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Controlled By a Cabal of its Enemies

Online freedom and politicking the source

Spring 2021

Cyberpunks and digerati

"We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity."
- John Perry Barlow in A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace

For a long time, the Internet user base was fairly homogeneous. The early users were mostly highly educated and relatively affluent, a trend which continued well into the middle of the 2000:s. AOL may have created the Eternal September in 1993, but even the newbies arriving then were early adopters from certain geographical locations and similar social strata.

The consensus at this time seemed to be that with its slightly anarchic organization and possibilities for anonymity, anyone, anywhere could use the Internet to further their cause and spread their ideas. Finally, the voiceless would be given a voice thanks to a shiny, futuristic onslaught of ones and zeros! These were not views held just by scruffy, basement-dwelling hackers: John Perry Barlow (of Grateful Dead fame) wrote his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace while attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 1996 - a place for elite movers and shakers if there ever was one.

Open source allegiances

Businesses are based on various allegiances, perhaps most apparently the one between a company and its shareholders, where the latter constitute the feudal lord and the former is the vassal expected to deliver profit. For consumer software, there was traditionally an allegiance of trust between the user and the vendor: trust in that the software did what it said on the tin. For this, the vendor was rewarded with money, because the user was also the customer. For a long time, this trust wasn't much of an issue, because home computers lacked both the superfluous hardware resources and the constant Internet connection required for the vendor to try any real shenanigans.

As the online economy matured (or perhaps mutated) into a nightmarish swamp monster of tracking and ads, the user and customer diverged into two different entities. The vendor's allegiance still lie with those who pay, but the users and their data are now part of the package offered to the real customers: data miners and advertisers.

Creating a sort of ironic dichotomy, the net didn't just give birth to an advertising boom. Cheap online distribution led to a proliferation of free (libre) software, shared together with its source code to guarantee the user maximum empowerment, safety and privacy. Initially, the only allegiance here was that between the users and the developers.

Eventually, libre (and open source) software turned into big business. New allegiances had to be formed and to deal with those, most major libre and open source projects now have an NPO foundation. In the case of Linux, the foundation is comprised by major tech companies such as Intel, Microsoft and Oracle. Libre advocates may quite rightly have negative views on this: these are players who'd likely close the Linux source without hesitation if they found a way to circumvent the GNU Public License. Luckily, they haven't - and at the very least, they've all got skin in the game. If Linux disappeared tomorrow, entire cloud platforms and IoT product lines would become pretty much worthless.

The (not so) curious case of Mozilla

"The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies."
- Robert Conquest

One of many such open source NPO:s is the Mozilla Foundation. Interestingly, its founding chair was Mitchell Kapor who along with John Perry Barlow started the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990. Mozilla's current chair is Mitchell Baker, who in an amazing stroke of luck also happens to be the CEO of Mozilla Corporation, the for-profit company that makes Firefox.

Superficially, the Mozilla Foundation resembles many other libre or open source NPO:s. It controls the source repository for Firefox and supposedly operates on a number founding principles about the awesome power of open source and the net - but poke it with a stick and you'll find it's a different beast entirely.

Like many Open Source foundations, Mozilla accepts donations. Those donations don't, however, go to the development of Firefox. Instead, Mozilla acts in part as a proxy for other organizations and funnels money to projects such as RiseUp Networks. RiseUp runs various software infrastructure for liberatory social change. Their logo contains an anarcho-syndicalist star and their website contains plenty of revolutionary imagery and statements such as "all labor is valued equally" and "the means of production should be placed in the hands of the people." I wonder if that's completely in line with Mozilla Foundation's principle 9, "a balance between commercial profit and public benefit is critical."

Instead of donations, Firefox is funded mostly by fees from various search engines - including Google - who pay for the privilege of being listed as default choices in the browser. This means that even though Firefox may have somewhat better functions regarding user privacy than Google Chrome, its users are intentionally shepherded into the ecosystem of one of the worst enemies there is to online privacy, the Alphabet monopoly. I wonder if that's completely in line with Mozilla's principles 4 and 6, about the importance of decentralization, interoperability and individual security and privacy.

The Mozilla foundation also runs a website and blog. On the website, they present their board of directors - one of whom writes "as centralization, surveillance, exclusion and other online threats proliferate, we need a movement to keep the web a global public resource." This is basically a short summary of the Foundation's principles. This is interesting, because on their blog they're not writing a whole lot about Firefox, but they do write things like "We need more than deplatforming" and "the question of when to deplatform a head of state is a critical one." When, not if.

