Katharina Borchert, the Chief Innovation Officer of Mozilla Corporation, the firm behind Firefox web browser, was in Rwanda for the 2019 Transform Africa Summit. She also toured the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, Rwanda Centre (AIMS). Widely considered one of the most vocal advocacy forces for open source web technology, Mozilla wants a world with complete internet freedom. But is that possible? Can open source bridge the global digital gap especially Africa? Can women and journalists ever be safe online? Freelance columnist Kenneth Agutamba put all these and more to the Mozilla executive.
Below are excerpts;
You recently attended the Transform Africa Summit in Kigali, what was in it for Mozilla?
Mozilla is looking for good partners and good projects. We sit in Silicon Valley with the likes of Google and others, and although we have a large global user base on our Firefox platform, we are not a super-large company compared to other global tech players. But we believe in the power of our global communities and building partnerships to amplify each other. So that is what we were here for; looking out for opportunities and whether there is something we can bring to the table that can support the work of local partners, knowing that everything we build at Mozilla is Open Source which individuals, companies, initiatives can take and build on.
We are also heavily involved in Internet policy work and our teams have been active on the ground talking to policy makers and legislators about privacy, lean data practices, cyber security, digital identity – all the big topics that are very much in the public eye right now. We believe [that] in order to realize the full potential of internet, we also need a really good regulatory framework – and that is why we have a big policy team, not just engineers and developers. This too therefore presents a good opportunity to engage with regulators across the continent, and also finding the right partners to consolidate our global communities to work on projects together. We are not powerful alone. We believe in building alliances.
You are a professional journalist and a humanitarian lawyer who is now holding a position of influence to promote global internet freedoms. With this unique background, what do you consider as the top barriers to the desired internet/technology freedom that Mozilla is so passionate about?
They are so many. I will start from my journalism background; from that perspective, for a healthy democracy, journalism is super critical. I cannot over-stress the importance of independent journalism for a healthy democracy. Voters, users depend on it for checks and balances even when it is becoming increasingly an unpopular opinion in the US. Thanks to the internet, we can now easily read any work of journalism from everywhere in the world and it is opening up opportunities for digital media enterprises. Everyone can have a voice.
Unfortunately, it is getting harder and harder to fund independent journalism and that is dangerous for the future journalism. But in spite the challenges, we need more journalism not less. As someone who has been online since 1994, my dreams and hopes are still fresh for an open web and great space for independent creators and democratization, and business and spreading knowledge wide. But the reality is that in many parts of the internet today, it is a terrible cesspool especially for people who represent ethnic minorities or women, especially in the journalistic space. If you’re a vocal woman, no matter where you live in the world, you are subjected to a lot of online harassment. It is also a big issue for politicians as a recent study based on the last UK Election indicated; that female politicians of colour were especially subjected to hate speech online harassment, death threats and it is really hard to do your job whether as a journalist, politician or regulator under such circumstances.
Our hope was that the internet would give everyone the opportunity to have a voice and express their opinions freely. But what we are seeing is that particularly women and minorities are being shut down again. In fact, all the problems we used to have in the real world such as discrimination, bias, they are exactly the same online.
The dramatic spread of fake news and misinformation campaigns both from state actors and non-state actors, is another threat to internet freedoms. Even for people with a high level of news literacy such as journalists and elites, they’re not immune from the constant onslaught of fake news. Journalists have fallen for doctored images and videos that arena result of technology manipulation. Last but not least, the internet as an infrastructure is not as resilient as we had hoped; it has serious weak spots. Its censorship is not that hard as we have seen entire countries taken offline. Tracking down journalists is still way too easy and I find this another big problem that we don’t have a solution for.
Some governments are fronting the need to counter fake news as a reason for limiting internet access to their citizens. How does one strike a balance between access freedoms and actually addressing some of the dangerous activities by dark forces online?
That is one of the absolute hardest questions of our times. I have no good solution and I don’t think any single person or company will come up with a solution. I think this is something that we need to address collectively, because it needs a lot of brainpower to solve and get the balance right. We are only beginning to understand the problem, in-depth yet the problem is also evolving very fast. None of us really saw it coming. It is hard to even agree on what the right balance is. On one side, you will understand the government’s need to protect its citizenry from harmful information; yet you don’t want to give governments the tool to shut-down without shutting off access. It is the biggest challenge of our time. We need everyone on the table including academicians because it is dangerous to assume that developers will fix it. For example, you can’t make a Facebook problem by putting the responsibility on a bunch of developers to determine what free speech is; it is therefore not a problem of technologists, it is a problem for all of us.
What do we do with the cost of internet that is still limiting access to internet in many African countries; now some governments are making it worse, by placing consumption tax further limiting entry into the internet access bracket?
There is no one single solution that will solve this in all the countries that seek to deepen the internet connectivity. Our Policy team worked on a project to connect the unconnected and commissioned an innovation challenge some two years ago and we asked teams globally that were working on initiatives to connect the unconnected, to submit their solutions and ideas and we were super impressed by the diversity of solutions we got. The idea is for Mozilla to identify local initiatives that seek to deepen access and supporting them to realize their goals. This is why we believe in building and strengthening our global partnership community.
The internet unveiled e-commerce opportunities that have seen many young people begin online enterprises. How much can the internet contribute to Africa’s efforts in combatting poverty?
It is certainly a huge opportunity. One of the biggest advantages that the internet brings is that it makes information available to all. I still like it when people go to college but you don’t really need to anymore as through the internet, there are opportunities to learn new skills that lead to new age employment opportunities in the realm of e-commerce. So the internet has placed knowledge at the fingertips of youth and so many new professions that we didn’t know ten years ago, all these provide a new opportunity for young people to take advantage of.
Your final thoughts?
Just to reassert that, we are not powerful alone. We believe in building alliances to further Mozilla’s global mission of nurturing a “healthier internet”.