The Internets

Aug 10

Glass House Conversation: Transparency v Clarity

This week I’m moderating an online conversation at the Glasshouse Conversations site — an electronic outgrowth of a series of in-person conversations a couple of years ago.

I’ve written about my trip there before on this blog; they’ve also put up a page with a video about our conversation there on Transparency. It was a unique and amazing experience — and an interesting conversation and day took place. As the video makes pretty clear, a lot of people came in with the expectation of talking primarily about physical and architectural transparency, but I’ve been more interested in transparency as a metaphor — as a way to live your life, as a way to manage organizations. A lot of interesting ideas came out of the blending of physical and metaphorical ideas of what transparency is.

Of course, in my time at Mozilla this has been a theme we’ve come back go again and again, as we try to learn and discover how to lead effectively in an organization built on ideals of transparency. (That isn’t the only ideal, and there are many others that it interacts with regularly, but it is an important one for us.)

Leading transparently is often hard – it’s tough to know how to be most effective, how to get things done – and often, being transparent seems to be counterproductive. John Maeda, after spending his first year as President of RISD trying to be as transparent as possible, wrote this piece on transparency versus clarity, and a lot of things clicked for me as I read it – I’ve come back to it often over the past year or so.

And then the Wikileaks/Afghanistan papers situation occurred — and while leaking confidential information is nothing new, I think that the scope of the information leaked, and the way that it was leaked, is something that is quite modern. It raises a serious question: is it even possible to keep secrets in organizations and governments now? Should it be? Is this new transparency good, destructive, a little bit of both, or is it just too early to tell?  Jeff Jarvis posted a nice piece for thinking about this a couple of weeks back.

I’ve got lots of thoughts here, as you might imagine — living and breathing Mozilla over the past 5 years has made some things very clear and others not so much but not that many answers myself, so I’d love to hear (and engage with) a broad range of thoughts on this during the week.

I’m very happy to be moderating this Glass House Conversation online. Please contribute.

May 10

More on Net Neutrality

Today FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski issued a statement that articulated a new jurisdictional approach, based on Title II of the Communications Act, to realize the open Internet principles commonly known as net neutrality. By addressing the common carrier aspect of broadband services, the proposal seeks to limit regulatory reach by focusing on the transmission component. The essence of a common carrier is that they provide data transport, unaltered, and without discrimination, irrespective of its type or origin. The narrowly tailored approach is intended to address the fears and concerns held by many, ourselves included, that the FCC would acquire authority to regulate the Internet – which few think is good idea.

While fights over jurisdictional basis will provide ample material for debate and discussion, what’s most important is that the open Internet principles are adopted. An open Internet is essential to the continued innovation, growth, and entrepreneurship that has changed our lives and created a host of new opportunities.

Let’s not forget, the Internet is young. For example, it’s been roughly 7,000 days since the announcement of the world wide web. Who would have predicted its impact on our lives in this short period? Companies like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook didn’t even exist 2,200 days ago. There is no dispute that the web has facilitated profound social, economic, and even political change all around the world. Even notions that were once new like “ecommerce” have faded away, as now, nearly all forms of commerce touch upon or utilize the Internet. Remember when we even wondered whether people would shop online? A 2009 study by Professor John Quelch published in the Harvard Business Review estimated that the web accounted for $85 billion in annual retail transactions.

Openness is the quintessential quality of the Internet upon which all of these developments are founded. Given our experience in this short time, what the next 7,000 days will look like is no doubt uncertain. What is certain, however, is that if we fail to preserve and protect the open Internet, we risk losing the full promise of the web. That’s a risk not worth taking, especially in light of what we’ve seen so far.

We commend the Commission for its efforts to strike the proper balance of preservation without over-reaching. What Chairman Genachowski has proposed demonstrates exceptional awareness of the importance of preserving key principles of Internet openness without wholesale over-regulation.

Oct 09

Open Letter Supporting Proposed Net Neutrality

This morning, I’m a signatory on behalf of Mozilla on an open letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski regarding his proposed principles for Net Neutrality. There’s quite a lot of support for this letter — you can see a bit of a writeup here at the WSJ. I think we’ll have a bit more to say on this in the coming days, but for now, I just wanted to highlight a few points.

1. In general, the Net has been neutral for the really explosive innovation phase over the last 15 years or so. Much of what’s being proposed is about protecting that.