I wonder exactly how we should go about such a deplatforming on a truly decentralized web and whether or not it would count as exclusion - but the foundation has an answer (of sorts) for that. In 2018, it augmented its founding manifesto with an addendum that in many cases can only be interpreted as contradictory to the original 10 principles. Upon further examination, this can explain many of the Foundation's recent statements and actions.

Proletarianizing the net

The Internet is no longer exclusive to a select group of people with a predictable set of views. Fuelled by libre software, cheaper bandwidth and accessible hardware it has finally become a global town square jam packed with a very diverse gathering of voices, all with their own virtual megaphones. It just turns out that when "anyone, anywhere" truly can be heard, the former champions of the net as The Great Equalizer have realized that they don't like what the hoi polloi have to say.

Libre software and online free speech and privacy are inherently and undoubtedly political, but the scope of those causes is easily defined. Staying within the boundaries of that scope shouldn't be very problematic, yet we see an emergence of other issues being muddled into the mix.

Let's examine why.

Politicking for a living

"In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests."
- Karl Marx in The Poverty of Philosophy

It should be clear by now that the Mozilla Foundation isn't an open source foundation at all. If Firefox disappeared tomorrow, the foundation would swiftly put out a press release stating that such a trivial mishap won't stop them from doing their very important work, and keep on asking for donations.

Don't, however, make the mistake of thinking that they're a group of idealists fighting for a cause. They produce ideology, sure, but as demonstrated above, the ideology is shallow, contradictory and opportunistic. And if you think their donations to groups such as RiseUp means the Mozilla Foundation wants to see a redistribution of wealth or the dictatorship of the proletariat, that's because it's what they want you to think. Meanwhile, Mitchell Baker, in her dual capacity as foundation chair and company CEO, treats herself to a $3,000,000 salary after firing 250 Firefox developers.

If still in doubt about the Foundation's real purpose, just take a glance at their leadership web page: thirteen different positions with curiously vague and similar-sounding but impressive titles. One of my favourites is "Director, Operations." What kind of operations couldn't possibly be covered and coordinated by the other twelve managers? I'm curios about what the Director of Organizational Effectiveness thinks about that - but perhaps that job currently consists of figuring out why there are two "Advocacy" big shots.

The Mozilla Foundation is part of a cadre operating within the upper echelons of NPO:s, NGO:s and certain positions in certain companies. Of course it's not really a conspiracy or a secret cabal - it's more like Marx' a class for itself.

They may not have reflected on this on an individual level, and they'd certainly never acknowledge it, but they're perpetuating their in-group interests using very questionable tactics and to the detriment of the people and causes they claim to represent. Their only real purpose and agenda is to further their own lifestyles, careers and fortunes and they do it by taking a concept conceived as beneficial for the people and turning it against the people.

This class has a knack (and the proper connections) for landing sinecure jobs with high status titles and fat paychecks. Since they're not really involved with the production of goods and services, this income and status depends solely on them being perceived as the guardians of good taste, decent behavior and reason. They will fight tooth and nail to keep it that way and, this is important: A truly free and open Internet threatens their hegemony on producing the flawed ideology they use to further their personal interests and do away with competitors.

The future of freedom

Telltale signs of their politicking can already be seen in other open source projects. That's not surprising, because they're very good at the game they play and there's now some serious money flowing through the NPO:s of popular open source projects. For anyone subscribing to an old school hacker ethos and its views on free speech, this could turn out to be severely detrimental.

I still think the Internet can and should be a place for a great and sprawling public debate for everyone, a place where dissidents can (though ideally shouldn't have to) use anonymity to avoid reprisal and where personal messages can be shared in private. To achieve this, the groups of people that produce libre software and advocate free speech will benefit from learning to identify and differentiate between someone with different views on other issues and someone who is an enemy of their cause.

What Mozilla does with the money donated to them, how they run their company and what views they express are all their prerogatives. Some of the money they donate may ultimately be beneficial to online privacy and some of the opinions they voice may coincide with your own. But let's be aware of their true motives and let's be mindful of what happens in the NPO sphere of our beloved open source software.

And let's expect to see a lot more political feature creep during the coming years.


Author's note

Because the web is in constant change, I have taken a screenshot of the Mozilla leadership page as it looked when writing this text. It has been anonymized. Click to here to view it.