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Economy 28 August 2018

Future Thinking: Mozilla Director of Public Policy Chris Riley on the Internet Economy

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. We interviewed Chris Riley to hear his perspective on the forces shaping the Internet’s future.

Chris Riley is Director, Public Policy at Mozilla, working to advance the open Internet through public policy analysis and advocacy, strategic planning, coalition building, and community engagement. Chris manages the global Mozilla public policy team and works on all things Internet policy, motivated by the belief that an open, disruptive Internet delivers tremendous socioeconomic benefits, and that if we as a global society don’t work to protect and preserve the Internet’s core features, those benefits will go away. Prior to joining Mozilla, Chris worked as a program manager at the U.S. Department of State on Internet freedom, a policy counsel with the nonprofit public interest organization Free Press, and an attorney-advisor at the Federal Communications Commission.  

The Internet Society: Why is there a need for promoting a better understanding of technology amongst policy wonks, and of policy among technologists?

Chris Riley: While I started out as a mathematics and computer science student, I decided to shift into law and ultimately policy because I was concerned that the evolution of law and regulation around the tech industry wasn’t being driven from a point of technical clarity and understanding. I was worried  that this could have consequences, both intended and unintended, for the terrific socioeconomic benefits that we can and should derive from the Internet.

Today I say to every new cohort of employees at Mozilla that, as Lawrence Lessig once quipped, “code is law,” but “law is law,” too. Mozilla is at its strongest when we think about these things together, and the Internet is the same – when both the people building code and the people building legal systems have enough of a mutual understanding of what’s important and how the other works. The technologists need a broad policy understanding so that they can build that into their systems and their system policies; while the law and policy designers must have enough of an understanding of the technical side that they design law and policy that reflect and amplify the good parts of technology while leaving plenty of room for future flexibility, agility and innovation. I think it’s really those two things coming together that’s vital to the ecosystem as a whole.

How does Mozilla position itself in the Internet economy? Are you a platform?

Although there are some services that we have that are platform-ish (e.g. our acquisition of Pocket in 2017), the core of what we do is related to the fact that we’re a software company. Being a software company is really at the core of Mozilla’s ethos. We write open-source software and we distribute it to the world both as code and packages (downloads and applications).

I don’t expect Mozilla will, in the future, want to emerge as more of a platform company than a software company. We don’t have the scale or the style or the structure to do that. We’re small; we’re non-profit. We’re not ever going to be the model that’s geared towards the platform and social network economy of growing network effects at great debt in order to recuperate the economic benefits. We’re a mature and established business, and really focus on our strength as open-source software developers. That said, we have the right kind of expertise, mission and charter to speak for the Internet in a positive way. We’re therefore a hard-to-define duality of non-profit, mission-driven and software company. This is why it so hard to categorize us.

This year we’re focusing our annual Internet Futures report on consolidation in the Internet economy. We’re specifically investigating consolidation trends in the access, services and application layers of the Internet respectively, as well as consolidation trends acting vertically across layers (e.g. companies gaining dominance in more than one of the Internet’s layers).

Have you noticed a trend in this regard?

We’ve definitely noticed that the Internet is headed towards a more and more centralized future, defined in that sense by both horizontal and vertical centralization trends. We have fewer effective competitors who are presenting the same kinds of substitutable services to users, as well as fewer meaningful choices for users among servers within a single layer. In addition to horizontal consolidation, we’re also seeing many vertical mergers within the tech sector.

I think the world we live in now is too often one in which investment in start-up companies is geared towards reaching the point where they can be sold to one of the existing big players rather than grow into a big and independent enterprise itself. This is a challenge for me and for others because we grew up with an Internet where today’s big company is going to be tomorrow’s second tier. It’s not that I want to penalise any individual companies, but I want to believe in a market where we have the capacity to grow new companies that can become the giants of the next generation of the Internet. I’m not sure we’re there anymore. I think partly the reason why we’re not there is that some of the big companies today are aggressively staying ahead of the trend through massive investments in research and development and, to that extent, kudos to them, and may they continue to have the opportunity to outcompete others and continue to grow from that perspective.

But we’re reaching a point now where it’s going to be far too easy to bolster a weak product in one of these markets by effectively tying it to a dominant product in another market. And that’s the point where competition might have failed. That’s the point where we see good ideas get squelched not because of any technical or systematic problems with their design, implementation or approach, but simply because they weren’t being offered by or interested in being acquired by one of the existing dominant ecosystems.

