A community activist and technology executive of 20-plus years, Mark Surman currently serves as the Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation. The following is a transcript of Mark’s opening keynote address at the 2014 Mozilla Festival, taking place October 25 and 26 at Ravensbourne College campus in London.
It really is exciting to see this global grassroots movement grow up so quickly around teaching people what they can do with the web. One reason I’ve put so much of my own time into this movement is that it’s practical and useful to real humans: focussed on fun, learning, know-how.
But, even if subtly, it’s also quite political. It’s focused on giving people the independence and agency that come with understanding how technology works in an era where technology is everything. It’s focused on freedom.
This is what I want to talk about today: the subtle politics of the web. Specifically, I want to talk about three themes:
I want to talk about freedom. I want to talk about control. And I want to talk about citizenship – about how we all need to think of ourselves and those around us as citizens of the web.
As the web grows to over five billion people in the next 10 years how many of these people will feel like citizens?
But first, I want you to close your eyes and imagine. Imagine the first time you used a computer. Imagine the first time you went online. What did it make you feel? What did you do with that feeling?
I see a lot of smiling faces in the audience. I’m smiling too. My first computer was a TRS80 Model I.
I bought it with money I’d saved from my paper route. When you turned it on, you just got a command prompt and you could write programs in BASIC right there. I wrote a little program that looped, “Mark is cool” across the screen over and over. I kept writing different versions of that program for weeks.
What did that make me feel? I felt that I had control over that machine; I could make it do things — I could express myself. As I kid who grew up in the golden age of 1970s television that feeling was powerful. I could use the machine to express myself instead of having the machine express itself to me.
Freedom and Independence
The feelings that were sparked by that computer gave me a sense of independence and freedom. They nurtured a sense of agency. And, frankly, those feelings are the seeds of who I am today as a person. I often ask this ‘your first computer’ question over dinner. As I meet Mozillians in different countries around the world they tell me about the simple programs they wrote, the games they played, the knowledge they discovered. The friends they made in far away places. The poem they wrote and honed with love. As they tell me these things, they are almost always smiling.
I suspect we all had experiences with computers and the internet that opened up new worlds and new possibilities. And that in some sense filled us with the spirit of independence, agency and freedom; that made us value these things and – at least for me – that turned these things into my values, into the things I stand for.
This feeling — and these values — are a big part of what I mean when I talk about being a citizen of the web and I believe all of us in this room are very much citizens of the web.
But I have a big question: As the web grows to over five billion people in the next 10 years how many of these people will feel like citizens? How will they feel this sense of freedom, independence and agency? I believe that all of them should. I believe we all should be — we all deserve to be — citizens of the web. But I increasingly fear that this will not be the case. Why? Because that feeling of freedom and independence that I first felt increasingly feels in tension with a feeling of control – and being controlled.
I’ve always thought of the Internet as a massive public square filled with commerce and conversation and creativity, a place that belongs to all of us, where we are all citizens. But more and more the internet feels like a shopping mall: A place to shop. A place where we meet our friends, a watering hole. A place that has many of the same attributes as a public square but is not truly public. Someone owns it.
The places I spend my time online – my Android phone, WhatsApp, Facebook – are exactly like a shopping mall. They feel public and open, but they are not. Like a shopping mall, the person, or company, that owns these places sets the rules. Facebook controls the kinds of things I can post and how they look. The Play store decides who can sell – and what I can buy. WhatsApp decides what platforms I can use, or not use, if want to talk to my friends.
The owners of the mall control what is possible, and what is not. As individuals we’re not the citizens of these places. We’re customers and we’re not in control.
Maybe more importantly, the shopping mall also influences what people think is possible, especially if that is the only place you shop and meet your friends. If my whole life is in Play store apps, I probably don’t know I could make a web page; if all my conversations and friends are in WhatsApp, I don’t know there are other ways to communicate.
For me, this question of imagination and literacy is another place we see the tension between freedom and control. I want everyone to know what is possible on the internet; I want to spark their imaginations and set them free. The big platforms do not – instead they build imaginary walls.
The third place I feel this tension between freedom and control is at a global level – especially in emerging markets. It struck me recently that the places which were once the subjects of the great European empires are also the places where we will see the greatest internet growth in the next 10 years. And these places we call emerging markets and the developing world are the places where the economic empires of the digital age are most powerful today.
Consider this: In North America, Android has about 68% of smartphone market share. In Asia and Africa, Android has 90% market share – give or take a few points by country. Android is becoming the Windows 98 of the developing world, the monopoly and the control point; the arbitrator of what is possible.
Also consider that Facebook and WhatsApp together control 80% of the messaging market and are owned by one company. It’s not that near monopoly market share that scares me most, it’s the nature of the mindshare that Facebook and WhatsApp have in most of the emerging markets.
“What’s the Internet?”
My friend, Laura de Reynal, just came back from doing Webmaker research in Bangladesh, she asked many of the people she talked to – new smartphone users – whether they use their phone to go on the internet. They often asked back: “What’s the internet? I don’t know what the internet is. I just use my phone for Facebook and WhatsApp.”
Across the developing world Facebook not only controls what’s possible for it’s users it controls what is imaginable.It’s not the Facebooks and Googles of the world that concern me, per se. I use their products and in many cases, I love them. I also believe they have done good in the world. But what worries me is that like the European powers in the 18th and 19th centuries they’re becoming monopolies of power; they are becoming empires exerting immense control over how people experience the web and over what the web – and our society – will become in the future.
I believe that each and every one of the five billion people who will be online 10 years from now should be a full citizen of the web. I also believe that the growing empires of the digital age stand in the way of this. The likely consequences of these empires are many: The ultimate loss of control – and loss of diversity – in how we each connect and communicate; the inability of entrepreneurs in emerging economies to get their ideas off the ground as global companies have already monopolized the markets they live. The stunted growth of digital economies in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America, with the huge chunks of internet profits flowing back to a few companies in California and China. The further expansion of the surveillance society, with ad networks and governments using the oligopoly of social platforms to track our every move.
We are on a trajectory that is headed towards all these things – or they are already happening. This is not the internet that I want for me or my children and it is not the internet I want billions of people to experience when they first come online. I want them to experience the same kind freedom, independence and agency I did.
For that to happen, we will need to seriously shake the foundations of these empires.
If I’m honest we don’t know how we do that yet. At least, I personally do not have the master plan. But I do believe we know how to start and, I am steeled by the fact that we have done this before. Mozilla has stared down empires in the past – and won. We got people to participate. We built software that both delights and empowers. We taught people that they have choice and agency. Build, teach and empower: that was our formula. It helped us shake the foundations of Microsoft’s empire and shift and shape the trajectory of the web.
If we want to do this again, if we want to face of the internet empires of today – be they companies or countries – we need to start to build something; we need to start teaching others. We all need to participate.
These are our first steps. Most of you have already taken this step. That is exactly what MozFest is about and I don’t say that lightly or metaphorically. We have people here at MozFest working on mobile, working on web literacy, working on the internet of things. We have people trying to figure out ways to build independence and agency into all aspects of internet life.
There are people here developing software that will make it possible for anyone with a phone to make an app; trying to figure out how we create an explosion of local content – and local language content – on smartphones as a way to build independence and agency into a smartphone world increasingly dominated by monoculture.
We have people all over the building, inventing and honing ways to teach people what’s possible with the web, teaching people how to code, to create and connect and help more people become citizens of the web. We have people here hacking away on the internet of things, trying to find a way towards a world of connected devices that are understood and controlled by everyday people and not controlled by the hands of empires.
You can join in, you can help. That is what MozFest is about. Look around: We are a motley crew. We are coders, journalists, designers, artists, hackers, teachers and scientists. We all do different things everyday but we are here and bonded by a common goal: To put the web on a trajectory that is more about freedom than about control and where we are all citizens. I desperately want to meet this goal and I believe we can just as we did when they launched Firefox 10 year ago.
Many of those people and thousands more who worked beside them are still a part of Mozilla today and, as we look into the future you are those people; we are those people. We are the people who are rolling up our sleeves, who are building things, who are teaching others.
We are the people who will shake the foundations of empires and invite 5 billion people to be citizens of the web.
Let’s get started.