Whenever I hear about the ‘democractising’ effects of technology, a cold hand clutches on my heart. It’s nonsense. The web is less open and less diverse than it’s ever been, according to the Mozilla Foundation and these tech monopolies present real danger to enterprise. Not just in emerging markets, but in Britain too.
So Microscope attended the Mozilla Foundation’s fifth annual alternative tech festival in London’s Docklands, hoping for some encouraging signs. Can the grip of corporate interests on the IT industry be loosened? Could more opportunities be created for the smaller parties, like the local service providers and communities?
The initial signs were not good. For a technology festival, Mozfest 2014 seemed be co-ordinated by way too many hand written notices and post it notes and amateur drawings. What are we? Hippies?
Still, when Microsoft controlled 98 per cent of the software market, Mozilla was the organisation that shook the empire’s foundations, creating choice and opportunity. So let’s not be picky. Can Mozfest catalyse another popular uprising?
“We should be shaping the tech world around us, rather than letting it shape us,” Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, told delegates in his opening address. Though the Internet started off feeling like an online public square, it has been hijacked by developers who’d made it feel more like a shopping mall, where the infrastructure owner sets the rules.
Pity the five billion people from emerging markets who will join the Internet in the course of the next decade. “There is a real danger in these markets of monopolies restricting choice. In India, Android has 91 per cent market share – so effectively, there is no choice and Android is becoming the Windows 98 of the developing world,” said Surman. Since all the software distribution is tied to the operating system, Facebook and WhatsApp jointly represent 80 per cent of the global messaging market, creating a new monopoly.
“Across the developing world, Facebook controls not only what’s possible for its users but also what’s imaginable,” said Surman.
If companies become empires that control all possibilities they will stand in the way of people becoming true citizens of the web and limit local entrepreneurs.
Mozilla wants to change that trajectory, Surman said.
We should be shaping the tech world around us, rather than letting it shape us
To this end Mozilla has launched tools for empowering emerging markets through the mobile web. Mozilla’s Webmaker for Mobile app, which is scheduled for launch in 2015, makes it easy to create apps for smartphones. Meanwhile a new £25 smartphone running Firefox OS will help provide access to the web. Could this create the grounds for a secure alternative bring your own device strategy?
Another area of concern, as we move into the era of big data, is that it is we – businesses and individuals - become increasingly removed from the everyday experience of data and our naïve ways of understanding it, according to Jon Rogers, professor of creative technology at the University of Dundee. Rogers was leading one of the major strands of Mozfest, an investigation into how big data and the Internet of Things could become a more open and collaborative movement, rather than the scary dystopian future that is presented in many corporate presentations. It’s difficult not to watch a corporate VP foaming at the mouth about Big Data without imagining them being all over you like a rash. I can’t think of big data without evoking images on men monitoring our every move from behind screen and a boot stamping down on someone’s face.
By demystifying the process of coding and making the web of things more open, more people can get involved with creating more benevolent, sociable applications. Hopefully Mozilla foundation could help create a fairer, more even handed and competitive digital future. I just wish they’d ditch those Post It notes though.