation of version 4 of the browser at Wikilounge, an event arranged by with the UOC’s support. In this interview she reflects on the Web’s evolution and her organisation’s role in the process.

Much has changed in just 13 years since the Firefox project began in 1998.

Yes, it’s incredible. We began working on the Firefox project in Netscape in 1998. In 2003, a dozen of us set up the Mozilla Foundation. The way things have progressed since then has been genuinely astounding. We pioneers already believed that the Web would be an integral part of our lives, but we couldn’t have begun to imagine how quickly everything would happen. In the mid-1990s, the technology was only for a few people. The concepts involved were very technical and difficult to grasp. It was already clear, though, that the internet ought to be open, public, a common resource shared through free products and open technologies. Open source software is software that anyone can use. Mozilla makes its software available to everybody by distributing its source code. We began doing so as a small group of engineers. As time has gone by, though, tens of thousands of people from all over the world have become involved.

Were you expecting such a deluge of collaborators?

I knew small groups of people who collaborated with us and shared our idea of a public Web, such as an extraordinarily active Polish community that has been around since 1999, but we never imagined the current impact or scale. Firefox has 450 million users. It’s incredible!

It has become a huge project.

Yes, and it’s very gratifying, although most users aren’t interested in getting involved in developing the source code, of course.

But those who do get involved do so altruistically.

They believe in the project and they trust us due to the way we operate. We aren’t perfect. Sometimes local groups let us know that they’re unhappy with one of our decisions, which makes us realise that we might have made a mistake and that we need to put it right.

The open source policy you champion is the opposite of the Coca-Cola formula.

Exactly. In our case, it’s an option taken voluntarily. Some business models involve an inaccessible secret code. Secret code is becoming less and less important in the software arena though. What really matters is how many contacts and collaborators you have.

Working in a network.

Exactly. The internet was fundamentally designed to be accessible from any computer at any time, rather than restricted to manufacturers, businesses or a given country. It’s not centralised and it’s constantly growing. At first there was no kind of voice facility or any program like Skype, for example, but when somebody dreamed up the idea for Skype, they didn’t have to ask anyone if they could go ahead with it. They just did it!

It’s like a baby learning to do new things as it grows.

Exactly! YouTube has given us video. And nobody needed to ask if they could do it. It just works.

It’s even possible to find a partner on the internet...

Yes! Because what the internet makes possible, and what open technology has generated, is the growth of that baby you mentioned. A baby that one day learns to talk, to walk, etc. People can experiment with their ideas without needing to seek permission, persuade any kind of authority or set up a business. All you have to do is give it a go and make your idea available to everyone. Consequently, on one hand there are people with new ideas who put them into practice on the internet and offer them to the rest of us; and on the other there are citizens with access to all that, who can use it if they like it. And not a filter in sight.

What stage is the battle for an open, public Web currently at?

We’re still at the beginning! At first, before mobiles, everything was on the Web. You could find anything there because it was a platform for everyone. But that has changed over the last couple of years with the advent of mobile platforms, which are closed. That’s why one of Mozilla’s major aims is to open them up.

Mozilla is a global non-profit organisation, but its main revenue source is Google, a multinational that in the last few years has launched the Google Chrome browser, a rival to Firefox. Isn’t that a little strange?

Many people think that Google provides us with money as an act of charity, but that’s not the case. For Google, it’s a business decision. For us, they’re a great partner. Nonetheless, I think it’s probably time for Mozilla to try to diversify its revenue. It’s worth mentioning that Google has connections with almost everybody who’s on the internet. Some might think that Google Chrome could be the end of us. Google could also finish off other, similar applications though, and it hasn’t done so. It’s simply their business model, and while our product remains popular, they’ll continue to take an interest in us. It would be an unusual business decision for them to do otherwise.

Google Chrome is eating into Internet Explorer’s market share, while Firefox is maintaining its position between the two. There’s a lot of talk of a ‘browser war’. Is that really all it’s made out to be?

It depends on how you define ‘war’. Nobody’s dying. It’s just something happening in the market that we’re part of. Nowadays, browsers are much more competitive –ourselves included– than in the 1990s, and that’s good because it makes us better. We’ve managed to prove something that people considered impossible when Microsoft had the system in its grip, namely that browsers can be different and consumers are intelligent enough to understand that. Browsers are one of the Web’s checkpoints. That’s why we built Firefox, because we feel that it’s dangerous for a substantial part of the Web to be controlled by just a few large private corporations.

An open Web for citizens, free from the control of major corporations, would still have a political undercurrent.

Yes, since we want an enhanced role for citizens and a civil society in good health.

Has the reaction to your citizen-oriented approach differed in the USA and Europe?

Yes, the reaction has been different. Europe is much more receptive than the USA. Notions such as awareness of public and social benefit and technology’s relationship with society seem to be more readily graspable in Europe. In the USA, in contrast, when you speak to people you need more time because you have to explain to them what we’re doing.

In 2005, Time Magazine included you in its annual list of the world’s hundred most influential people. What did you think when you found out?

My first thought was that Mozilla had achieved the impossible. I also knew that, despite it being my name that appeared there, Mozilla owes its existence to the many people I was representing in that list. Because it has been very hard work. Bear in mind that, through Windows, Microsoft controlled 97% of worldwide distribution some years back. Achieving our goal in those circumstances was out of the question. It was madness!

Bill Gates (Microsoft), Larry Page (Google) and Marc Zuckerberg (Facebook) have also featured in the list. It just goes to show how important the internet is in our lives.

Exactly. The people in such lists are often those who’ve designed and developed the things on the internet, which makes them influential. The internet is so exciting! At the same time though, it’s potentially terrifying. A lot of our data is on the internet, information on what we like and so on. We’re putty in the hands of anyone who has that data. So, where the internet is concerned, Mozilla is an extremely positive story that we’ve developed along with communities from throughout the world.

Interview and Pictures made by Jordi Rovira

The Mozilla Foundation website
Mitchell Baker’s blog
The Firefox website in Catalan
Mozilla Foundation Open Website



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