It began at 7 a.m. (U.S. Eastern time) on Monday, March 20 with “a contingent, improvised performance, lecture and creative experience” using music, poetry, and discussion. After that, there was a livestreamed Zine Party featuring music spun by a DJ in a club in Jakarta, Indonesia, followed later in the morning by an Opening Circle led by the event organizers.
It ended with a Closing Circle, followed by a Closing Party, on the afternoon of Friday, March 24. In between, there were 400-plus sessions—performances, audience participation opportunities, film screenings, social events, an AI Séance, a virtual reality science fair, and traditional presentations, all organized into 18 themes that included Data Stewardship, Developer Focused, Bias, and Movement Building. An announced 6,000 participants, representing 138 countries, were on hand.
What was it? It was MozFest 2023, billed as “part art, tech and society convening, part maker festival, and the premier gathering for activists in diverse global movements fighting for a more humane digital world.” Aptly, it was named MozFest (the Mozilla Festival) rather than MozCon (the Mozilla Conference). It was radically different from the usual conferences of information professionals.
This NewsBreak focuses on some of the more traditional events that took place during the week.
Mozilla at 25: The Future, the Fediverse, and More
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Mozilla Foundation. Little time was spent celebrating the past quarter century, though. Instead, the focus was on strategic directions for the next 25 years. A panel of several senior leaders highlighted some recent initiatives and the principles guiding Mozilla’s strategy.
First was this year’s hot topic: artificial intelligence (AI). (In the discussion, it was noted that we have moved on from last year’s hot topic, cryptocurrency.) Mozilla’s AI focus is to bring together developers and those concerned with ethics, equity, multicultural perspectives, and other social values to collaborate on human-centered and socially positive development. A Responsible AI Challenge will initiate this work. Also announced during the week, although not clearly explained at MozFest, was Mozilla.ai, an open source startup dedicated to building “trustworthy and open-source AI.”
Taking a longer view, panelists positioned Mozilla as an organization that will take technology risks that market-driven companies can’t in order to foster innovation in humane technology. This will work through advocacy, funding, and organizing on a global scale. Mozilla’s Common Voice dataset was mentioned as a key asset, usable in spreading English-language AI and other advances to other languages. It’s claimed to be the largest dataset of non-English languages in existence. From an end-user perspective, Mozilla hopes to overcome the common dilemma of whether to adhere to values like privacy or to compromise those values in order to gain access to the functionality we need.
It was curious that Mozilla’s flagship products, the Firefox browser and perhaps Mozilla VPN, were barely mentioned in the discussion. What’s their future? The omission was noted by audience members, who posted several comments and questions that weren’t addressed.
A technology that could have been part of the future of Mozilla discussion, but wasn’t, is the Fediverse. Fortunately, it was the subject of at least two other sessions. The Fediverse was thrust into the spotlight during last year’s takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk. As many Twitter users cast about for alternatives to Twitter, the social media app mentioned most prominently was Mastodon. And Mastodon is part of the Fediverse. Session presenter Ian Forrester described the Fediverse as a network using W3C’s ActivityPub protocol and supporting a variety of federated servers that can inter-communicate. In addition to Mastodon, apps include PixelFed, PeerTube, Owncast, and Castopod. In another session, a panel of experienced developers of open social media apps discussed issues like trust, safety, and privacy in a decentralized, federated collection of services. Among the developments they mentioned was Mozilla’s implementation of its own Mastodon instance.
Another of Mozilla’s future-oriented initiatives is its Data Futures Lab. One of its activities is to fund projects intended to reorient the stewardship of data toward the public good and away from commercial exploitation. A session devoted to currently funded projects covered the following examples:
- DataKind’s project to expand broadband access in public spaces, emphasizing equity of access in economically disadvantaged areas
- The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), which enables internet users to track internet censorship
- POSMO (translation required), a Swiss “ethical data broker for mobility data”
- Tattle, an India-based organization combating inaccurate and harmful content
- Tidepool, whose “mission is to make diabetes data more accessible, actionable, and meaningful for people with diabetes, their care teams, and researchers”
- Mozilla’s own YouTube RegretsReporter project, a crowdsourced audit of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, involving a community of more than 60,000 people
The Internet—Diagnosis and Treatment
Beyond strategic initiatives, and beyond entertainment, many programs were devoted to diagnosing the contemporary internet and treating its many maladies. Here are takeaways from several notable sessions.
Mozilla’s fifth Internet Health Report focused on trends in AI: who is using it, who is investing in it, and how it is affecting societies around the world. Audience feedback included suggestions that Mozilla coordinate with others doing similar analyses, such as the United Nations, and that it not lose sight of basic, broader metrics of internet health.
Your car is not just a mode of transportation, it’s a computer on wheels that is constantly collecting and uploading data, including from your connected cellphone. A fascinating presentation delved into the data automobiles collect, what they do with it, and what individuals can and can’t do to limit this collection.
Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center maintains a unique database of content takedown requests called Lumen. It has requests made to Google, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, Medium, WordPress, and similar intermediaries, enabling researchers to study patterns of the use and apparent abuse of the takedown process. Begun in 2002, it now holds more than 25 million requests relating to some 4.5 billion URLs.
Internet regulation around the world is largely led by the European Union, which has moved first and implemented the highest standards of consumer protection. In the U.S., nationwide regulation has been paralyzed by political divisiveness; when regulation occurs, it is justified more by national security considerations than by the goal of protecting individual consumers. Adoption of European Union-like regulations in the Global South brings special challenges. For example, in India, the goal of decolonializing regulations has had positive and negative effects. It facilitated the implementation of Net Neutrality policy, but it has also been used to expand government power at the expense of both big tech companies and individual rights.
The interactions between social justice values and technological innovation flow in both directions: values influencing innovation and innovations prioritizing products and services that support social justice initiatives. Overall, the Mozilla Foundation seems to be pivoting away from running its own projects and toward funding new ventures that tackle both halves of this relationship. It’s early days for this strategy, and future MozFests will provide opportunities to watch it unfold.