Mozilla


9
Jan 12

Some followup thoughts on my SOPA post

The best thing about writing for me is that it helps me figure out what I really think about things. And one of the very best things about doing it on the web is that others can collaborate, disagree, tweak, suggest, and generally help think through things even better. So after a couple of days of Friday’s SOPA post rolling around in my head, I think I have a tighter point of view now that I wanted to write down. (There were some great tweets, mails, comments & posts in reaction to what I wrote. Super thoughtful & useful.

Here are a few specific starting points, then I’ll get to my main point, which is that we (a technologically-oriented US, at least) are not well set up for the future in terms of how we evolve tech policy. Not a new thought, but I think the SOPA situation may be putting us in a worse spot.

But first 3 starting points and a personal observation:

1. SOPA+PIPA are awful bills. No way around it. They over-reach, they circumscribe civil liberties, and they mostly will not work. They shouldn’t pass, and we should do whatever we can to keep that from happening. They’re the latest in a long line of legislation that looks like this: reducing freedoms in a misguided attempt to protect us from a different big bad. They’re so numerous in US history they hardly need listing here.

2. Existing industries are always oriented towards self-preservation. No exception here. But there’s a funny thing that happens: the most progressive companies of today who become successful and dominant will become reactionary in the future, oriented themselves towards self-preservation. Same as it ever was. And you can see it even in the current situation — the companies who are most outspoken are the modern Internet companies: LinkedIn, Mozilla, Zynga, Google, etc etc. Mostly on the sidelines are the most progressive technology companies of the past decades, even including Apple. So this is not, fundamentally, a techie v content type of issue at all, but more of a progressive v conservative technology issue.

3. We do have existing laws and norms. A number of folks argued that content owners just need to accept that pirated goods are a viable alternative and need to learn how to compete with them. I’m wholly unpersuaded by that point of view. Or, rather, I believe we do have existing laws that govern how we behave. It’s pretty clear (to me at least) that content businesses will need to evolve, and many interesting ones already have. But that’s something for a lawful market to decide, not for anyone to thrust onto content owners & creators.

And then a personal observation: I was actually a little nervous writing about SOPA last week because of the tone of the conversation to date. I felt like it might actually provoke harsh negative reaction and somehow brand me as “SOPA-friendly” or against the web. That’s a weird thing for me to feel, as I think my web & open culture bona fides are pretty well established at this point between my work with Mozilla, PCF, Code for America, and now Tumblr, etc etc. That by itself tells me that there’s something wrong about how things are going.

Okay, so given all that as a context, here’s my main point: no matter what outcome we get to with respect to SOPA+PIPA, we’re in a bad spot going forward. 

I think much of the legitimate frustration on the Silicon Valley side of the fence is that there seems to be no way to have a meaningful conversation about this stuff in ways that we know to be productive. It’s happening at this point with some guy who doesn’t seem to understand technology having his staff & a bunch of lobbyists prepare a non-sensical bill and then try to jam it through Congress, without any real effort to understand what might actually work. (And, worse, it’s being done in a way that seems deliberately designed to misinform.) So it’s a bunch of backroom, captured discussion that has massive impact on how we live our lives — and it’s all completely opaque (at best).

The real thing that I’m worrying more and more about is not SOPA per se, although that’s a very large problem itself. The real problem that I see is that our government just isn’t set up to make meaningful technology policy decisions going forward. I think Larry Lessig would argue that that’s now true about all facets of modern life, but I think that with technology it’s significantly worse. We have massive interconnectedness of systems built on an extremely rapidly changing foundation of technology. But more than that, technology is now transforming our private and public lives so quickly that we can hardly make sense of any of it at a personal level, let alone a public policy level. And there seems to be no way for legislation to keep pace unless we change the discussion there from specific technologies instead to principles of how we want to build and evolve our society.

And I just don’t see how that kind of conversation can happen right now.

I see how to defeat SOPA, more or less. But it’s more lobbying, more rhetoric, more Capitol Hill influence. And I think that all of that stuff ultimately corrupts industries that use it. I know this is not a new objection, and I’m sure that there have been people in every industry forever who have made this point.

So I think most of what I wanted to write on Friday is this: I desperately hope we can (1) defeat SOPA and more importantly (2) figure out a way to have useful technology policy discussions that can inform both our legistatures and law enforcement agencies. This isn’t the last law that will be technically poor and will impinge on civil liberties. There will be more, and they’ll come up more and more frequently as increasing portions of our society get disoriented by and disrupted by new technology.

