Mozilla

Posts Tagged with “public benefit”

Trusting the Voting Machines

March 8th, 2010

Hundreds of millions of people rely on the accuracy of voting machines and the polling process to form our government. New voting machines are being developed, moving from paper-based ballots to electronic voting.

How accurate are those digital voting machines? How unbiased? Do they count every vote? Do they count every vote accurately and completely? How do they work? How tamper-proof are they? Is there a way to audit results? How good is the audit process? How would we know?

Right now it’s hard to tell. It turns out that how digital voting machines work is a secret. Voters are not allowed to know, to see or to test those machines or how they work. (I’ll speak of California here, as a result of talking to the California Secretary of State, but this is only an example of the problem.) We’re asked to “trust.”

The OSDV Foundation exists to change this. OSDV is a non-profit organization building open source voting machinery. This is important for several reasons:

  • This allows voters to verify what our voting machines are doing. Like other open source projects, those of us with enough technical expertise can serve as consumer advocates and validate that our voting machines operate as they should.
  • In voting, 1 or 2 percent is a giant amount. Many elections — at least in the US where I’m most familiar — are very, very close. A 1% to 2% margin of error may be acceptable in many business settings, but it is not acceptable in a critical election where it can change results. With open source products we can see and test and improve the quality, rather than simply trust that all is well.
  • Casting and counting votes should not be a for-profit enterprise; it is the foundation of elected governments.
  • Proprietary ownership of the means of voting IS a conflict of interest. According to the OSDV Foundation, right now something like 88% of the US voting infrastructure is owned by two companies, which will soon be one company.
  • Good open source alternatives are likely to cause an improvement in the quality of the dominant (close to 90% market share) product offering.

OSDV is just reaching the point where its first products are just about ready for use. Having a viable alternative in the market is critical. Having a viable alternative that is open source and public-benefit is even better. OSDV is building a system that citizens can actually verify — a system we trust based on that ability to verify what is actually happening.

You can find out more about OSDV Foundation’s Trust the Vote project at trustthevote.org/background

Brainstorming at Benetech

November 28th, 2008

Recently I spent the afternoon at a Benetech brainstorming session. Benetech is a non-profit organization, one of the very early pioneers in using technology for social benefit and in using market mechanisms rather than classic fundraising techniques. Benetech’s founder Jim Fructerman is a very smart guy who has been figuring out how to combine public benefit / non-profit status with social enterprise for many years. He’s provided a great deal of help to Mozilla over the years by answering my questions and helping me think through the various organizational topics.

Benetech has a set of existing programs and is figuring out what their next big focus is. Right now they provides software for human-rights field workers, given people in the field safe, secure software to record human rights violations. Benetech also provides software for environmental field organizers. And it has a large effort providing literacy materials for the visually impaired, building on Benetech’s original work providing screen readers for visually impaired.

The brainstorming session was about setting the scope for the future — is it tying these topics together? Is it something new? Is it a focus on open content? Is it deepening their current work, or finding ways to expand it.

As a brainstrorming session there were no answers. What I took away was a sense that:

  • many of the questions are similar to those we think about at Mozilla — what more can we do? How do we expand on our successes? Should we focus more on deepening our areas of greatest success, or on broadening our reach? and
  • the social enterprise movement has some very sophisticated thinkers.

Whatever Benetech adds to its goals, I predict it will be interesting.

The many aspects of “non-profit”

November 5th, 2007

I’m often asked various questions about non-profits. Many people have a general idea of what “non-profit” means but very few have a specific, technical understanding. This makes perfect sense. The technical understanding is a legal and accounting mix, and specific to legal jurisdiction as well.

Here’s a brief outline of what “non-profit” means — in the technical, legal sense — to the Mozilla Foundation. It’s pretty dense stuff, and I’ll provide only the most basic summary. I think about this a lot but in this post I’ll try to stick to describing the structure.

