September 17, 2008

What Mozilla Means to Me

When I talk to my friends and family about Mozilla, I notice that they all have different perceptions of what Mozilla is. Looking at Mozilla’s Wikipedia entry doesn’t shed much light on things either, as it’s largely a glorified disambiguation page that attempts to clarify the word’s many different meanings over time.

This essay is about what that word means to me. It isn’t meant to be definitive, but it should contribute to the ongoing discussion of Mozilla’s identity. And at the very least, I hope that this helps my friends and family understand why I feel privileged to work for this unusual organization.

Foundations

I’d like to start with something that seems unrelated to the topic at hand: law. Wikipedia defines it with the following two sentences:

Law is a system of rules, usually enforced through a set of institutions. It shapes politics, economics and society in numerous ways.

Pretty straightforward. At the turn of the century, Lawrence Lessig said the following about what law means on the internet in his essay entitled Code is Law:

Every age has its potential regulator, its threat to liberty. Our founders feared a newly empowered federal government; the Constitution is written against that fear. John Stuart Mill worried about the regulation by social norms in nineteenth-century England; his book On Liberty is written against that regulation. Many of the progressives in the twentieth century worried about the injustices of the market. The reforms of the market, and the safety nets that surround it, were erected in response.

Ours is the age of cyberspace. It, too, has a regulator. This regulator, too, threatens liberty. But so obsessed are we with the idea that liberty means "freedom from government" that we don’t even see the regulation in this new space. We therefore don’t see the threat to liberty that this regulation presents.

This regulator is code—the software and hardware that make cyberspace as it is. This code, or architecture, sets the terms on which life in cyberspace is experienced. It determines how easy it is to protect privacy, or how easy it is to censor speech. It determines whether access to information is general or whether information is zoned. It affects who sees what, or what is monitored. In a host of ways that one cannot begin to see unless one begins to understand the nature of this code, the code of cyberspace regulates.

This idea, that code is law, is profoundly important. It means the software that people write can have ethical implications. We see evidence of this all the time; for instance, while Apple’s iTunes advertises that you own the music you buy from them, there’s evidence that—due to the code that implements the rules which define how their software operates—this isn’t actually the case. Similarly, the 2006 ruling of TiVo v. EchoStar raised the question of what rights owners of tethered appliances have when it’s possible for a vendor to radically change the functionality of their customers’ products overnight.

These kinds of concerns are at the core of the Mozilla Project’s mission. A constitution of sorts called the Mozilla Manifesto lays out what the organization believes the ethics of software development on the Internet should be:

  1. The Internet is an integral part of modern life a key component in education, communication, collaboration, business, entertainment and society as a whole.
  2. The Internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible.
  3. The Internet should enrich the lives of individual human beings.
  4. Individuals’ security on the Internet is fundamental and cannot be treated as optional.
  5. Individuals must have the ability to shape their own experiences on the Internet.
  6. The effectiveness of the Internet as a public resource depends upon interoperability (protocols, data formats, content), innovation and decentralized participation worldwide.
  7. Free and open source software promotes the development of the Internet as a public resource.
  8. Transparent community-based processes promote participation, accountability, and trust.
  9. Commercial involvement in the development of the Internet brings many benefits; a balance between commercial goals and public benefit is critical.
  10. Magnifying the public benefit aspects of the Internet is an important goal, worthy of time, attention and commitment.

It’s clear that these concerns are always centered around the benefits of users. Not Mozilla, not corporations or investors or advertisers, but the people who are ultimately what all software is presumably created to benefit.

At the heart of the Mozilla Project is The Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit organization that facilitaties public discourse on topics related to this Manifesto. In 2007, for instance, they worked with The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University to hold The Internet as Public Good Symposium, which focused on a number of issues relevant to the Manifesto.

Products

But Mozilla doesn’t just promote the Manifesto through conversations: it actually creates products that embody the Manifesto’s beliefs and benefit the public. The Foundation wholly owns taxable, for-profit corporations for this purpose: the Mozilla Corporation oversees the development of the award-winning Firefox browser, while Mozilla Messaging oversees the development of the Thunderbird e-mail client [1].

Since joining the Mozilla Corporation in spring of 2008, it’s been clear to me that Mozilla community members were deeply concerned about the issues inherent in the Manifesto from when I first started working with them, even though they rarely mentioned the Manifesto itself. Whenever a software feature was brought up, it was always scrutinized from the point of view of the end-user: how would this enrich their life? Did the feature preserve their privacy? Did it make their life on the Internet safer? And from the point of view of the Internet as a public resource, did it promote generativity, choice, and innovation?

