Interview: Mitchell Baker

A conversation with the chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation about her transition from corporate law to tech leadership, the power of a written document, and a more humane internet.

Part of
Issue 9 May 2019

Open Source

Mitchell Baker is the chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation, and her influence on Mozilla, Firefox, and the idea of an open internet is woven into their establishing documents. She not only wrote Mozilla’s 2007Manifesto” and 2018Manifesto Addendum,” but also authored the original Mozilla Public License in 1998, when Netscape decided to make its source code public.

That decision revolutionized the meaning ofopen source,” establishing open, volunteer-driven, and nonprofit-backed software as a viable alternative to commercial consumer products. For Baker, open source is inextricable from the idea of an open internet, where, per Mozilla’s mission,individuals can shape their own experience and are empowered, safe, and independent.

Increment spoke with Baker about transitioning from corporate law to tech leadership, the power of a written document, and how developers, consumers, and educators can steer the internet in a more humane direction.

Content has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Increment: Early in your career, before Mozilla and before open source, you were working in corporate law. What was your focus?

Mitchell Baker: It was called licensing in those days, but I was overall a software business lawyer. That included intellectual property, copyright, patent, trademark, and trade secret topics.

Do you still identify as a lawyer?

I don’t work as a lawyer [anymore, but] there are some things about lawyers and the legal perspective that I think are deeply ingrained.

A big part of the legal world is about writing things down, and I am still a believer in the clarity of having a written document that everyone is looking at and agrees to. In the law, that’s a contract. It’s also an open-source license. It’s also a technical spec. Obviously, if you’re a programmer writing code, you’re writing things down.

I continue to be suspicious of people having a conversation about a complex topic and walking out of the room, sure they’ve agreed, when nothing is written down. The human brain is a sophisticated compiler, but it is highly idiosyncratic, so you and I can hear the same words spoken and walk away both thinking we’ve agreed, but thinking we’ve agreed to two very different things.

Another thing: Some lawyers really do get training in how to see opposing perspectives. It’s not just litigators, people fighting in court, but in my world [of corporate law] too. If you want to make a very complicated contract about software, it’s really helpful if you can understand the other person’s perspective. That professional training in how to recognize and actually internalize a second perspectiveI identify with that and I continue to try to do that. That’s how you get to better decisions.

In my day-to-day job, it’s not always clear what we should do. But give me a contract to read, and I’m like,Oh, yeah.” It’s very comfortable.

Terms likeintellectual property,”copyright,”patent,”trademark,” andtrade secrets” connote protection and control. Open source’s intentions seem to be the opposite: It’s about getting software out. Is that characterization close to how you see it?

I think I’d agree with the spirit of what you’re saying. I have to think about the exact words and how you said them, thoughI do care about words.

You’re not about to sign onto that.

But the spirit of what you’re saying, yes. Open source is aimed at collaborative use of software in terms that you don’t actually control. [The agreement] has some terms with it, but the way you use the software is not controlled by the creators. Some [licenses] had attribution requirements. A lot of them now have a copyright license, and a lot of them have patent licenses. There are some terms, but the core content is to allow people to do what they want with the software. That is, as you say, very different.

Did writing that first license in 1998 feel like a shift for you? Was it still about coming up with language for an agreement that did what you wanted it to do, or did you feel a shift from, say, guarding to giving?

Absolutely. It was a huge shift for the industry and for software developers in general. It’s funnyit’s very recent history, recent enough that I lived through it. But it’s still kind of hard to imagine.

Open source started, really, in universitiesBerkeley was one, and MIT. The licenses were very, very simple. They basically said,Here’s some software. You can do what you want with it, but we’re not responsible if anything goes wrong.” One of them [included],And, by the way, you have to give us attribution or credit.” Then there was another one coming out of MIT called the GNU General Public License that was very different. That one said,If you use this software and you combine it with anything, that combination also has to be under this license.” Technically the term wasfree software,” not open source. If you took this code and you combined it with your code, the combination also had to be free software that was crazy to the industry.

The idea of open source and free software was quite radical. I came across it early in my licensing work even before the web, actually. Clients would bring in the license and say,What does this mean? If I use this piece of software, what does it mean for my business and what am I legally obligated to do?” When you would describe it to them, they would just be astonished and think,Why would anybody in the world do that?

