The Internet and the Public Good

August 6th, 2007

Last week I participated in a thought symposium called The Internet and the Public Good. It was about 30 people, jointly hosted by the Mozilla Foundation, the Harvard Business School, and the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The goal from the Mozilla Foundation’s perspective is to learn new ways to think about public benefit and the Internet. We’re a public benefit organization and it’s important to figure out what set of programs we should launch beyond the support of our current projects. So it’s worth exploring whether there is understanding outside of the open source world about public benefit that can help us.

The symposium started out with a discussion of a “public good.” It turns out that a “public good” has a specified meaning in the realm of economics. So there was a lot of discussion about what a public good is, what it means to be a public good, how public goods have been regulated, how public goods might differ in different parts of the world.

A couple of very interesting comments came out. The discipline of economics can separate three things: a public good, public interest and public provision. Public goods are as described above. Public interest (or public benefit) can be generated by either private or public goods. Either public or private good can be provided by public sources (e.g., government) or private sources. (Of course, as a normative issue, one generally hopes that if a government funds something, there is a public benefit to it.)

This has helped me state more precisely what is of interest to me personally. (I’m not speaking for the Mozilla Foundation here). I want to ensure that the Internet has robust public interest aspects. That the Internet has social, civic and individual benefits as well as commercial benefits. I suppose one could call this ensuring the Internet has robust non-commercial aspects. But this is a negative approach. I’m not against commercial activity being a vibrant part of Internet development. On the contrary, I believe commercial activity brings great value to individuals and society.

But I don’t want to live in a world where the only thing the Internet is useful for, or effective at, or pleasant or fun, are activities where someone is making money from me.

In addition, I want public benefit to be provided by both public and private actors. I hope the Mozilla project can push more actors, including commercial players in the Internet space, to provide more public benefits.

6 comments for “The Internet and the Public Good”

  1. 1

    genium said on August 6th, 2007 at 9:19 am:

    Sorry; this isn’t understandable for me; i’m just a web developer and support both Free Software Community and Mozilla project.

    Please, read the Moglen’s speech from last year, and brought Mozilla closer with Free Software community.

    Best regards…

    Eben Moglen on Free Software and Social Justice

  2. 2

    Aaron said on August 6th, 2007 at 11:12 am:

    You have a bunch of weird double byte characters in your post.

  3. 3

    Iang said on August 7th, 2007 at 3:15 pm:


    What Mitchell is suggesting is that software is just a means to an end. The end in this case is the users, *not* the software developers.

    It is quite reasonable to recognise the software developers as the largest input to the community, and it is quite reasonable to accept that “free software community” and others like it have a large vested stake. But to say they are the only people involved is … well, words can’t describe!

    Software is for users. Only software that is used by users is really relevant for Mozilla, as it is for any organisation, including developers themselves. It matters less whether software is “owned” or “controlled” or “sold” … than whether software actually delivers what users need and appreciate.

    If you think of it in these terms, you will possibly agree that the way to defeat “the beast” is the same way the beast also works to enslave the user: deliver better software for and to users. That’s something that can *only* be done by involving users, and that can only be done by working out what is of interest to users.

  4. 4

    genium from France said on August 8th, 2007 at 3:27 am:

    users of free software are part of free software community, like free software developers and others… They just need to know why they use them, why free software exist…


    We are moving to a world in which in the twenty-first century the most important activities that produce occur not in factories, and not by individual initiative, but in communities held together by software.
    In this neighborhood, at this moment, the richest and most deeply funded monopoly in the history of the world is beginning to fail. Within another few months, the causes of its failure will be apparent to everybody, as they are now largely apparent to the knowledgeable observers of the industry who expect trouble for Microsoft.
    Ownership of software as a way of producing software for general consumption is going out, for economic reasons. But as I said, the economic insight that we can get from watching the transition from steel to software is far less important than the moral analysis of the situation.

  5. 5

    Asa Dotzler said on August 9th, 2007 at 4:32 pm:

    genium, alternatively you could tell them, in response to “why Firefox”, “because it’s better” and not hurl your software politics/religion at them.

    See, to me, Firefox’s open source (free) nature is not nearly as important to the world as the leverage it affords us in keeping the Web free and open. The Web is so much larger (in every way) than Firefox and focusing on Firefox, or even worse, on the method of production, just seems kind of silly.

    Open source and our public benefit organization are tools that help us deliver on the mission of promoting choice and innovation on the Internet, but it’s the Internet that really matters — a lot more than the Firefox software itself.

    Trying to explain that to every Firefox user or potential user would be impossible. The good news is that they don’t actually have to understand that for the impact of their Firefox usage to contribute to the goal of a free and open internet.

    So, I say just tell them “because it’s better” 🙂

    – A

  6. 6

    Asa Dotzler – Firefox and more said on August 10th, 2007 at 7:32 pm:

    elementary education

    David Utter, a tech writer over at WebProNews, says Firefox Needs To Go To School and I think I agree. Though, I would probably approach things differently than he’s suggesting. Putting aside the discussion on Mozilla’s approach to improving retention …

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