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Musings on Mozilla Festival

21st Century / 31 Oct 2018 / By Caitlin McDonald

Mozilla Festival describes itself as “A seven day celebration for, by, and about people who love the internet, showcasing world-changing ideas and technology through workshops, talks, and interactive sessions.”  

It is certainly unlike most other tech conferences in its commitment to the belief that all people have something to add in the conversation about how the future of the internet should be shaped. That may seem self-evident, but Mozilla truly enacts these values by having an entire floor of sessions dedicated to—and sometimes facilitated by—young people.  There are sessions in multiple languages, sessions geared towards different levels of technical capability, and sessions covering issues ranging from threat modeling in our IoT-enabled world to using ASCII patterns to knit scarves. In short: Mozilla Festival views the internet as the new public commons.

Data, Data, Everywhere

This year’s festival theme was “Data Done Right,” with plenty of sessions focusing on public policy, emergent industry frameworks, or social and market pressure designed to bring about changes that protect public interests.  One example cited was Mozilla’s successful intervention in preventing the spread and misuse of Aadhaar, India’s national biometric registration system. Originally designed to track government welfare schemes and subsidies for efficiency and waste reduction, the system rapidly proliferated to include many more public services.  The private sector also jumped on board, with Amazon briefly requiring an Aadhaar number to track lost packages. The public discourse that emerged around the use of Aadhaar, partly influenced by Mozilla’s public education and policy campaigning around the issue1, led to new considerations on the right to privacy and data protection2.  While there are still risks, Western economies could stand to learn a few of the data protection lessons from the discourse around Aadhaar, particularly in the US where social security numbers are used extensively beyond their stated remit and in the UK where biometric registries are already used for tracking immigrants from outside the EU and the pressure for expanding the programme to include other sectors is increasing.

We can learn from this by:

  • Understanding the increasing public skepticism of handing over personal data in exchange for services.

  • Critically interrogating how data of all kinds is used in your organisation.

  • Designing appropriate systems that build public trust through appropriate uses and protections of data.

Where have all the futures gone?

Compared to prior years, this Mozilla Festival had a rather subdued air with fewer wacky constructions, giant banners and handmade costumes.  Those elements were still very much in play, but the tone of conversations and the nature of sessions were much more reflective than the bubbling future optimism of prior years.  Several attendees, including Mozilla’s Executive Director Mark Surman, described the festival as the thing that recharges them every year; the touchpoint which builds resilience and reminds them of their purpose in creating a new public commons through the web.  This year, though, Ravensbourne University where the event is held felt more like a castle under siege than a refuelling station in a marathon. Perhaps it is simply that participants were focused on having serious conversations and designing purposeful interventions for the future health of our public commons at a time when uncertainty and mistrust are creating an existential threat to our status quo both on and off the web. Is the movement for a more open future still building or is this a retreat?  Only time will tell, but as Clint Watts, fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, said on a panel, “These shots in the arm are what make liberal democracies great. The trajectory is not a straight line; we have to have hiccups so that we can improve and identify the weaknesses in our society...We have more activism being brought together by digital connections, connections that are now physically bringing people together, people of all age ranges, than I’ve ever seen before. [People are coming together] to truly bring about change.”  

We can learn from this by:

  • Reflecting on the current level of optimism in your organisation. What does the future look like?  What needs to change and how will you get there?

  • Learning to seek a collaborative approach in designing products and services.  How can you get a better understanding of your customers’ needs? How can you empower them to build the future they want with you?

  • Understanding the customer and employee perspectives on your organisational mission.  Does your organisation have one? How does your mission show up in the projects and products you create?

 

  1. https://blog.mozilla.org/blog/2018/02/09/open-letter-justice-srikrishna-data-privacy-aadhaar/
  2. https://www.huffingtonpost.in/2018/09/27/security-experts-weigh-in-on-supreme-court-verdict-favouring-aadhaar_a_23544146/

 

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