2. There’s good experience & real data from around the world that supports neutrality as we move from the first phase of broadband rollout to the next. If you have the time, I highly encourage you to read the FCC-commissioned Broadband Study from the Berkman Center (with Yochai Benkler as Primary Investigator) [PDF link]. There’s actual data in it (a lot of it) and worldwide experience that we can use to develop our own policy.

3. Making sure that the mobile Internet is as open as the wired Internet has been is crucial. We need 1 global Internet, not a collection of non-open ones.

Beyond all that, it’s worth taking the time to read the Chairman’s speech of a couple of weeks back. It’s a fantastic and inspirational speech.

Sep 09

Thoughts on FOCAS 2009 & Journalism

This is my 2nd post about the Aspen Institute event on the future of journalism — more on what went on & some thoughts I have. It’s long overdue, and is a follow-on post to this earlier post.

Here’s my punchline: I leave Aspen with no doubt that there is a crisis for traditional metro newspapers, and many will not survive. But I have to say that beyond some nostalgia, that doesn’t make me feel very bad, because I also leave with the sense that while there’s much change ahead for journalism as a profession and an industry, there’s no crisis. There’s significant innovation happening and new opportunities opening up for talented & dedicated people to find.

So I guess I leave Aspen optimistic, and much more optimistic than I expected to be.

The Format

There were about 50 people, give or take, which I understand is relatively large for an Aspen Institute event. The morning sessions were about 3 hours or so, with all of us around a (very large) table (picture above), moderated by Charlie Firestone — he’s an exceptional moderator, great at figuring out when to let everyone go into depth and when to move on. After lunch each day we had smaller breakout sessions, facilitated by various leaders (my 2 were led by Jeff Jarvis of CUNY and Sue Gardner of Wikimedia) — those went a couple of hours and then the leaderes worked on a synthesis and summary to present to the whole group the next day.

I talked with a few people who had been to events like this before, and I guess this felt a little bit on the large side, but with pretty great engagement and participation by some really outstanding people.

I will note that it was not a particularly diverse group — white men over 40 dominated — but there were a number of women that participated, and a few other non-white-men. But with a subject like this — and in particular with it’s relevance to how democracy works (or doesn’t work) — I think we’d all be best served with more diversity of thought & background.

Some Things That We’ve Talked About

We started the sessions Monday by talking about the Knight Commission on the Needs of Communities in a Democracy — Marissa, who’s co-chair, gave an update on their progress and some thoughts about what may be in the report when they issue it later this year. It’s going to be a report worth reading, and highlights both concerns about where journalism may be failing us as a democracy and some potential solutions.

That’s framed a lot of our discussions this week — the idea that democracies need certain services, some provided by journalists, to succeed and thrive. And John Carroll, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, started with a definition: that journalism provides the information needed [for people] to be free and self-governing. (from The Elements of Journalism, by Kovach and Rosenstiel)

I struggle with the focus on American journalism, for what it’s worth. I don’t know that that’s the right way to think about the characteristics that are important for an engaged citizenry — because, clearly, there are other places in the world today where certain aspects of informing citizens are being much better served than here in the US. Still, I think that Scott Lewis (CEO of said it best (I’m paraphrasing): “We’re not really here to talk about saving newspapers or journalists’ jobs — but there are some beautiful parts of the history of journalism in America, and we’re here to talk about which those are and how to preserve the most beautiful and necessary in a time of change.”

Scott’s got it right, I think. It’s not really about “saving” or “preserving” institutions — it should be about figuring out what we need in a modern world, what’s possible with technology, and what characteristics and skills and ethics should be non-negotiable.

One thing that I found particularly interesting is that there’s not much concern at all about national & international publications — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The Financial Times, to name a few. The consensus is that those institutions, while under pressure and experimenting, will figure out how to survive. The most concern was about local papers, really, and about the loss of investigative journalism. And I think the basic assumption that most people here are making is that most metro newspapers will not be able to survive, at least not without change that will make them unrecognizable.

That, too, seems right to me, and I have to say that I’m not too sorry about this development. Local papers were always geographically-based monopolies — vertical integrations of information that had high barriers to entry due to the cost of printing & distribution & ad sales. It seems okay to me that they’ll go away, by and large (because I think you’ll get what you most need in different ways — classifieds by things like CraigsList, sports news from any number of places, local event information from hyper-local blogs, and investigative reporting from a couple of new classes of org that I’ll talk about below). It’s sad when newspapers disappear, for sure — many of these are 50 or 100 year institutions that have served their public well — but I think that in the overall scheme of things, this is not such a terrible problem.

