Whither Mozilla?

I've been writing about Mozilla for sixteen years now, ever since Netscape's momentous 1998 announcement that it would be open-sourcing its browser. I've followed the project's ups and downs, as it struggled to get a usable application out of...


I’ve been writing about Mozilla for sixteen years now, ever since Netscape's momentous 1998 announcement that it would be open-sourcing its browser. I’ve followed the project’s ups and downs, as it struggled to get a usable application out of the door. Even after it managed to do so, it effectively had to “throw one away”, and start again by moving from the Mozilla Internet application suite to Firefox.

It then faced the uphill struggle of taking on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 6, which completely dominated the browser sector. The odds were against it, but Mozilla succeeded – largely, I think, because it had an important and well-defined mission: to preserve and nurture the open Web. It later crystallised that mission into the eloquent Mozilla Manifesto:

The Internet is becoming an increasingly important part of our lives.

The Mozilla project is a global community of people who believe that openness, innovation, and opportunity are key to the continued health of the Internet. We have worked together since 1998 to ensure that the Internet is developed in a way that benefits everyone. We are best known for creating the Mozilla Firefox web browser.

The Mozilla project uses a community-based approach to create world-class open source software and to develop new types of collaborative activities. We create communities of people involved in making the Internet experience better for all of us.

That rightly emphasises the pervasive nature of the Internet, and how it is becoming a key part of daily life in all its aspects. It notes that the Mozilla community is global, and believes in using openness and open source to allow innovative, collaborative activities. The Manifesto then goes on to enumerate some Principles, including the following:

2. The Internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible.

4. Individuals’ security and privacy on the Internet are fundamental and must not be treated as optional.

7. Free and open source software promotes the development of the Internet as a public resource.

Again, these emphasise openness and open source, and add that security and privacy are not optional.

Which brings us to yesterday’s announcement that Mozilla would be supporting a move to add DRM to HTML5, something I wrote about a couple of times last year. Here’s what Mitchell Baker says in her blog post explaining this latest move:

The industry is on the cusp of a new mechanism for deploying DRM. (Until now, browsers have enabled DRM indirectly via Adobe’s Flash and Microsoft’s Silverlight products.) The new version of DRM uses the acronyms “EME” and “CDM.” At Mozilla we think this new implementation contains the same deep flaws as the old system. It doesn’t strike the correct balance between protecting individual people and protecting digital content. The content providers require that a key part of the system be closed source, something that goes against Mozilla’s fundamental approach.

By Baker’s own admission, the new DRM system is not open source, and does not protect individuals sufficiently; moreover, by definition it is not open, so EME/CDM also violates the principle quoted above that the Internet must remain “open and accessible”. Despite this, Mozilla has decided to accept and thus legitimise the new DRM scheme:

We’ve contemplated not implementing the new iteration of DRM due to its flaws. But video is an important aspect of online life, and a browser that doesn’t enable video would itself be deeply flawed as a consumer product. Firefox users would need to use another browser every time they want to watch a controlled video, and that calls into question the usefulness of Firefox as a product.

So the central argument for violating all those core principles seems to be that “video is an important aspect of online life”, and that without it, Firefox would be “deeply flawed as a consumer product”. But the choice here is not between either “DRM and video”, or “no DRM, no video”: the vast majority of online video has no DRM anyway (YouTube, for example), and all that would still be available. Baker’s real motivation is made clearer in another, more technical post from Andreas Gal, Mozilla’s CTO. Here’s what he says about video:

With Google and Microsoft shipping W3C EME and content providers moving over their content from plugins to W3C EME Firefox users are at risk of not being able to access DRM restricted content (e.g. Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu), which can make up more than 30% of the downstream traffic in North America.

So what we are really talking about here is the very specialised online segment of commercial entertainment services, not the vast majority of online videos. That 30% figure sounds impressive, until you remember that high-resolution commercial films are long and bandwidth intensive: the numbers of users involved is likely to be much lower than 30%, and far fewer than those watching short, low-resolution non-commercial videos.