We shouldn’t rely on symmetric (and corrupting) lobbying efforts to make things better; we’ll just get more of the same crummy situation we’ve got.

What I think we really need to figure out is how to help our leadership in government act and think in a more agile way, informed by more of our citizenry. More like the web, in a lot of ways. (Ed Lee’s announcement of an SF partnership with Code for America is a start.)

Maybe impossible, a pipe dream. But that’s the target I think we should be setting for ourselves, not just defeating a crappy, misinformed bill.


6
Jan 12

What’s bothering me about the SOPA “discussion”

There are 3 things that have really been bothering me about how the SOPA/PIPA discussion has been going so far.

  1. it’s not a discussion at all — it’s people calling each other names.
  2. it’s highly likely to have a result that is unhelpful at best, and insanely destructive at worst
  3. we’re building a completely worthless/bad roadmap for how to deal with technology policy going forward, and it’s going to get worse

Let me be very clear: SOPA is a terrible law that should not be enacted under any circumstances. It’s broken technically and misguided from a policy point of view. It not only won’t accomplish what advocates want it to accomplish, but it also will create backbreaking burdens and barriers to entry for some of our most promising technology companies and cultural movements of the coming decade.

But also: content creators & owners have a legitimate beef with how their content can be appropriated and distributed so easily by rogue actors.

Here’s the conversation we should be having: content & technology should be very aligned. Hollywood and Silicon Valley (broadly speaking — I’m talking metaphorically here) both want the same things ultimately: easier and bigger ways to share and enjoy awesome content from all sources, in a way that’s economic for everyone involved.

What we should be talking about is how to get better alignment, how to build systems and content that is better for, you know, actual human beings to use and enjoy.

But that isn’t the conversation that’s happening (and I use the term “conversation” here very loosely, since it has characteristics more like a bunch of schoolyard name calling). The conversation that’s happening is going more like this:

- content: “you people are stealing our stuff. you’re thieves”

- techies: “we’re not stealing it. we’re just building great apps for users.”

- content: “you’re ignoring the problem and helping the thieves. you’re effectively pirates, so we’re going to shut everyone down.”

- techies: “you’re acting like jackbooted fascists, embracing censorship and your’e going to end everything that’s good about culture today.”

- content: “we’re trying to protect our content — you guys are pretending like there’s no problem, then getting rich off platforms that pillage our content.”

- techies: “you don’t understand how the Internet works — how do you even live life in the 21st century? dinosaurs.”

So that’s awesome. Then you throw Congress into the mix and hilarity ensues. Because if you’re looking for folks who really do not act like they want to understand the Internet, Capitol Hill is a pretty good place to start. And then this is all devolving into a fight of pirates versus creators. Of protectors-of-democracy versus fascists. Or whatever.

What we need to be talking about is where the actual infringement problem is happening (I’ve heard from folks that the vast majority of the problem is on the order of a few dozen syndicates overseas). And how we need to be thinking about copyright law — in an age where copies are the natural order of things, as opposed to previously, when it was harder to make copies. And what sorts of law enforcement resources we need to bring to bear to shut down the activity of these real malicious actors overseas. (At root, I’m persuaded that the current issues are really law enforcement issues – we need to figure out how to enforce the laws that are already on the books to protect IP, not create new ones.)

Acting like there’s no problem isn’t the answer — there is a legitimate IP issue here. But pressuring a behind-the-times and contributions-captive legislative body to enact overly intrusive and abusable laws is even worse, both economically and civically.

What’s extremely discouraging to me right now is that I don’t really see how we can have a nuanced, technically-informed, respectful discussion/debate/conversation/working relationship. I’m not convinced that Congress is at all the right body to be taking up these issues, and am 100% convinced that they don’t currently have the technical wherewithal to make informed decisions, in any event.

So what we’re left with is one group pushing their captive legislators for new, over-reaching laws and calling technologists names. And a group reacting to that by calling names back.

I think the best that we can hope for in this scenario is that the current bill will grind to a halt and nothing will change. But I think that can’t be where we aim for the future.

Because technology policy issues are going to come up again and again and again as time goes on. (Next up, undoubtedly, is another round of privacy legislation, and I would predict the name calling will be even more intense and even less productive.)