The idea of collaboratingthat you would share anything, that you could build the software that waythat was a radical, and I mean radical, idea, even in the early 2000s. I think Firefox was the first open-source consumer product that had any real success. Before Firefox, people said,Oh, that open-source or free software, it’s good for geeks and developers [who don’t mind if you] make something that’s really hard to use. Developers will spend the time and figure it out, but you can never have open-source software in a commercial setting.

What were some of the first ripples you saw of Firefox’s influence?

[As] Firefox became a consumer product, there was a large amount of discussion about what it was and why and how it came to be. We saw people asking,What is this thing? What is open source? Why would anybody collaborate? Why would anybody work on something they didn’t get paid for? How could volunteers ever create anything decent?

I did press interviews on these topics, and one of the early, early things [I did] was describe how a sharing or collaborative economy could actually occur and why it might have value, why people in companies might contribute to it [even] if they didn’t outright own everything.

Then I began getting calls or requests from people doing other things, everything from open science and citizen science to open data, open government, open architecture. Because Firefox was a consumer product, it caused people to know the name and to talk about it. It also came on the cusp of this swell of [people] wanting to collaborate.

How did you respond to skeptics who asked,Why would anybody work on something they didn’t get paid for?”

To many people at the time, the idea that writing software is fun or interesting or pleasurable was odd. It wasn’t yet a world where you would want every kid, ideally, to understand the basics of programming.

I would say,Well, lots of people have hobbies. You may or may not think of programming as a hobby, but think about the people around you, what they love in their lives. How many people are lucky enough to love their job? Not all of us, for sure. How many people maybe like their job but have a terrible manager? How many people feel like they really get the recognition they deserve? How many people have any autonomy or flexibility in their team engagement? How many people actually get to create something in a shared fashion in some sort of community that they’ve chosen and feels good to them?” The numbers, they’re not 100 percent.

Were you ever concerned about positioning Firefox as the product of hobbyists?

I’m not saying that the work is a hobby. I’m explaining why people do things when they don’t get paid. At first people are like,Why would anybody do that?

I’d say to them,What gives you meaning in your life?

[They’d answer,]My kids,” of course, but [also]I love gardening. My hobby is X.

I’m like,There’s your answer. Who’s paying you to garden? Who’s paying you to do the things that you love?

A large part of Firefox, a good chunk of the code, was from volunteers. Our QA teams were all volunteers. Today there’s a lot of automated testing, but there was much less on the scale of the web 20 years ago. All our localization teamsif you get a product, a version of Firefox that’s not the U.S. English-language version there’s some set of volunteers who have created the version that makes sense in your language and region.

In fact, we had one discussion with Walt Mossberg at the AllThingsD conferenceit’s called Recode now. [Walt’s question was]Why would I trust volunteers to do localization or support?

We explained,If you don’t have volunteers, typically you hire somebody. They’re usually contractors in the country you want a version in. Why would you trust paid contractors, who are doing this for a ton of products, more than a local group of people who want the world wide web”today we would say the internet“in their language for themselves and the people they care about, and are determined to get the best experience?

We went back and forth for a while and finally we were like,Walt, what do you think of Firefox?

He’s like,It’s really great.

We were like,Okay. There it is.

Certainly volunteers can’t do everything. Some open-source projects, of course, are all volunteer, but in a big consumer product it’s hard to do everything. You need more time and attention.

When Mozilla spun off from AOL/Netscape, what was the thinking behind the decision to have two separate organizations, a nonprofit and a corporation?

I think we all understood that the heart of Mozilla is a public asset. It [doesn’t exist just] for the benefit of the people making it, and that should be reflected in its nonprofit [status].

One of the unsolved questions today is: How do nonprofits sustain themselves? Nonprofits are struggling for every dollar, no matter how much good they’re doing. And our nonprofits are governed by the tax authority, in the U.S. anyway, so the question of whether a nonprofit can do anything other than beg you for money is pretty tough sometimes. Eventually we saw Firefox was generating revenue from search, like other browsers, and thought,Let’s not get into a fight with the IRS over how nonprofits can earn revenue.

