What Is the Point of Mozilla?

""

Is Mozilla a software organization or an advocacy group?

Few journeys in the world of open source have been as exciting as Mozilla's. Its birth was dramatic. Netscape, the pioneering company whose Netscape Navigator browser shaped the early Web, had enjoyed the most successful IPO up until then, valuing the 18-month-year-old company at nearly $3 billion. That was in 1995. Three years later, the company was in freefall, as the browser wars took their toll, and Microsoft continued to gain market share with its Internet Explorer, launched alongside Windows 95. Netscape's response was bold and unprecedented. On January 27, 1998, it announced that it was making the source code for the next generation of its web browser freely available under a GPL-like license.

Although of huge symbolic importance for the still-young Free Software world—the term "open source" was coined only a month after Netscape's announcement—the release and transformation of the code for what became the Mozilla browser suite was fraught with difficulties. The main problem was trying to re-write the often problematic legacy code of Netscape Navigator. Mozilla 1.0 was finally released in 2002, but by then, Internet Explorer dominated the sector. The failure of the Mozilla browser to make much of an impact ultimately spurred development of the completely new Firefox browser. Version 1.0 was launched in 2004, after three years of work.

Microsoft's failure to update its flabby Internet Explorer 6 browser for more than five years meant that successive releases of Firefox were steadily gaining market share—and fans. As I wrote in Linux Journal in June 2008:

Three things are striking about the recent launch of Firefox 3. First, the unanimity about the quality of the code: practically everyone thinks it's better in practically every respect. Secondly, the way in which the mainstream media covered its launch: it was treated as a normal, important tech story—gone are the days of supercilious anecdotes about those wacky, sandal-wearing free software anoraks. And finally—and perhaps most importantly—the scale and intensity of participation by the millions of people who have downloaded the software in the last week.

My hope then was that the evident success and enthusiasm would drive Firefox to ever-greater market share, and help spread open source and its values to a wider audience. As the Statcounter graph of browser market share worldwide shows, Firefox did indeed continue to achieve greater market penetration for a while. In November 2009, it held around 32% of the sector globally. But since then, Firefox's market share has steadily but inexorably fallen; it now stands at around 5%. Google's Chrome, meanwhile, has ascended to 59%. Even if we are rightly doubtful about the detailed accuracy of those figures, the trends are inarguable: Firefox peaked a decade ago and shows no sign of halting its slow decline.

The Mozilla project has stumbled in various ways during that time. Valuable energy and resources were diverted to the Firefox phone project, which started in 2013 and closed in 2016. In 2014, Mozilla foolishly flirted with placing ads on Firefox. The next year, Mitchell Baker, Chair of the Mozilla Foundation and self-styled Chief Lizard Wrangler, posed the question of "whether Mozilla remains the best organizational and legal home for Thunderbird", Mozilla's standalone email client. This caused many to wonder whether Thunderbird's days were numbered. Fortunately, in 2017, Mozilla confirmed that it would continue to "serve as the legal and fiscal home for the Thunderbird project".

Perhaps Mozilla's biggest blunder was its decision to add support for the closed-source DRM W3C standard Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) in Firefox. As well as ignoring good technical reasons why this was the wrong thing to do, Mozilla's blessing of EME effectively legitimized DRM and validated it as a standard part of the hitherto open web. Although supposedly "only" for video streams, EME sets a precedent. Given the insatiable appetite the copyright industry has for control, it seems only a matter of time before DRM is applied to web pages themselves—no copying allowed. What's particularly sad is Mozilla's weak attempt in 2014 to justify the move:

We have come to the point where Mozilla not implementing the W3C EME specification means that Firefox users have to switch to other browsers to watch content restricted by DRM.

Despite Mozilla's kowtowing to the video streaming industries, Firefox users have continued to switch to other browsers anyway: market share has dropped from 14% in 2014 to today's woeful 5%. In other words, Mozilla betrayed its core mission to preserve the open internet, for no gain whatsoever.

Meanwhile, Mozilla has flourished financially. The most recent "State of Mozilla" report says that in 2016 various deals with search engines brought in an astonishing $520 million. And to its credit, Mozilla has started to deploy those resources in all kinds of interesting and innovative ways. Reflecting this, in 2016, it released its strategy document "Fueling the Movement", with the subtitle "Ensuring the Internet is a global public resource, open and accessible to all". That's rather ironic, given its support a couple years earlier for DRM, which has the sole purpose of making online material private, closed and inaccessible for most people.

The 2016 State of Mozilla report describes some of the organization's more recent work in the field of advocacy:

The Mozilla Foundation runs campaigns to educate and empower citizens across the web. In 2016, this included an education campaign on the critical role encryption plays in everyday internet life. Launched amidst the February 2016 Apple v. FBI case, campaign videos simplified complex online security issues for the public and the media. Over the course of 2016 and 2017, Mozilla also ran campaigns around the need for more creative, internet-friendly copyright in the European Union and on the continued importance of protecting net neutrality in the United States. In late 2017, Mozilla launched a "privacy not included" holiday shopping guide reviewing toys and other electronics—this was a first step in a large scale plan for consumer engagement on data and privacy issues.

The organization launched what it called its "Mozilla Manifesto" back in 2007, which includes the first hints of an increasing emphasis on work outside the software field. The 2016 State of Mozilla report, and the projects that have followed it, confirm that this is an increasingly active area for the project. That's hugely welcome; privacy, encryption, net neutrality and security are under threat as never before. But it raises an important question: should Mozilla be a software project that uses some of its resources for key advocacy work or an advocacy organization funded by its programs?

Mozilla's ill-judged adoption of the EME standard downgraded Firefox from a long-standing beacon of software freedom to a well-featured browser much like any other. By contrast, Mozilla's not-for-profit status, exceptional financial resources, and worldwide network of smart people passionate about the open internet and its values, mean that it has unique advantages as a trusted advocacy organization.

Open source has won, so Mozilla's original mission to promote free software is no longer a priority. Instead, what we do desperately need is a powerful, truly independent voice willing to speak up for ordinary users of the internet on today's key issues and to defend uncompromisingly their broader interests in the online world. Mozilla is probably the only organization capable of doing this credibly. It urgently needs to broaden and deepen its already substantial advocacy activities yet further—for the common good, and its own relevance.

Glyn Moody has been writing about the internet since 1994, and about free software since 1995. In 1997, he wrote the first mainstream feature about GNU/Linux and free software, which appeared in Wired. In 2001, his book Rebel Code: Linux And The Open Source Revolution was published. Since then, he has written widely about free software and digital rights. He has a blog, and he is active on social media: @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+.
Load Disqus comments