We’re mediating more of our lives than ever through new technologies that we barely understand as technologists, let alone consumers or civic leaders. We need to figure out ways to have meaningful discussions, to try out policies that may or may not work at first and iterate quickly on them, like we do with products themselves.

I don’t have any answers here, but wanted to write down what’s been bugging me, as I think we all need to think more about what we want our lives to look like in the future.


2
Nov 11

Joining the board of Code for America

I’m super, super excited to announce that I’ve joined the board of directors of Code for America, an organization started by Jen Pahlka two years ago aimed at getting some of the smartest and most motivated techies & designers among us working on solving some of the core problems facing our communities. It’s a non-profit organization full of awesomely smart and talented and motivated folks who actually make things that can create lasting change in our cities and states and country and world. (Sound like anything else I’ve been involved in? :-)).

It’s a humbling organization to join, because they’ve already made such amazing progress. They’ve got an amazing group of CfA Fellows working with city governments this year — projects in Boston and Philadelphia and Seattle; and one with the federal government as well. They’ve picked even more cities to work with next year in an expansion of the program. They’ve started the Civic Commons as a way to help governments share and take advantage of code that already exists.

More importantly, they’re showing how to build an organization that’s both civically-oriented and sustainable over the long term. In my view, CfA is helping a new generation of entrepreneurs and builders to figure out how to create products and organizations that can change our relationship with our cities and towns — not every startup has to be about maximizing financial returns.

So I’m really excited to join the organization — because of what it’s done in such a short time, because of what it represents today, and because of the promise it holds in unlocking so, so much positive and needed change in how we relate to our governments and our selves in the future.


9
Oct 11

Steve Jobs

Like many of us, I’ve been thinking a lot about Steve Jobs the last few days — thinking about the man and his legacy. I’ve been having some trouble even understanding the way I feel, let alone being able to put it into words. Lots of folks have asked me what I think, and have been surprised that I haven’t tweeted or blogged about it yet. So here’s a first shot.

I’m finding my feelings to be pretty complex, which I guess isn’t too surprising given who he was. But for a man I’ve never met, I’m a little surprised about how much of my thinking he’s affected, and how many competing feelings I’ve got.

But some of them are pretty simple.

As a designer, I think it’s impossible to feel anything but pure, unadulterated joy that Steve existed at all. And I really mean that: thank god for him, he changed so much. He wasn’t the first to care about design in technology, and he won’t be the last, but he moved things so much.

He made beautiful software and hardware like nobody had ever seen before. Crucially, he built tools that helped — or completely enabled, really — creatives make their own beautiful work that enriched the world. He completely and utterly validated the view that design could be immensely valuable economically, not just culturally.

Mostly he made it acceptable — desirable! — to believe in and practice great, human-centered design in our work and lives. What a gift.

As a people manager and leader, I really struggled with how to think about him. The stories of how brutal he could be on the people around him — employees, competitors, and everyone else — are legion, and they’re not apocryphal. He could be deeply dehumanizing and belittling to the people around him. Like a lot of people of great vision, which he surely was, he did it all in the name of greatness, of perfection — but I have enough close friends who have been in the line of Jobs’ fire to know how personally destructive it could be, and as a manager I have a hard time with it.

On the other hand, he was an unbelievable leader and motivator.

It turns out that I worked at Apple ATG (Advanced Technology Group) in 1994/5 when I was a grad student at Stanford, and then again for all of 1997, when I moved back here from Trilogy.

I remember being at a talk he gave shortly after returning in 1997 as Interim CEO. A bunch of us employees (I was at ATG at the time) were in Town Hall in Building 4 at Infinite Loop to hear him, and he was fired up. Talked a lot about how Apple was going to completely turn things around and become great.

It was a tough time at Apple — we were trading below book value on the market — our enterprise value was actually less than our cash on hand. And the rumors were everywhere that we were going to be acquired by Sun. Someone in the audience asked him about Michael Dell’s suggestion in the press a few days previous that Apple should just shut down and return the cash to shareholders, and as I recall, Steve’s response was: “Fuck Michael Dell.” Good god, what a message from a CEO! He followed it up by admitting that the stock price was terrible (it was under $10, I think — pretty sure it was under $2 split-adjusted), and that what they were going to do was reissue everyone’s options on the low price, but with a new 3 year vest. He said, explicitly: “If you want to make Apple great again, let’s get going. If not, get the hell out.” I think it’s not an overstatement to say that just about everyone in the room loved him at that point, would have followed him off a cliff if that’s where he led.