Lessig divides the source of rules for cyberspace into two distinct camps: East Coast code, which are the laws dictated by Congress, and West Coast code, which are the rules dictated by the code comprising software that individuals use. Insofar as Mozilla’s products are the latter, it could be said that the organization plays a significant role in the very definition of cyberspace law. For that matter, of course, it could be said that anyone who writes software fits into the same category, but I consider Mozilla to be particularly influential in a number of ways:

  • Mozilla’s products have an significant amount of reach: Firefox has over 180 million users worldwide and posesses about 20% of the browser market share.
  • Virtually all Mozilla operations are fully transparent and community-based, unlike the work of most other corporations. One natural result of this, regardless of the stated goals of the Mozilla Project, is that the software produced tends to be created in the interests of the community that created it, rather than in the interests of revenue or shareholders. This unusual development model adds a lot of diversity and lends an important voice to the Internet software ecosystem.
  • Mozilla products are meant to be used by non-technical individuals; this is unlike most other community-based, open-source projects, whose output tends to be targeted towards technology professionals and hobbyists. This means that Mozilla plays a leading role in community-based user interface design.
[1]These entities are for-profit so that they have freedom over the generation of revenue. Virtually all of this revenue is reinvested back into the Foundation. There are no shareholders or stock options, nor any possibility of any part of the corporation being sold to another company. This is apparently how many hospitals are structured, since the laws concerning revenue genration for non-profits in the United States are very restrictive. More information about how the for-profit entities generate revenue can be found at the Wikipedia page for Mozilla Corporation.

Community

I’ve mentioned the word "community" several times so far in this essay, and it’s one of the concepts that are ubiquitous throughout the Mozilla Project. As item 8 of the Manifesto mentions, transparent and community-based processes promote participation, accountability, and trust; to this end, Mozilla’s products rely enormously on them.

The easiest way to communicate this is through numbers. For instance, Firefox alone has:

  • Over 180 million users worldwide, many of whom participate in the community at spreadfirefox.com, report news on phishing sites, and contribute bug reports via Firefox’s crash reporter.
  • Over 5000 community-contributed extensions at addons.mozilla.org.
  • Over 50 localizations. This means Firefox is available in over 50 different languages around the world, and each translation has been contributed—and is being constantly updated—by volunteers who spend their personal time to enrich the Web for others who often have no way of experiencing it.
  • Over 200 knowledge base articles on support.mozilla.com, most or all of which have been written and translated into other languages by volunteers. Some articles have community-contributed screencasts. Every helper on the Firefox support live chat service is a volunteer, too.
  • Over 1,600 total contributors to the code base. About 100 people contribute to the code base daily. Some of these people are employed by other companies, while others are individuals who are just really interested in the project.
  • Over 20,000 volunteers who download the latest nightly build of Firefox—that is, a version of Firefox containing all the changes for the day. These nightlies are quite likely to contain bugs and crash, but community members are willing to try them out in an effort to help ensure that Firefox stays bug-free, and that new changes to Firefox don’t "break the web" by rendering certain sites unusable.
  • Over 2,000,000 beta testers, who volunteer to do the same thing as the nightly testers, only with more stable and less frequently-released builds of Firefox called "betas".

Given all of the people involved in the Mozilla communities, it’s worth noting that the Mozilla Corporation itself only has about 150 employees. Only about 40 of them contribute directly to Firefox, as many employees work on other things like marketing, evangelism, IT/internal technical support, labs, and other projects. So it’s clear that contributing to Mozilla’s mission and its products is something that anyone should be able to enjoy—and such participation is vital both to the Mozilla Project and the health of the Internet as a whole.

Conclusion

I’ve just explained the meaning of Mozilla in a way that makes sense to me, but the actual history of the project is much messier. My narrative makes it sound as though the Mozilla Manifesto was the catalyst from which the rest of the entire organization grew. But in fact—and I discovered this while writing this very essay—the first draft of the Manifesto was created in early 2007, years after Firefox was released! It’s almost as though the Manifesto was "reverse-engineered" from a careful examination of Mozilla’s working products and community.

But such irregularity, for better or for worse, is yet another hallmark of Mozilla. One side effect of the project’s transparency is that—unlike traditional corporations which tend to internalize intermediate mistakes as they release polished products—Mozilla’s entire evolution is in plain sight, from heated debates to half-finished, abandoned experiments. This can sometimes make things a little more confusing than they ought to be, and as such it’s no surprise that the very identity of Mozilla can be hard to fully grasp. But it’s my hope that this essay makes that a little easier.

Acknowledgements

None of this information is really original. It’s all been shamelessly stolen from various places, most of which I’ve linked to. The one notable one that isn’t linked to is Mike Schroepfer’s "Mozilla: Past, Present & Future" talk.

© Atul Varma 2017