Freedom of the web

17 Nov 2011

Tristan Nitot, president, Mozilla Europe, who says Mozilla wants to make the web more participative and innovative, while protecting users' freedom

Laura O’Brien talks to the president of Mozilla Europe Tristan Nitot about how users need to have more control over their digital lives on the web and on their smartphones.

As the web becomes a major aspect of the modern world, questions are being raised about how much control people have over their online lives.


7: Number of years since Firefox launched

40pc: The amount of Firefox code written by volunteers

22.51pc: The amount of global desktop web users who used Firefox in October 2011 (Net Market Share)

22.48pc: The amount of Irish web users who used Firefox in October 2011 (StatCounter)

The internet has become much more accessible to the general public and people are now more comfortable with purchasing online products, posting personal information and taking advantage of new applications to manage their lives.

The first port of call to access the web is through the browser and The Mozilla Foundation understands how vital this tool is.

The Mozilla Foundation’s mission is to promote openness and innovation online. It’s led by a global community which creates open source software and works for the betterment of the web. It’s best known for its web browser Firefox, which competes with the likes of Google Chrome, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari browser.

“We’re different from our competitors because we are the only one who is a non-profit organisation,” says Tristan Nitot, president of Mozilla Europe.

“We want to make the web more participative and innovative, but also serving the users and making sure their freedom is still there in the future.

“If you look at Google or Apple or Amazon, they want to know more about you to sell you stuff or to enable other people to sell you stuff – and it’s OK, I’m not judging. But many of us at Mozilla think the personal side of things needs to be represented in terms of browsers.

“The browser is the interface between you and your online life, so if this mediation gets tainted by someone else’s interests, whatever they are, then it’s a problem, especially as we rely more on technology in our daily life.

“It’s important that we master this technology, that we have control over it.”

Start-up spirit

Nitot emphasises that while Mozilla is a non-profit organisation, it’s not against companies and entrepreneurs with ambition in the technology industry.

“On the contrary, I think many of us have entrepreneurial spirit, it’s just that we consider ourselves as social entrepreneurs,” he explains.

“We’re creating new technologies to empower people because for many of us it’s more important to make a living, improve the world and make a difference. That’s what we have chosen, rather than to get rich and donate the money afterwards. It’s a choice of life.

“We love the entrepreneurial spirit and we want to encourage entrepreneurs to follow our principles.”

He points out that this was why Mozilla launched WebFWD, an accelerator that lets start-ups be mentored by Mozilla and gain access to technological tools to help them build an open-source product.

The programme aims to help the start-up and the overall technology community, which can leverage on what the start-up has created.

Many tech entrepreneurs have seen success within app store models, which Nitot believes, in general, are quite positive for their industry, both for discovering new applications and monetising without sacrificing privacy.

“I think it’s really cool that you can have a good way of monetising your application with actual cash without gathering information on usage which you’re trying to sell because I don’t think it’s the right thing to do,” he says.

Unfortunately, some app developers don’t adhere to this.

“I’ve recently installed games on my Android phone, and for some reason this thing wanted to know where I was – this is disturbing.

“Either I accept that or I cannot use the game. I’d rather pay €1 for that game and not be spied on because €1 is not much for me and most Europeans, but my privacy is actually worth a lot more than €1, €10 or €100.”


Apps in different cultures

Nitot is also against how Apple’s App Store exercises so much control on what content gets posted and what doesn’t. Apple often doesn’t approve apps because it feels that the content is inappropriate, but Nitot argues that different cultures have different values about what is suitable or not.

“I have a certain set of values because I’m European and am not in California. Values are different from the culture where you are.

“I have seen a German publication which was not allowed to publish on the App Store because there was someone on the cover
of the magazine that, in Apple’s opinion, was too naked.

“You could argue whether having naked people or people in bikinis or swimsuits is good taste or bad taste, but should people be able to buy that magazine? It’s a serious magazine and it was allowed to be sold in Germany – it has been for years.

“But in California, they judged that this person didn’t have enough clothes on her. That’s disturbing when it comes to freedom of the press.

“Because that’s what it is in the end. It’s the freedom of the people. When you buy an iPhone, you enable someone in California to judge what you will be able to do with your mobile. That’s not the future I want to build.

“I like Apple, because they’ve done some very innovative stuff, but when they do that, it makes me really nervous because of the trend and the path for the future it’s creating. I want a future made of freedom.”

Another issue that comes with closed ecosystems is if a user buys an Android app, they can’t use it on an iPhone and vice versa. Nitot strongly disagrees with this.

“It’s not in these companies’ interests to allow you to switch platforms, of course they want to keep you locked, but as a user I want freedom. I want to be able to switch from one thing to another.

“This is what we want to do at Mozilla – an app store with the spirit of the open web. On the web you can switch browsers or from Mac to Windows to Linux and back. It’s freedom and we want that in the app store.”

Nitot says Mozilla wants the web to become the platform of choice for every mobile, but notes the web currently can’t do everything a phone needs to do, such as place a phone call.

Mozilla is working on a project called ‘Boot To Gecko’, an open-source mobile operating system with web APIs which utilise normal smartphone capabilities, such as SMS, Bluetooth and phone usage. The results are due to be demoed in early 2012.

“We’re basically pushing the web forward by implementing these web APIs and documenting how we want this to happen so that other browser vendors have a standard that they can discuss and agree on,” he says.

“We’re working not for us, but for the web as a whole.”