Editor’s Note: Mitchell Baker is Mozilla’s cofounder and chairwoman. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
Last Thursday, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg broke her silence on the Cambridge Analytica scandal and said, “We’re open to regulation.” Founder Mark Zuckerberg made similar comments to CNN the day before.
And earlier this month, Google announced a $300 million initiative to address the rise of false information online. “The last thing you want as a search engine is to see the open internet become a race to the bottom,” Philipp Schindler, Google’s Chief Business Officer, declared.
“Techlash” is having an impact. With growing awareness of threats to privacy, access and innovation, as well as increasing suspicion of super-conglomerates in the areas of search, content, e-commerce and social media, we’re finally seeing pervasive pessimism yield some change. But there’s still a long way to go.
It’s time we all admit a simple fact: Tech is not value-neutral. Technologies embody the goals and values of the people who create them. Until recently much of tech industry has lived with the comfortable certainty that whatever is good for their company is good for society.
Now we are all learning how untrue this can be.
The easiest and best response is competition, innovation and consumer choice. However, the dominance of the big players makes this difficult and unlikely. In the absence of competition, consumers can apply pressure. Consumer pressure validates that the system has problems. When consumers can’t abandon a product, even the reaction of usage has an impact. And of course, consumer pressure suggests regulatory legislation might be a realistic fear.
Twenty years ago, when I co-founded Mozilla, a free and open-source technology community, the current crisis in Silicon Valley would have been impossible to fathom. In its early days, the web was almost universally seen as a force for good. It enabled anyone to access knowledge and communicate their views to the world.
Small entrepreneurs could finally compete with bigger firms on a level playing field. Distant possibilities, like universal access to once-reserved knowledge, seemed within reach. Some potential problems surfaced – such as the ease of one-click copying of images – but overall a sense of giddiness prevailed.
Today’s reality is almost unrecognizable. The biggest tech companies (especially Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft) are now such a dominant part of web life that for many users, they have become more-or-less synonymous with the internet itself. This means when Google tracks users’ locations against their wishes, or when deceptive ads on Facebook distort an election, users can feel the entire web has been corrupted.
The big tech players are roundly criticized for not doing enough to stem the tide of bots and disinformation that distorted recent elections. The European Commission imposed its largest antitrust fine ($2.7 billion) on Google for manipulating search-engine results to favor its own platforms against other services. Other regulators throughout Europe – and in the United States – appear poised to scrutinize Big Tech more closely than ever. If the biggest tech firms hope to retain public trust, and to play a positive role, then they need to undertake a great deal of reflection and reform.
But it’s also important to recognize the internet is far broader, deeper and more inclusive than the Big Five. A handful of firms shouldn’t color our perceptions of what’s possible on the internet. For the past two decades, the internet has helped billions of people become more educated, informed and empowered. Developers have collaborated to create life-changing open-source software. Social movements have driven tidal waves of political change.
We can build on what the internet has done right. But, for positive reform to take hold, we all need to engage in serious thinking about values. This includes tech’s biggest players, in particular.
A decade ago, we at Mozilla wrote a manifesto to articulate the values we hoped to help embed in Internet life. That early document sought to codify what we knew then – that the internet is an indispensable public resource, that open access to the internet is a basic right, that the internet exists to empower individual human beings and that individual privacy and security are essential.
Today, in response to the current state of affairs, we’re expanding our manifesto to include a Pledge for a Healthy Internet – or four commitments that will guide our work in these areas. We are committed:
- To an internet that includes all the peoples of the earth – where a person’s demographic characteristics do not determine their online access, opportunities or quality of experience.
- To an internet that promotes civil discourse, human dignity and individual expression.
- To an internet that elevates critical thinking, reasoned argument, shared knowledge and verifiable facts.
- To an internet that catalyzes collaboration among diverse communities working together for the common good.
All this is ambitious, given the current state of the internet. These ideas won’t come to life on their own. As in any human institution, real transformation will come from a huge diversity of sources. That’s why we’re creating an opportunity for anyone to sign the pledge and start consciously implementing the principles.
Policy change is also part of the equation. Recent events demonstrate that market incentives may not be sufficient to realize a healthy web. As Tristan Harris has pointed out, much of the internet is now engineered to “hijack our psychological vulnerabilities.” Even many captains of industry – including Zuckerberg and Sandberg – have now noted that a government role can be healthy. And there’s evidence of bipartisan interest in exploring what’s necessary: how the technology giants and a healthy society should coexist.
There’s no secret strategy to overcoming the backlash against tech. While Silicon Valley was once defined by utopian dreams, life on the internet was probably always going to look much like life everywhere else – brilliant, troubling, messy and full of possibility.
It’s time to declare a positive set of principles to help renew the original promise of the internet – as a free, open, empowering system where facts, privacy rights and dignity can rule the day.