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Mozilla and the Future of the Open Internet

The company's Firefox browser, which marks its 10th anniversary today, helped spark a wave of thinking about “open” in modern life.

People often ask me: Why are you still involved so deeply with Mozilla? Firefox won. Why haven’t you gone on to do something else? Does Mozilla still have work to do?

The answer is: Yes, Firefox did win in the desktop era. We changed the fundamental landscape by bringing a new experience and a new view of the world to hundreds of millions of people. However, there is still essential work to do, as the Web still faces real threats today — and likely will again in the future. Here are details about what’s happening as part of the 10th anniversary of the Firefox Web browser.

A decade ago, the threat was the Web being gathered up and controlled by a single integrated centralized organization — in that era, Microsoft. The browser had become part of Windows — irrelevant as a product on its own. It looked liked the Internet was going to be a stack of Microsoft products, from Windows to Internet Explorer to Office to servers to file formats to protocols. We didn’t want that to happen. Which is why we were working on Firefox — to shift the trajectory of the Internet.

Everyone who paid attention “knew” that what we were trying to do was impossible. And everyone else simply didn’t care. They didn’t see that the future could be different — and much, much better. It took six long years — including many dark days where people thought Mozilla was a marginal open source project at best, and a failure at worst — to create a fully formed, polished consumer product called Firefox. Only then did consumers and industry experts come to realize how different the world could be.

When this happened we started to move toward “winning.” Tens of millions of people installed the browser in no time. Mozilla and Firefox became both respected and sustainable. And, more importantly in many ways, we helped spark a wave of thinking about “open” in modern life — open data, open government, open science, citizen journalism, open architecture, etc. — that was completely new. We had achieved a great deal.

Winning on the desktop was great. And if our goal was just to build a successful product, I might have simply moved on. But our goal was — and is — quite different. We created Firefox to build openness and opportunity in our lives and into the Internet industry. That is our mission. And it is a mission that is even more relevant today than it was 10 years ago.

Today, this goal is at risk again. Many of the principles we associate with the Web — openness, decentralization and the ability of anyone to publish without asking permission from others — are endangered.

Normally, infrastructure is built to be highly centralized. The bigger it gets, the more centralized it is. And the more centralized it gets, the more one has to get permission to be able to do anything. The World Wide Web is a rare exception. It is explicitly designed to have no center, and to allow people on the edges — that’s you and me and the rest of humanity — to make decisions. Ordinary people and small businesses can create opportunities and try things for ourselves without asking some large centralized business for permission. The Web allows boundless innovation from everywhere; it is a connection point that does not dictate what happens as people connect.

It feels like this is changing — like the ability to act without permission is slipping away into “mobile” or “social” or “big data.” A choice of device will determine much of your online experiences — the software and content available to you, what payment systems you can use, where your data goes, which if any of your data you can manage, the way you identify yourself to the world. People and businesses are able to innovate within the frameworks determined by larger businesses. One can only act as you’re given permission.

Frankly, this direction for the Internet sucks. And it isn’t very different from the “Microsoft stack” version of the Internet that was emerging 10 years ago. The possibilities of mobile, social and big data are astonishing. But the current implementation drives all of us into a world of monitoring and control and opportunities determined by others far, far away from our lives. I don’t want to be owned and tracked by giant multinationals or governments, or told which of the Web’s astonishing possibilities I’m allowed to enjoy. I don’t want that for the rest of the world’s citizens, either. This is not the trajectory that I think the Internet should be on.

Of course, changing this trajectory feels impossible to most people — just as it did 10 years ago. But I believe we can have great technology, exciting products, great user experiences, innovation, and freedom, as well. That’s why Mozilla’s here. And it is why I am still at Mozilla.

Figuring out how to do this is hard work and takes time. Firefox OS is a big step in the right direction — an effort to put the open and decentralized technologies of the Web at the heart of where the Internet goes next. We’re currently trying to show this can work on smartphones. We want to show that the devices in our pockets can be as open as the Web on our desktops. We also hope that Firefox OS and related projects can bring these values to all devices, including what’s currently called the Internet of Things. And ultimately we hope we can build a world where all our devices — and all the data we create that connects them — give us choice, independence and agency.

Fortunately, I’m not alone in believing this is possible. Mozilla pulls together the people who want exceptional technology and the freedoms of the Web combined. We want this with our devices, our data, our identity, and our privacy and security. And — together — we are building this, as we did before. It’s a huge and important challenge. I hope you will join us.

Mitchell Baker is executive chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation. As the leader of the Mozilla Project, she is responsible for organizing and motivating a massive, worldwide, collective of employees and volunteers who are breathing new life into the Internet with the Firefox Web browser, Firefox OS and other Mozilla products. As executive chairwoman of Mozilla, Baker continues her commitment to an open, innovative Web and the infinite possibilities it presents. Reach her @MitchellBaker.

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