I. “Non-profit” status

The Mozilla Foundation is legally identified as a “non-profit public benefit” organization under California law. Its property is “irrevocably dedicated to charitable purposes.” The Mozilla Foundation is governed by the California Nonprofit Corporation Law, which is somewhat different from California’s General Corporations Code. I’ve found that the distinctions between the general Corporations Law and the Nonprofit Corporation Law include structural elements — members instead of shareholders and so on, and a set of distinctions which I think of as designed to ensure that the organization is pursuing a non-profit goal rather than pursuing private gain.

II. “Tax-exempt” status

The Mozilla Foundation is also a tax-exempt organization as determined by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. To be a tax-exempt organization one should be a non-profit organization (as described above), and the purpose of the organization must fit within additional specifications. Once this status is granted, a tax-exempt organizations is governed by a body of regulations and policies determined by the IRS. These regulations are in addition to any requirements imposed by the Nonprofit Corporation Law. These regulations identify permissible purposes for a tax-exempt organization. They also limit the kinds of activities in which a tax exempt organization can engage, especially for activities that generate revenue or that involve advocating for particular laws. In exchange for tax-exempt status, an organization lives with significantly more restrictions on the way it can operate.

III. “501(c)(3)” status

The Internal Revenue Service grants tax-exempt status to several different kinds of organizations. The Section of the Internal Revenue Code that describes the types of exemptions is Section 501. The most important one for our purposes is Section 501(c)(3). This section applies to organizations “organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition . . . or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals . . .”

The Mozilla Foundation is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization dedicated to promoting the Internet as a universal, innovative platform accessible to all.

IV. “Public Charity” status

There are actually two types of 501(c)(3) organizations. One type receives significant contributions from the public — a “public charity” 501(c)(3). The other type is a “private foundation.” These are generally 501(c)(3) organizations where an individual or family contributes most or all of the money and the charity operates from these funds and the income they generate. Private foundations are required to spend a certain percentage of their funds each year, public charities are not. (There are also two types of private foundations, operating and non-operating.) The IRS reviews 501(c)(3) organizations periodically to see if they are public charities or private foundations. The Mozilla Foundation is currently a public charity 501(c)(3) organization.

For Further Detail

Each of these areas can become complex quickly. This is an area where it takes true experts to fully understand. Wikipedia has a nice overview article. The actual documents relating to the Mozilla Foundation can be found at the Mozilla Foundation website.

After living in this world for the last few years I have many thoughts about where this system works well and where it is unwieldy or even counter-productive. I’ll put those in a separate post before too long.

Firefox is a Public Asset, part 2

August 9th, 2007

I understand what Matt over at AllPeers says about finding new ways to combine open source, public benefit and the economic incentives of commercial enterprises. I’m also quite interested in seeing this happen. But we still have a different point of view about Mozilla and Firefox.

Firefox is not the place to test the effects of the profit motive.

The difference might be in a view of the fundamental platform. Matt believes (as I understand his argument) that the Mozilla platform is the fundamental building block right now. An easy way to think of the Mozilla platform is as everything that an application needs to work that a human being doesn’t touch directly. This may not be 100% correct technically, but is close enough for this discussion. In other words, the Mozilla Platform is the giant chunk of code that understands networking, is able to get information from a web server, convert that info into something a human being can understand, present that information to people and allow interaction with that information. This is sometimes called “XULrunner.” Firefox is built on top of a version of XULrunner. Myriads of other applications, are built using this Mozilla technology. So it is possible to separate Firefox conceptually from the Mozilla platform.

But the browser is not just one of many applications that understand the Internet. It is the closest thing there is to a universal client. By that I meant that the browser is the mechanism for delivering an overwhelming majority of web content to people. As more and more web-based applications (from classic style applications like spreadsheets to newer applications like maps and social networking activities) develop, more types of activities flow through the browser.

