Priceless


Many people don’t know/didn’t realise/don’t care/already know/already know and didn’t care, but I am back full time with Mozilla after a hiatus of a number of months.  In fact, I jumped at the chance to join Mozilla’s Content Services team and after a fairly short conversation with Darren, Mozilla VP of Content Services, I knew it was what I wanted to do.

I feel very happy to be back, and I wanted to put a few thoughts on paper about my motivation.  I think back to a conversation I had earlier this year in Barcelona with Alina, someone who always expands my thinking.  I believe in the web.  I believe in Mozilla’s efforts to maintain its importance in how the Internet is developed and consumed.  I believe it is entirely preferable to the reemergence of technological islands, walled gardens, empires, (call them what you will).  And yet, from a different perspective, isn’t the web evidently facilitating such empires anyway?

Taking it further: the web, this incredible creation that has enriched our lives in ways we could not have imagined for ourselves previously, is also an agent of economic and cultural imperialism, in the same way that free trade and liberalised capital markets arguably have been in the 1980s and 1990s?  I realise that many Mozillians will have an inherent faith in market solutions and I certainly believe in free trade…up to a point.

People will identify Content Services with advertising.  And how do I feel about advertising in general?  About the same way as when I first read J.K. Galbraith on the subject, over 20 years ago. Advertising troubled Galbraith, even in 1958 when he first published The Affluent Society.  Advertising gives cultural force to the means of production.  Or as he put it, “wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied”.  That is, advertising is the means by which supply creates demand.  It allows capital to influence our psyche and creates new cultural barriers to market entry.  In 2014, it’s hard to imagine an economy without advertising.  And while I do not entirely share Naomi Klein’s wholly negative views on what brands mean, I do find that idea that so many of our cultural signifiers are created with the purpose of persuading us to consume x in preference to y to be more than a little uncomfortable.

Given that perspective, why Content Services?  Well, Content Services is that it is not all about advertising.  Content Services will help deliver Mozilla a new voice for its community and with its users.  But saying that, the most important thing for Content Services is advertising.  That is because advertising is the most important economic activity on the web – by a long way.

Look at what advertising has enabled on the web.  How much content is free to consume as a consequence of federated advertising?  Many Firefox user choose to block adverts, and other people round on those users for failing to honour the implicit contract between the publisher and the reader.  I am not sure I subscribe to that point of view entirely, but to fail to view advertising as an exchange of value between the user and the website is to be disingenuous.  And it is something that the web does extraordinarily well – and at scale, and on an aggregated basis.  It has empowered the user, and the search engine, the social network, and it has wreaked havoc on publishers.

Almost every user of the web enjoys a huge consumer surplus.  That is, they would pay far more for the web than it costs them (once you’ve paid for access to the network, you “pay” almost nothing to use the web).  And some consumers enjoy a much larger surplus than others.  Typically, richer consumers, who have a higher propensity to pay, transmit an effective subsidy to poorer consumers who would have a lower propensity to pay.  And this aggregated arbitrage is a good thing. Generally.

Except that it has given rise to incalculably powerful and valuable empires.  These empires might be defined as the ones who own the user’s identity.  The ones you log in to, who know the most about you, about what you do, who you know and what you read.  Empires which extract value from all of the industries they touch, from online publishers to mobile network operators and ISPs.  I must stress none of this is a criticism of a Google or a Facebook: they have delivered huge utility and have successfully exploited their market positions.  But it is notable that a company with no significant patents or copyrights, nor indeed revenues, and which employed a reported 55 people could be valued at $19Bn. It is reasonable to suppose, under such circumstances, that there are major externalities generated by this business, or that this business is a significant free rider, which almost all internet business are: something those of use who support net neutrality implicitly agree is a good thing (I do not intend the term pejoratively).

What are the externalities?  As we’re fond of telling each other, if you’re not paying, you’re the product.  The price we pay is our attention and exposure to adverts, and knowledge about ourselves.  We are being broken down, analysed, reassembled as segments, profiles, tracked as individuals and as sub-markets and, yes, being spied upon.  Some people are relaxed about this, perhaps feeling that they have nothing to hide, and besides, they haven’t even come for the Socialists yet…

What’s more, the cultural impact is abysmal.  In the old world, advertising inventory was finite, confined to the space for adverts on billboards, in newspapers and so on.  When the Mozilla community created its iconic New York Times advert, it was an incredible demonstration of the power of a community – placing such an advert cost real money.  But in the online world, inventory is flexible, and theoretically infinite.  You can grow your inventory by retaining users, get getting more clicks.  And you do this by writing clickbait headlines, by instrumenting your users, by taking your publication downmarket, by designing your site so that one article extends over multiple webpages, and so on and so forth.  The effects on our culture are obvious.  The effects on our psyche, we’re only just starting to understand.

And then, there is a battle over online privacy.  Or perhaps, more aptly, an arms race.  Privacy measures are met with counter-measures.  Tracking cookies, which still seem important today, may seem positively anodyne in years to come.  The more intimacy we gain with the internet, and the more capabilities it assumes, the deeper and deeper this problem becomes.

So, where does all this leave us?  Well, there is another Mozillian I would mention who has frequently inspired me: former CEO John Lilly.  Almost exactly four years ago, John gave a talk for the House of Commons, in which he presciently suggested that just as troubling as the Orwellian aspects of the internet are, so to should be aware of the dangers of a culture that is amusing us into bovine submission. John is a man who reads books, and as he points out, the internet is as much Brave New World as 1984.  And John also spelled out the importance for mass participation in the creation of counter-measures to this.  Actually, just go and read his post again, if you haven’t already.

Advertising on the web is a problem, it risks trivialising our culture, creating a mass surveillance system and is supporting new forms of digital empires.  And yet, it is better than the alternatives: all this economic value being pushed to proprietary technology platforms.  And it is in danger: it is in danger of being unpalatable in a modern democracy, and of being superseded by proprietary technologies with even worse consequences.  That is why Mozilla has to act, and why it is entirely appropriate that we involve ourselves in this industry.  It is why we should conceive and build solutions to these problems, and look to empower all parts of the internet ecosystem that generate value for the consumer.  This problem is our problem.  We must not just try to wish it out of existence.

Our first duty is clear: it is to the Firefox user, and the trust they have in Mozilla.  It would not be right that we would send our users to whichever service on the internet and rule out-of-scope the consequences for them (and nor do we).  We build Firefox users the tools to be in charge of their experience.  But we must help instantiate the rest of the world we want to see, bringing advertisers and publishers who share these values into the Mozilla community.  We will understand their needs, and where they are transparent, where they scale and support heterogeneity, where they offer a reasonable, knowable and workable exchange of value, we should finds ways to facilitate them.  Until that happens, the concentration of power on the internet will only continue.  And honestly, who else but Mozilla is going to address this problem?

And more important to me than any of this, is to be working side-by-side again with my many wonderful friends at Mozilla.

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4 Comments

Filed under Mozilla

4 responses to “Priceless

  1. Pingback: Monday Sparks: AfricaCom, Phillipinen, Firefox Developer Edition | Firefox OS und Ich

  2. Irina Sandu

    Very nice. Welcome back.

  3. Gen

    Welcome back and congrats on the new gig!

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