He was also a gifted, gifted operator. One of the struggles we were going through when he came back was that Apple was about the leakiest organization in history — it had gotten so bad that people were cavalier about it. In the face of all those leaks, I remember the first all company e-mail that Steve sent around after becoming Interim CEO again — he talked in it about how Apple would release a few things in the coming week, and a desire to tighten up communications so that employees would know more about what was going on — and how that required more respect for confidentiality. That mail was sent on a Thursday; I remember all of us getting to work on Monday morning and reading mail from Fred Anderson, our then-CFO, who said basically: “Steve sent mail last week, he told you not to leak, we were tracking everyone’s mail, and 4 people sent the details to outsiders. They’ve all been terminated and are no longer with the company.”

Well. If it wasn’t clear before that the Amelio/Spindler/Sculley days of Apple were over, it was crystal clear then, and good riddance.

As a leader of people, you have to respect how much he (and more importantly, his teams) accomplished. But I struggle with some of the ways that he led, and how they affected good people.

Still.

I’m a little uncomfortable with the outpouring of sentiment about people who want to be like Steve. There’s a sort of beatification going on that I think misses the point. He was never a nostalgic man at all, and I can’t help but feel like he would think this posthumous attention was, in a lot of ways, a waste — seems like he’d have wanted people to get back to inventing.

On Twitter yesterday Naval nailed it, as he often does: “I never met my greatest mentor. I wanted so much to be like him. But, his message was the opposite. Be yourself, with passionate intensity.”

That’s it, I think — that’s the biggest message from Jobs’ life. Don’t try to be like Steve. Don’t try to be like anyone.

Be yourself and work as hard as you can to bring wonderful things into the world. Figure out how you want to contribute and do that, in your own way, on your own terms, as hard as you can, as much as you can, as long as you can.

His most lasting message, I hope, won’t be about technology or management or media or communications or even design. The work he did in those areas certainly matters and will continue to — impossible to ignore it.

Still, I think it’s not the main thing, the essential thing.

I hope the message that people really take, really internalize is that being yourself, as hard as you can, is the way to have important and lasting impact on our world. That might be in the context of technology. It might be in the context of technology, or the arts, or sports, or government, or social justice — or even in the context of your family and close friends.

It almost doesn’t matter. The thing that matters most is to figure out what’s important to you, what’s core to you, and do that. Be that. And do it as well as you possibly can, every single day.


15
Sep 11

Mike Shaver: Thanks!

Mike Shaver has done as much as anyone on the planet over the last ten years to make and keep the Web open, free, and awesome. That’s no joke, not a typo, not an exaggeration. The guy has done a lot, and I’m incredibly thankful for his contributions — they’ve just been astonishingly broad, durable & meaningful.

He announced today that he’s leaving Mozilla after working there the past 6 years in a variety of roles (and he’s been involved even longer, since before Mozilla.org even existed). His absence will be felt acutely by everyone, I think, but his fingerprints are all over the place, and all over the project, and they will be forever – the way Mike thinks is pretty well part of the DNA of the company and project.

On a personal level, I really liked working with Mike – he’s smart and humble (sometimes!) and thoughtful – he routinely challenged (and continues to challenge) the way that I thought about problems both on a micro level and more importantly at web scale. He’s been involved in too many technology strategy decisions to count, always working for the betterment of the open web, even when it was inconvenient for him and Mozilla. (or maybe especially then!)

And he affected my framing of the problem deeply – I remember one day a couple of years back when we were talking about some market share point, thinking about how incredibly, insanely competitive the browser technology landscape was – and he said to me: “Look, this is the world we wanted. And this is the world we made.” Wow. Exactly right. He taught me so much about how enormous an impact a group of dedicated people can make.

I quote him a lot when I talk with entrepreneurs of all stripes. I say this: “Figure out the world you want, and go make it that way.” That’s the essence of entrepreneurship, and I think it’s the essence of Mike.

For my money, that’s the best advice anyone can give anyone else, and the best lesson I really, deeply learned from Mike.

Mozilla has been incredibly lucky to have amazing engineering management leadership over the past few years, from Schrep to Shaver and now Damon – just incredible leaders, and the loss of Mike will be obvious, although he’ll undoubtedly stay involved in the larger project.

But for myself, I just wanted to give Mike a very public thank you, and to say that I can’t wait to see what you do next.