How does this the trend impact Mozilla?

Concentration and consolidation is an issue that goes back to Mozilla’s history in a very deep way. We were effectively founded to respond to the duopoly of Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer. We decided users should have a choice in web browsing and so we created something that became effective and even better than what Microsoft was offering. The window of opportunity we had to create this product was aided in no small part by competition inquiries into Microsoft that were ongoing then. Today, we want to ensure that future Mozillas will have the space to see places where some things are underperforming and to then innovate. We’re looking for the same opportunities ourselves as we’re seeking to diversify our product portfolio beyond Firefox.

[To read more about Mozilla’s thoughts on the issue of dominance and APIs specifically, see Mozilla’s recent submission to the US Federal Trade Commission on competition and consumer protection as it affects communications systems such as the Internet.]

How has technology’s role in societies changed in the time since you’ve been working in this field? Have you perceived a backlash against the tech industry?

In the US, overwhelmingly so. In Europe, less so, because I feel that Europe was pretty much already there. I frequently categorize 2017 in the U.S. as the year that everyone starts to attack tech.  For many, many years, the tech industry had experienced a honeymoon period with the public and policymakers thanks to the scale of investment and growth, and the pace at which shiny new things that users like were produced by our industry.

We were forgiven the occasional (or so it seemed) negative social or economic  consequences that came with that. But that window of time has now closed. I think that time frame was shorter outside the US because many of the economic benefits that came from this industry were imbued here; it benefited the U.S. and the American economy. So those not quite so flushed with the economic benefits of the industry were quicker to see the unintended consequences and other social and economic harms that came from this model.

Certainly in the U.S., at least, we’ve seen growing awareness of problems associated with centralization. We’ve seen problems like the discrimination that can be reintroduced with machine learning systems that are trained by discriminatory data getting well-deserved public attention. We’ve seen incredible concerns with contentious and unpleasant, harmful, and sometimes illegal speech that appears on platforms and how platforms respond to that.

The world is therefore dramatically different now than to what it was two years ago in terms of how the public view the tech industry. I think it’s important for Mozilla and my colleagues in the tech industry to understand this dynamic and to really strive to make the Internet better. To try to turn that tide around. To acknowledge that there are problems and not everything is perfect. That we have to make some changes both internally and externally in the laws and regulations around us. We need to be serious, open, honest and collaborative in how we approach these problems so that we can get them solved.

What are your other fears for the future of the Internet?

I’m worried about a future of the Internet where users are choosing among four or five vertically integrated stacks of applications and services where they can’t pick and choose a heterogenous Internet experience from amongst them and where nobody with a brilliant idea can come up and create a new business because that space is already effectively occupied and there’s no room for them to grow, and no investment in their ideas because the economic model doesn’t make sense for a new business. If we reach a world where we have vertically integrated silos, competition would have failed. But I still very much believe that we can salvage it.

How should we prevent this from happening? Is competition law the best solution to these consolidation problems?

I’m worried that our understanding of competition law doesn’t deal with consolidation on the Internet properly, because traditional models of market concentration say that if you have four or five businesses that are relatively balanced, then you have a competitive market. But even if we had a competitive market in a traditional sense, it wouldn’t be the Internet.

I think there’s more that can be done with competition law and policy. The idea of U.S. antitrust law was to support consumer welfare, and it’s a powerful idea, one that hasn’t really been explored in the past thirty years or so. There’s a lot more room to interpret the existing legal precedents and statutes we already have. This is something the agencies could choose to pursue on their own, and we would welcome legislative interventions to make this a smoother process.

I think that the solution we should be pursuing in the near term as response to the consolidation trend is through competition law, rather than a reinterpretation or calling for a different kind of regulatory approach. It takes too long to do this: the last time that we tried to overhaul communications law in the United States (the Telecommunications Act of 1996), it was a twenty-year process.  If we take twenty years to address the challenge of centralization, the Internet will have been forever transformed and probably not for the better.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?

My hope is that we will see an industry-wide recognition of the impact and entanglement that our work has throughout our economy and our society and a humble and thoughtful approach to how best to approach and manage the responsibility that come with that. More and more open engagement with policymakers and with the public and a restoring of the public’s faith that technology and the Internet are here to make our lives and our world better and not worse. And I do actually believe that we can get there.

We’re getting ready to launch the 2018 Global Internet Report! Read the concept note and learn how the Internet Economy might shape our future.


Photo ©Karen de Jager

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