The breakup of these vertically integrated companies will mean that there’s a much more complicated creation chain that will happen, and that we’ll get our news and information in increasingly unique (to each of us) ways. I’m most hopeful that this will allow smaller, more focused organizations to contribute however they’re best able to contribute. I think that will mean a mix of non-profit and for-profit, a mix of big & small, a mix of points-of-view, purposes, and ways of working. I think there is no doubt that this will be a hugely chaotic time as we evolve into what’s next, and I think it will be some time while we all learn how to read again (understanding point-of-view, and the way that stories are constructed), but eventually we’ll be in a better place than ever.

I’m encouraged by the work of many of the attendees, but in particular these: Voice of San Diego, the Center for Investigative Research, and Pro Publica.

Aug 09

Why I’m Attending FOCAS 2009

As I mentioned, I’ve been in Aspen this week at The Aspen Institute’s Forum on Communications & Society (specifically titled: Of the Press: Models for Preserving American Journalism). It’s been a very interesting couple of days, and I’ve got a lot of new ideas to make sense of and synthesize. First a bit of background, then a little bit on what’s gone on here and what interesting ideas have been put forward, then I’ll try to pull it all together with some thoughts. As I’m writing this, it’s getting a little long, so I think I’ll split into 2 posts: this one about why I’m attending, and the next one about the meeting & some thoughts.

Why I Came

I don’t know very much about journalism — next to nothing, really. But I do think that some aspects of journalism are critical if you want to have an engaged citizenry — a strong & free press is essential for any of us to know and understand enough about the world we live in to participate and engage. I think, too, that there are aspects of our American press that have historically served  us extremely well and are worth preserving. And of course, it’s impossible not to see the turmoil and change that the whole sector is going through — the disappearance of major papers is only the most visible. One thing I think I hadn’t really internalized is that the global economic crisis is really changing the situation much more rapidly than usually happens. Because of the financial pressure, old institutions don’t have the buffer that they might have had in better times — leading to much shorter time frames to layoffs and shutdowns. I think much of this was coming anyway — the crisis just accelerated all of it.

I’ve also been struck lately by some of the parallels of  mission of journalists (roughly, to enable engaged & informed participation) and Mozilla  (to insure an open & participatory Internet). So that’s one reason I decided to come — to learn as much as I could.

The third reason I decided to come is that there’s something new afoot in the world: lots of organizations are being created to serve a public interest — on very low cost models (enabled essentially by the Web) — and competing with traditional profit-oriented ventures. At Mozilla we call that type of organization a “hybrid,” and Mark Surman has been writing about that idea a lot lately. For that, I came in the spirit of sharing what we’ve learned at Mozilla as we’ve become a sustainable hybrid company — maybe some of what we’ve learned can be helpful to others.

But I have to say that mostly I came, as with any event, is because of the other people who were planning to attend and participate. I was invited by Alberto Ibargüen, CEO of the Knight Foundation, and all around awesome person. He’s done much since coming to Knight to reform the way they supported and funded new organizations, starting programs like the Knight News Challenge, as a way to create a sort of prize economy around innovations in journalism. (They’ve also provided funding for work at PCF, where I’m on the board of directors.) What they’re doing at Knight is a model to be emulated, I think — lots of experiments, lots of support, lots of provocative questions.

But beyond just Alberto, here’s a sampling of some of the 50 or so people who are here: Vivian Shiller (CEO of NPR), Esther Dyson, Jeff Jarvis (CUNY Professor), Marissa Mayer (VP Google), Dean Singleton (Chair of the AP), Marcus Brauchli (Exec Ed of The Washington Post), Walter Isaacson (biographer & CEO of Aspen Institute), Madeline Albright (former US Secretary of State), Reed Hundt (former Chair FCC), Jon Leibowitz (Chair FTC), Michael Kinsley, Sue Gardner (ED of Wikimedia), Craig Newmark (founder of Craigslist), Robert Rosenthal (ED of CIR), Paul Steigler (CEO of Pro Publica).

And those are just a few of the names I picked out looking at the list just now — it’s neat to be a part of such a small & accomplished group — and is especially great when it’s on a topic I’m just learning about. 🙂

Finally, and beyond all the basic reasons for coming, I’ve learned that it’s important to try to pop out of operational work from time to time. It’s easy in the day-to-day of Mozilla to get obsessed with solving problems, with getting roadblocks moved out, with the details of trying to make things work. But being too much in those details for too long means, for me, that I sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture — being around others in a new context helps to reframe the things that matter in work and in life.

So that’s why I’m here: to learn and to participate and to help where I can. It’s been a successful event from that perspective for me.