To Serve Users

Wednesday 14 May 2014 by Bradley M. Kuhn

(Spoiler alert: spoilers regarding a 1950s science fiction short story that you may not have read appear in this blog post.)

Mitchell Baker announced today that Mozilla Corporation (or maybe Mozilla Foundation? She doesn't really say…) will begin implementing proprietary software by default in Firefox at the behest of wealthy and powerful media companies. Baker argues this serves users: that Orwellian phrasing caught my attention most.

image from Twilight Zone Episode, To Serve Man, showing the book with the alien title on the front and its translation.

In the old science fiction story, To Serve Man (which later was adapted for the The Twilight Zone), aliens come to earth and freely share various technological advances, and offer free visits to the alien world. Eventually, the narrator, who remains skeptical, begins translating one of their books. The title is innocuous, and even well-meaning: To Serve Man. Only too late does the narrator realize that the book isn't about service to mankind, but rather — a cookbook.

It's in the same spirit that Baker seeks to serve Firefox's users up on a platter to the MPAA, the RIAA, and like-minded wealthy for-profit corporations. Baker's only defense appears to be that other browser vendors have done the same, and cites specifically for-profit companies such as Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

Theoretically speaking, though, the Mozilla Foundation is supposed to be a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity which told the IRS its charitable purpose was: to keep the Internet a universal platform that is accessible by anyone from anywhere, using any computer, and … develop open-source Internet applications. Baker fails to explain how switching Firefox to include proprietary software fits that mission. In fact, with a bit of revisionist history, she says that open source was merely an “approach” that Mozilla Foundation was using, not their mission.

Of course, Mozilla Foundation is actually a thin non-profit shell wrapped around a much larger entity called the Mozilla Corporation, which is a for-profit company. I have always been dubious about this structure, and actions like this that make it obvious that “Mozilla” is focused on being a for-profit company, competing with other for-profit companies, rather than a charity serving the public (at least, in the way that I mean “serving”).

Meanwhile, I greatly appreciate that various Free Software communities maintain forks and/or alternative wrappers around many web browser technologies, which, like Firefox, succumb easily to for-profit corporate control. This process (such as Debian's iceweasel fork and GNOME's ephiphany interface to Webkit) provide an nice “canary in the coalmine” to confirm there is enough software-freedom-respecting code still released to make these browsers usable by those who care about software freedom and reject the digital restrictions management that Mozilla now embraces. OTOH, the one item that Baker is right about: given that so few people oppose proprietary software, there soon may not be much of a web left for those of us who stand firmly for software freedom. Sadly, Mozilla announced today their plans to depart from curtailing that distopia and will instead help accelerate its onset.

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Posted on Wednesday 14 May 2014 at 17:00 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization.

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