2018, according to The Economist, has been the year of the techlash. scandals, protests, resignations, congressional testimonies – many of the largest companies in the world have been in the proverbial dock for a distinct lack of accountability. Together, these stories have created a narrative where many are starting to question the benefits of unbridled innovation.
But Mozilla is one company that seems to have bucked that trend. In recent weeks there have been a series of news stories that suggest Mozilla is a company thinking differently about its place in the world, as well as the wider challenges technology poses society.
All of these come together to present Mozilla in a new light. Cynics might suggest that much of this is little more than some smart PR work, but it’s a little unfair to dismiss what some impressive work.
So much has been happening across the industry that deserves scepticism at best and opprobrium at worst. To see a tech company stand out from the tiresome pattern of stories this year can only be a good thing.
Mozilla on education: technology, ethical code, and the humanities
Code ethics has become a big topic of conversation in 2018. And rightly so – with innovation happening at an alarming pace, it has become easy to make the mistake of viewing technology as a replacement for human agency, rather than something that emerges from it. When we talk about code ethics it reminds us that technology is something built from the decisions and actions of thousands of different people.
It’s for this reason that last week’s news that Mozilla has teamed up with a number of organizations, including the Omidyar Network to announce a brand new prize for computer science students feels so important.
At a time when the likes of Mark Zuckerberg dance around any notion of accountability, peddling a narrative where everything is just a little bit beyond Facebook’s orbit of control, the ‘Responsible Computer Science Challenge’ stands out. With $3.5 million up for grabs for smart computer science students, it’s evidence that Mozilla is putting its money where its mouth is and making ethical decision making something which, for once, actually pays.
Mitchell Baker on the humanities and technology
Mitchell Baker’s comments to the Guardian that accompanied the news also demonstrate a refreshingly honest perspective from a tech leader. “One thing that’s happened in 2018,” Baker said, “is that we’ve looked at the platforms, and the thinking behind the platforms, and the lack of focus on impact or result. It crystallised for me that if we have STEM education without the humanities, or without ethics, or without understanding human behaviour, then we are intentionally building the next generation of technologists who have not even the framework or the education or vocabulary to think about the relationship of STEM to society or humans or life.”
Baker isn’t, however, a crypto-luddite or an elitist that wants full stack developer classicists. Instead she’s looking forward at the ways in which different disciplines can interact and inform one another. It’s arguably an intellectual form of DevOps. It is a way of bridging the gap between STEM skills and practices, and those rooted in the tradition of the humanities.
The significance of this intervention shouldn’t be understated. It opens up a dialogue within society and the tech industry that might get us to a place where ethics is simply part and parcel of what it means to build and design software, not an optional extra.
Mozilla’s approach to internal diversity: dropping meritocracy
The respective cultures of organizations and communities across tech has been in the spotlight over the last few months. Witness the bitter furore over Linux change to its community guidelines to see just how important definitions and guidelines are to the people within them.
That’s why Mozilla’s move to drop meritocracy from its guidelines of governance and leadership structures was a small yet significant move. It’s simply another statement of intent from a company eager to ensure it helps develop a culture more open and inclusive than the tech world has been over the last thirty decades.
In a post published on the Mozilla blog at the start of October, Emma Irwin (D&I Strategy, Mozilla Contributors and Communities) and Larissa Shapiro (Head of Global Diversity & Inclusion at Mozilla) wrote that “Meritocracy does not consider the reality that tech does not operate on a level playing field.”
The new governance proposal actually reflects Mozilla’s apparent progressiveness pretty well. In it, it states that “the project also seeks to debias this system of distributing authority through active interventions that engage and encourage participation from diverse communities.”
While there has been some criticism of the change, it’s important to note that the words used by organizations of this size does have an impact on how we frame and focus problems.
From this perspective, Mozilla’s decision could well be a vital small step in making tech more accessible and diverse.
The tech world needs to engage with political decision makers
Mozilla isn’t just a ‘progressive’ tech company because of the content of its political beliefs. Instead, what’s particularly important is how it appears to recognise that the problems that technology faces and engages with are, in fact, much bigger than technology itself.
Just consider the actions of other tech leaders this year. Sundar Pichai didn’t attend his congressional hearing, Jack Dorsey assured us that Twitter has safety at its heart while verifying neo-Nazis, while Mark Zuckerberg suggested that AI can fix the problems of election interference and fake news. The hubris has been staggering. Mozilla’s leadership appears to be trying hard to avoid the same pitfalls.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Mozilla actually embraced the idea of 2018’s ‘techlash.’ The organization used the term in the title of a post directed at G20 leaders in August. Written alongside The Internet Society and the Web Foundation, it urged global leaders to “reinject hope back into technological innovation.”
Implicit in the post is an acknowledgement that the aims and goals of much of the tech industry – improving people’s lives, making infrastructure more efficient – can’t be purely solved by the industry itself. It is a subtle stab at what might be considered hubris.
Taking on government and regulation
But this isn’t to say Mozilla is completely in thrall to government and regulation. Most recently (16 October), Mozilla voiced its concerns about current decryption laws being debated in Australian Parliament. The organization was clear, saying “this is at odds with the core principles of open source, user expectations, and potentially contractual license obligations.”
At the beginning of September Mozilla also spoke out against EU copyright reform. The organization argued that “article 13 will be used to restrict the freedom of expression and creative potential of independent artists who depend upon online services to directly reach their audience and bypass the rigidities and limitations of the commercial content industry.”#
While opposition to EU copyright reform came from a range of voices – including those huge corporations that have come under scrutiny during the ‘techlash’ – Mozilla is, at least, consistent.
The key takeaway from Mozilla: let’s learn the lessons of 2018’s techlash
The techlash has undoubtedly caused a lot of pain for many this year. But the worst thing that could happen is for the tech industry to fail to learn the lessons that are emerging. Mozilla deserve credit for trying hard to properly understand the implications of what’s been happening and develop a deliberate vision for how to move forward.