Moreover, this is only for North America: I would imagine that in the rest of the world even the raw percentage of downstream traffic watching DRM’d video is small. Indeed, it’s striking that Gal is talking about services that are largely unavailable outside the US, with a few exceptions (Netflix is apparently also available in “the Caribbean, and parts of Europe - Denmark, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom” as well.) So this whole argument about DRM’d video is extremely US centric, which is troubling for a global project like Mozilla.

Even more disturbing is the shift it represents away from the Mozilla Manifesto’s aim of helping “to develop new types of collaborative activities.” Instead, Baker is concerned about Firefox being “deeply flawed as a consumer product”. Firefox is now some kind of online TV, it seems.

Gal then goes on:

We have come to the point where Mozilla not implementing the W3C EME specification means that Firefox users have to switch to other browsers to watch content restricted by DRM.

This echoes Baker’s comment:

Firefox users would need to use another browser every time they want to watch a controlled video, and that calls into question the usefulness of Firefox as a product.

This seems to be the central fear: that Firefox users might be “forced” to use another browser to watch all this Hollywood content. But is that really such a problem? Isn’t it exactly the same as using a dedicated app for a particular task – something that billions of people do every day on their smartphones? Or is Mozilla perhaps concerned that people will find other browsers better than Firefox, and not come back? That kind of fear seems both misplaced and foolish: if you don’t believe your browser is better, you’re doing something wrong. If you do believe it is better, you have nothing to fear from people using Chrome, say, to view a few locked-down videos every now and then.

But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Firefox did not support this new DRM, and that its users were “forced” to use another a browser, and that some of them switched permanently. What’s the problem here? Presumably that a falling market share will mean that Mozilla will “lose influence.” And so, the argument seems to be, in order to maintain that influence, Mozilla must be pragmatic, and make compromises – like jettisoning a few of its core principles.

But exactly what influence does Mozilla hope to wield now that it has acquiesced to this new DRM scheme? And the answer is: none. The only way to influence bullies is to stand up to them. By deciding to appease the film industry, Mozilla will be unable to offer any resistance when the music industry starts demanding that all commercial music should use the same DRM scheme: after all, how can Mozilla refuse? If it doesn’t implement it, then those Firefox users might be tempted to use another browser, and then they might stick with it, and Mozilla would lose all its influence....

And after the music industry, the publishing industry will ask for all its content to be locked down with DRM, so that people can’t cut and paste from online publications, and again Mozilla will be forced meekly to agree, lest it loses some users, and with them its ability to “be an advocate for our users and their rights in this debate” as Gal writes. And so, in practice, that ability will count for nothing, because the only thing the copyright industry pays any attention to is power, and Mozilla will have none if it has already implemented and thus entrenched the new DRM.

If you’re interested, you can read about the clever hacks that Mozilla has adopted to plant open-source flowers around the DRM prison it is building for its users. But admiring the flowers miss the point. Mozilla’s latest move means that it can no longer plausibly claim to be defending the open Web: instead, its actions shows that it believes that defending the Netflix Web is more important. Watching Hollywood blockbusters online in a controlled, closed environment apparently takes precedence over the Mozilla Manifesto’s previous concern with openness, open source and new forms of collaborative creation.

Of course, the ultimate responsibility for this betrayal lies with the W3C, which should never have agreed to the copyright industry’s demands in the first place. As Baker rightly says at the start of her blog, as a result of the W3C’s pusillanimity:

Today at Mozilla we find ourselves at a difficult spot.

Well, indeed, and I feel deeply sorry for them, not least because of the amazing and fantastically-important work they have done until now. But I can’t support their decision, which effectively gives permission to a greedy and backward-looking industry to dictate how people may use the Web. At a time when we learn that the entire Internet has been compromised and subverted by the NSA and GCHQ, what we desperately need is a champion of the original values that will help us win it back. Sadly, Mozilla is no longer that champion. So the question becomes: who will be?

Fortunately, free software has built-in survival mechanisms. Forks of Firefox will doubtless proliferate, new projects will come forward to fill the gap left by Mozilla, a new generation of coders will start hacking in their bedrooms. The process of re-building the Web, re-building the Net, and re-building trust, will be long and painful, but it can be done – that’s not in question. What’s not clear at all is where Mozilla goes from here. Whither Mozilla? Or, perhaps, wither Mozilla?

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