The key to digital participation is a healthy Internet — and the responsibility is on users, experts, and governments, says the Mozilla Foundation’s Mark Surman.
How important is digital participation for today’s society?
Mark: Digital participation is incredibly important for today’s societies, especially because now we are at the moment where half of the world is online, and the rest will come online. That means participating in the digital world is participating in society. And the real question is how will we participate, on what terms? Will it be democratic? Will it be good for humanity? Or does participation mean that we are surveilled and controlled, and we really act in the service of a set of big companies?
What are the major problems in the context of digital participation?
There are so many problems in terms of participation. Mozilla was really one of the early optimists of digital participation and open source – the idea that the internet belongs to everyone. And we still believe it can and should. But we are in a different moment now, where optimism, for many people, has turned to skepticism and even fear, as we have misinformation sending democracies in a certain direction, or the idea of a startup economy and that anyone can make it big — in a world of these tech-monopolies in the US and China — is not true anymore. So, we have challenges related to democracy, to an open economy, and certainly to government control.
Could you give us a concrete example?
Probably the most complex challenge of digital participation is how we see things emerging around misinformation. We are at a stage where we have the most participatory media ever in human history. We can all publish fairly freely, at least if you are in countries where you are able to. At the same time, this open publishing system of the internet has been weaponized by bad actors who are trying to crush democracy and polarize our societies. So how do we protect freedom of speech and open platforms at the same time as tackling misinformation and the weaponization of free speech? It is a huge conundrum that all of us have to tackle.
Are there different problems in different parts of the world?
There are certainly different types of problems in different regions. In some places, there are governments cracking down on free speech or even shutting down the Internet. In other places, there are bad actors whether internally or externally trying to polarize the digital conversation — but actually, beneath the surface, a lot of it is the same. The internet is moving from a decentralized system — which is how Mozilla and others tried to design it — into something which is much more centralized, and which is controlled by Facebook and WeChat and Amazon and Alibaba. And that is actually universal whether you are in China or Germany or Ghana. Those big centralized platforms are actually a real barrier to participation as much as they are places that open up participation.
What are the strategies societies can use to foster digital participation and keep the Internet open?
Certainly, one strategy that is very simple is to bring into the public consciousness and into the political consciousness that we want the Internet to be healthy. If you think about the environment: In the '50s or the '60s in North America or Europe, we didn’t really have a big consciousness. You had scientists warning us of pollution, greenhouse gases and such things, but it really took ten years for the "Greenpeaces" of the world to emerge and bring it into the public consciousness, and for us to start building ministries of the environment and green businesses and all of these things to get to the modern environmental movement. We really have to look at a movement for Internet health that is going on the same path – or a movement for digital rights – which is going on the same path where you say: The way the digital world works is an issue of common interest. And as citizens and as governments, we actually have to collectively design for balance and hold ourselves accountable to that.
Are you on the optimistic or pessimistic side looking at future developments?
I’m on the optimistic side, optimistic that we will turn the Internet around and keep it healthy. Society is always in tension, but I see people standing up, and more and more people dedicating their careers to being digital-rights environmentalists or internet-health activists. We need that, if people can dedicate their careers to this, to a healthier digital society, we actually can – as citizens, as ethical companies, as governments – turn it in the right direction again.
A community activist and technology executive of 20+ years, Mark Surman serves as the Executive Director at Mozilla. At Mozilla, he is focused on using the open technology and ethos of the web to transform fields such as education, journalism and filmmaking.
The Mozilla Foundation is the sole shareholder in the Mozilla Corporation, the maker of Firefox and other open source tools. Mozilla Corporation functions as a self-sustaining social enterprise – money earned through its products is reinvested into the organization. The direct work of the Mozilla Foundation focuses on fueling the movement for a healthy internet by supporting a diverse group of fellows working on key internet issues, connecting open Internet leaders at events like MozFest, publishing critical research in the Internet Health Report, and rallying citizens around advocacy issues that connect the wellbeing of the Internet directly to everyday life.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer