Mozilla Foundation Chairwoman Mitchell Baker, a 2018 UCL honorary doctor, talks about the ‘Wild West’ of the Internet and the university’s role in its future.
Louvain[s] : What have the browser world’s main players – Mozilla, Microsoft, Apple and Google – meant to the Internet and what will they mean for its future ?
Mitchell Baker : We all share a vision of the Web. Netscape brought the Internet to consumers, there was nothing before that. Then we started calling it the Web. We work together well and corporate interests like the way we work. There is a question of what happens when we all retire. There are structural drivers and personal drivers. We need to decrease the personal drivers and increase the structural drivers. This won’t happen instantaneously. Where will new people come from ? Open source will be part of the answer. And new people will emerge simply from taking on problems they themselves want to solve.
The Internet often seems as untamed as the Wild West. Fake news, malicious content, mass surveillance, political manipulation and exploitation runs amok at great social and political cost. What can be done to make the Internet – and thus humanity – less vulnerable to such abuse ?
M.B. : It still is the Wild West, but there isn’t much choice right now. We see the whole range of human behaviour. The Internet and the Web were not designed and built with deep protection mechanisms against the poorer sides of human nature. The Internet was and is for sharing knowledge, not weaponising the flow of information. Solutions to this have not expressed themselves yet. We can’t just turn on the gene, so to speak, or maybe we can but we just can’t see the gene yet. It’s tricky because the positive side of the Web is that it enables humans to reach their full potential. How do we maintain that and protect against lies and hatred, and build healthy communities ? Who decides what’s healthy, what’s hatred ? It’s hard for an open interest community to fi gure that out.
What is Mozilla doing to figure it out ?
M.B. : I’ve been running a Mozilla project called Coral, funded by the Knight Foundation, that builds open-source tools to make digital journalism more inclusive and engaging for both journalists and the public. It investigates ways to trigger healthy defences and manage discussion forums by promoting rational thought, critical thinking and verifiable facts. At Mozilla, we’re technologists at heart. Ask people why they work at Mozilla and they’ll point to our manifesto. But decades have passed since that manifesto was drafted. So recently we drafted what I call four aspirational statements as an addendum to the manifesto and that emphasise that we want to live in a world based on rational thought, critical thinking and verifiable facts, a world that prevents women from being pushed out of the public space. Fulfilment of our mission will include these things as well. Really, the addendum statements were kind of implicit in the manifesto, but we’re making them explicit now because the world has changed.
What is the role of the university in the future of the Internet and digital technology generally ?
M.B. : There is a massive need for research into technology as a public asset, into security, new encryption techniques and relevant aspects of the social sciences. We often talk about the ‘attention economy’, but I wonder whether it’s more appropriate to talk about an addiction economy and study what’s unhealthy for the individual, what’s unhealthy for society, to conduct deeper research into how humans engage with technology. There is also a massive need for digital literacy – not knowing how to use digital technology but knowing what is actually happening while you are using it. And there is also a need for what we in America used to call civics [the study of the rights and duties of citizenship] : How do we feel about dissenting opinions ? How much government surveillance and access to troves of commercial data should be permitted ?
Crédit photo : Benjamin Zwarts
Article paru dans le Louvain[s] de mars-avril-mai 2018