Why capitalist pigs would be good for Mozilla

It turns out that capitalism is good for open source, even for Firefox browser maker Mozilla. Matt Asay has some advice for CEO Mitchell Baker.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
4 min read

I won't go into the economics, but suffice it to say that I think there's little hope of Mozilla making Firefox (or any of its other software) into true public goods of any note. The best it can hope for, here on planet Earth, is for software in the public interest.

Mozilla Chief Executive Mitchell Baker suggests that the Web would be better off with robust public-interest aspects. She's 100 percent right.

Where she may be wrong is in how she thinks we get there:

...I don't want to live in a world where the only thing the Internet is useful for, or effective at, or pleasant or fun, are activities where someone is making money from me.

In addition, I want public benefit to be provided by both public and private actors. I hope the Mozilla project can push more actors, including commercial players in the Internet space, to provide more public benefits.

And so Mitchell argues that Firefox is a public asset with this feeling guarded by a nonprofit nature (or something) inherent in the Mozilla Foundation. I'm not buying it. Literally. (Nor does Matt Gertner of AllPeers, though for different reasons).

Mitchell writes:

Firefox is created by a public process as a public asset. Participants are correct to feel that Firefox belongs to them. They are correct legally, since the Mozilla Foundation's assets are legally dedicated to the public benefit. They are correct practically because Firefox could not exist without the community; the two are completely intertwined.

Periodically, someone suggests that it's possible to build a community like this around a core of people who own a company and use that company for the express purpose of generating wealth for a few. I don't buy it. I don't buy it on practical terms. The participants I meet radiate the conviction that Firefox exists to benefit all of us. I don't buy it on a philosophical level either. A people-centered Internet needs some way for people to interact with the Internet that isn't all about making money for some company and its shareholders.

I would argue that Bill Gates (gasp!) has done more for the world than Mother Theresa. I would argue that Mother Theresa is likely a better person, but her impact is limited and parochial compared to his, which I'd loosely define as having democratized IT so that a greater proportion of the world could access computers.

The problem with relying on do-gooders to save the world is that there are precious few people that actually can afford to spend their lives doing "good" in the sense that Mitchell describes. Most of us need jobs. Most jobs aren't public interest-type jobs. They're normal capitalist pig-type jobs that often have ancillary benefits like feeding our families, making widgets that others can use at a low cost, etc.

Google does more to lower the bar to the Internet than Mozilla has ever conceived of doing. Google makes lots of money and, whatever its "do no evil" motto may imply, I'm sure that it has a healthy dose of capitalist fervor in the boardroom. Idealism, yes. But lots of hard-core pragmatism too. The trick is convincing Google et al to sign up to open-source and open-data promises.

Why? Because with open source, no one needs to care about corporate intentions. If the code is open, it simply doesn't matter what the company intends to do with it. Everyone benefits.

I would argue that Mozilla could still be "save the Internet" Mozilla with a heavy dose of capitalist fervor. Its code is open. That is the thing that provides trust in Mozilla, more than any feel-good motto it may espouse. Mottos without things like open-source licenses to enforce them are hollow.

Human nature gets in the way of best intentions. Open-source licenses enforce the best of human intentions when capitalist urges may point to directions less favorable to the community.

But I also believe that those capitalist urges are often what will take a good project and make it exceptional. Funny how the motivation of money is, well, motivating. Not to everyone, and not all the time, but it has historically proved to be a great motivator. Linux is a great community tool, for example, but would not be nearly what it is without commercial involvement. Money matters.

So, Mitchell, want to save the world (or just the Internet)? Keep your open-source license. That protects intentions. But also expand Mozilla's vision to truly compete. To compete well, you probably are going to need some capitalist pigs to duke it out with the capitalist pigs you're going up against. So long as you have the right license, the rest will take care of itself.