There are some nonprofits that have a subsidiary that they just use to generate money. What the subsidiary does may or may not even be related to the mission. But that’s not what we do at Mozilla. The subsidiary is always working to fulfill the nonprofit mission: an internet that’s open and accessible to all.

Firefox, as a consumer product, is trying to make the internet more open by building more open products and by building products that are owned not by the employees or the founders and the shareholders, but by the nonprofit. We think that the internet is so fundamental to all aspects of life now that we need some part of it [to be] aimed at public benefit, social benefit, or social good. The profit motive is a fine thing and drives lots of activity and raises capital and all that stuff, but some part of the infrastructure of our lives needs to care about us as human beings.

One of the principles of the MozillaManifesto” says:Commercial involvement in the development of the Internet brings many benefits; a balance between commercial profit and public benefit is critical.” How do you envision that balance being maintained? What makes people choose the public good when it’s not in the service of profit?

We feel that the balance today is wildly out of whack, and the immense amount of riches being generated is almost completely separated from paying for the harm that’s caused. We don’t have or even claim to have all the answers. At Mozilla we try to help maintain balance by building parts of that infrastructure.

It is tough right now. We have not been as successful in redressing that balance as we would like. In the mobile spacelike Microsoft and Nokia, we couldn’t actually overcome the duopoly of Google and Appleour first big product effort didn’t succeed. What does one do about it? Commercial interests provide a lot of value. We don’t advocate that government builds or regulates everything. That’s got a ton of problems itself. We see a mixture of competition, which leads to consumer choice; consumer understanding; and regulation.

Let’s take privacy [as an example]. For many years, the conventional wisdom has beenOh, consumers will say they care about privacy but they won’t do anything about it.” It was hard to see consumers taking action. But now it’s becoming more apparent that, given a choice, consumers will act.

I’ll use the Facebook Container as an example. It’s an add-on for Firefox that limits Facebook’s ability to track you across websites. We launched it last spring. It’s interesting, because it’s pretty obscuresomebody has to actually come to understand [how Facebook tracks them on the web to want it]. Yet it was our fastest-growing add-on.

[Consumers are] starting to understand more about what’s happening. Of course, it doesn’t help to understand what some of these products and experiences are doing if you have no choice. The market on its own is not providing that [competition]. That has to be a question of do we care enough to regulate? And do we know enough to regulate?

You’ve worked on expanding what tech education looks like, primarily with the Mozilla Foundation’s Responsible Computer Science Challenge. What do you envision a more robust STEM education might look like?

What I envision is that those who are educated in STEM have included within their STEM education the tools that allow them to understand something of humanity. It’s not a panacea, but right now we don’t have a systematized vocabulary or tools or frameworks or discussion forums to raise the question: What does this mean for humanity?

One thing that really struck me in conversations with user experience designers was that [their design criteria was essentially]Keep people happy so they stay on our website or stay in our service.” And that sounds great, [but] what really seems to keep people engaged is not happiness. It’s conspiracy and outrage and fear.

Right now we don’t have the tools to address [this issue]. If you don’t have a basic set of tools to even think about something, then everybody has to figure it out on their own, which is long and slow and not as effective.

People have said,Oh, Mitchell, you’re really naive because, sure, maybe I’ll have the tools to talk about [an issue], but if I’m an employee at a company and this is what I’m supposed to do, how’s that going to change? Even if I’m the owner or the creator or the founder or the CEO, if it’s more money this way and less money that way, it doesn’t matter if I have the tools to talk about it.

I think that’s true in some regard. Yet we do have, for example, medical ethics. If you want a society that cares about what happens to itself, you have to educate people, give them tools, and give [those tools] some legitimacy to include in decision-making. In many places, the discussion is stillTech is just tech. We shouldn’t think about any of these things.

The idea that it’s neutral because it’s zeros and ones and computers and it isn’t biased in any way, that making cool stuff is the equivalent of doing good.

Yeah, that’s the way Silicon Valley has seen itself: that just making cool stuff is doing good. It’s how we’ve been trying to have our cake and eat it, too.

About the author

Jaime Green is the romance review columnist for The New York Times and series editor for Best American Science and Nature Writing. Her first book, about the intersection of science and sci-fi in the search for life beyond Earth, is forthcoming from Hanover Square Press.

@jaimealyse

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