So we think of Firefox as a part of the web platform. As the entry point for actual human beings to interact with the web. Browsers aren’t the only entry point, but they are closest thing to a universal entry point that exists today. They may not be the major entry way at some point in the future but that’s a way off. And there is certainly a debate to be had about when the “next big thing” will displace browsers vs. how what we call a browser will evolve over time.

For the foreseeable future, browsers are a fundamental part of Internet life. Firefox is a key component of keeping the web open, interoperable and participatory. Thus the importance of its public benefit nature.

Firefox is a Public Asset

August 9th, 2007

Recently a Mozilla observer and contributor asked why Firefox isn’t treated as a typical for-profit, commercial effort, and why we are giving up the chance to get rich. This is a great topic for discussion, I’m glad it was raised. I’ve got a very strong opinion on this, and am quite interested in what others think.

There are many reasons why Firefox is a public asset, built for public benefit rather than private wealth.

To start with, we want to create a part of online life that is explicitly NOT about someone getting rich. We want to promote all the other things in life that matter — personal, social, educational and civic enrichment for massive numbers of people. Individual ability to participate and to control our own lives whether or not someone else gets rich through what we do. We all need a voice for this part of the Internet experience. The people involved with Mozilla are choosing to be this voice rather than to try to get rich.

I know that this may sound naive. But neither I nor the Mozilla project is that naive, and we are not stupid. We recognize that many of us are setting aside chances to make as much money as possible. We are choosing to do this because we want the Internet to be robust and useful even for activities that aren’t making us rich.

It’s possible that some participants are deferring the chance for personal wealth rather than giving up on it. Contributing to Mozilla, passing up opportunities for stock and wealth now, and planning to step back into that world after a while. This is a topic I’d love to discuss further and may write more about before too long.

But for now I want to concentrate on why I have always believed — and still do — that Firefox can not become a tool for some people to get rich. And why I believe the organizational home for Firefox (the Mozilla Corporation) must remain dedicated to the public benefit.

Firefox is not the creation of a “company” or a set of employees. The Mozilla Corporation and its employees are important, but not enough. Not remotely enough. And even if we had 2 or 3 or 4 times as much money or employees it would still not be enough.

Firefox is a great product because thousands and thousands of people care about it, and contribute to making it better. And the Firefox phenomena is even further removed from anything that could be accomplished if Firefox was a private company. Imagine 50 million people, or 100 million people or more. Now imagine getting all those people to download, install, and migrate to Firefox even though they have a similar piece of software already on their machines.

That used to be known as impossible. Today it’s known as Firefox. It is happening because tens of thousands — I believe hundreds of thousands of people — have taken it upon themselves to create Firefox, to spread Firefox, to localize it, to extend it, to tell others, to install it for others, to help others use it.

Firefox generates an emotional response that is hard to imagine until you experience it. People trust Firefox. They love it. Many feel — and rightly so — that Firefox is part “theirs.” That they are involved in creating Firefox and the Firefox phenomena, and in creating a better Internet. People who don’t know that Firefox is open source love the results of open source — the multiple languages, the extensions, the many ways people use the openness to enhance Firefox. People who don’t know that Firefox is a public asset feel the results through the excitement of those who do know.

Firefox is created by a public process as a public asset. Participants are correct to feel that Firefox belongs to them. They are correct legally, since the Mozilla Foundation’s assets are legally dedicated to the public benefit. They are correct practically because Firefox could not exist without the community; the two are completely intertwined.

Periodically someone suggests that it’s possible to build a community like this around a core of people who own a company, and use that company for the express purpose of generating wealth for a few. I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it on practical terms. The participants I meet radiate the conviction that Firefox exists to benefit all of us. I don’t buy it on a philosophical level either. A people-centered Internet needs some way for people to interact with the Internet that isn’t all about making money for some company and its shareholders.

We need a public benefit aspect to the Internet. That’s why we started building browsers in the first place. That’s why we build Firefox. That’s why we build Thunderbird, and why we’ll build future products.

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