Michelle leads the Mozilla Foundation and has years of expertise in IoT and Smart technology policy.
Michelle Thorne - Senior Program Officer at the Mozilla Foundation, Leader of the Open Design of Trust Things (OpenDoTT) PhD program with Mozilla and the University of Dundee
Hi, my name is Michelle Thorne, and I work for the Mozilla Foundation. We’re behind the browser Firefox. And for the last few years, we’ve been working on internet health.
Thank you. Thanks so much for making the time. So we want to have this conversation as part of Edgeryders Internet of Humans project. And I just wanted to explore a little bit with you, in your words, how you tackle these value driven digital projects? What is it you actually work on? What are the challenges, but maybe that started with how did you get involved involved with this and what you’re excited about these days?
I got first gotten interested in all things internet about 15 years ago.
And I was actually a very passionate early Wikipedia when the project was just getting started. And I remember telling everybody I knew like my university professors, “there’s this amazing website that lets you edit all these these different articles. And it’s all the world’s knowledge and all the world’s languages.” And I just thought that was the most ambitious and coolest thing on the internet. And so that was kind of my window into free culture and open source. After going to the first week of <mania?> in Frankfurt, Germany, I learned about Creative Commons, where I later worked. And after being at Creative Commons for a few years, started to work at the Mozilla Foundation. So the idea of, you know, open, participatory, global, ambitious digital projects has always been the big job for me.
Okay, so participation, I think that’s a really important part. How do we put users or people like you into that scenario first? And how do we empower them? And how does that play a role in your your more recent work?
I’m really interested in the internet, and the role it plays in society. I see it as a global public resource, and something really worthy of attention and care. I think one of the challenges we see today is that participation is more complicated than it was, let’s say, in the earlier days of the internet, we’ve seen the rise of these big centralized platforms, which use their corporate policies to control how you participate. There is very little governance from the user side, and how those platforms might change or respond to people’s needs. And we’re also seeing the rise of behaviors online, hate speech and other kinds of violence aggravating actions that have kind of put people into retreat, or help to polarize people. So we have other social media platforms who really benefit from benefit from outrage and benefit from content that gets, quote, engagement. But it’s actually creating a kind of polarized atmosphere online, and people are retreating and participating less, or just participating in their smaller groups and just talking about the average. So it’s become a kind of, at least in my experience, and what I’ve heard anecdotally and seen in some studies, just the internet as a place of participation is a lot more money, the Muslim foundation on on the team that I’m on, we support all sorts of leaders in the internet health movement, who are tackling these different kinds of issues. So there’s a whole group of people, Camille included, who are talking about misinformation, and how do you combat the rise of misinformation online? People talking about how do we talk about hate speech and radicalized speech online. And we also run a bunch of campaigns around these topics that I’ve been working on the last few years is the Internet of Things, and how to make it more responsible, more open, more private, and also include these ideas of participation and co-creation, because the Internet of Things has typically been a lot of black box appliances, without a lot of in a real agency to change them.
You just touched on something that I personally find really interesting, because as you know, I also work a lot around IoT. And Internet of Things is one of these awkward fields that doesn’t have really clear bounds. But you touched on one of the inherent issues there, like you met just mentioned, openness and privacy, and as a term, how do you resolve that? Or how do you think about this tension?
The IoT projects, I think, get it right or on the right path are ones that are open in their designs and their code and in their explanation of their business model and around like, how how the thing works, and also how did this thing comes to be in terms of supply chain, and in terms of the materials and things that go into it, as well as the third parties that work with it. So there’s a whole, for me, openness is starting to become a much broader, you know, includes many things are, you know, transparency and how that device is made. What that device interacts with, in addition to the licensing of a name, it’s like codes. And I think that those practices help to build trust. Because when you can see that an audit that information you can better understand is this a service or product that I’m willing to trust. And I think part of what that openness is about is around disclosing what happens with your data, what partners that company is in contact with or, partnering with, what their IT security update policies are, these are all things that help you make an informed decision whether you will trust this device with your data, and therefore, consider it a privacy worth preserving.
You talk about privacy and data protection and the right to your own privacy. I’ve recently read a few really interesting points that I have to admit I hadn’t quite realized that they had to put it so eloquently around individuals, the role of individuals versus collective rights. So we have a corporations that <to bear thing?>. We have lawmakers to kind of provide a framework for that. But a lot of the rhetoric, especially on Silicon Valley, and even a lot of the activist groups is the individual needs protect their own right? What do you think about that?
I think in general, we put too much pressure on the individual to have to protect themselves and all sorts of areas of our lives, technology, internet, it’s just one of them. I do think there are responsibilities of governments and corporations. And I think we’re seeing the rise of, thanks to digital tools, some sort of collective agency and collective bargaining. So pools of users able to put together their demands, their needs, their permissions, and through more collective bargaining, able to negotiate. And so I think that for me, that’s a kind of a new area worthy of more exploration and others that some people may be sitting in this network are looking at things like digital cooperatives. And I think that that’s going to be a really interesting place. Because Yeah, I think, only putting the burden on the individual to have to understand all these different policies, all the different permissions, all the different technical capabilities. And do this in like the seconds of free time they have between their otherwise strapped lives is unfair, and not a society I want to advocate for.
I couldn’t agree more. And also, it’s like, as an individual, even if miraculously. And this should not be a crime in Canada, possible zero crime, but even if you will be able to read and fully understand and fully navigate all the privacy policies in the world, a lot of the magic of data exploitation still happens once the data is your individual data is collected with like data of like 150,000, or like 100 or 2 million other people. And none of the privacy policies even tagged with that level at all. That’s like the Wild West. Completely. Interesting.
So you started from the free culture was your gateway drug and open source that led you to Creative Commons, where you helped open up licenses and copyright, to give creators more power, rather than the copyright regime? That led you to do the foundation? And where you’ve been digging into into internet health? And user empowerment? What are some of the tools in the toolkit? What were some of the tools you’ve been using? I know, there’s a PhD program. That’s just kicking off. There was a thing called the almighty studio, which was like an internal program. Can you just give a brief overview of like, your personal journey there?
I started the Mozilla Foundation, when Mark Simon, the executive director, had also just recently joined. And he had the ambition to take the Mozilla Foundation, which was pretty strongly just focused on Firefox, the browser, and maybe a little bit the web as a platform, and said, like, we need to be fueling a movement for the help of the internet. And so his application blog post is called A Million Brazilians. And at the time, that was a quite radical and ambitious proposal to the organization. And so I’ve been working with him for over a decade, and the things that I have done and have helped to make that vision a reality. Little bit, these projects started off with what’s called the Mozilla Festival. And the idea was, let’s bring together these different, primarily open players in the open space. So we had people from open hardware, open science, open education. And we had Wikipedia there, you know, we had a collection of project open video, there was a smattering of these open efforts around the world. And we thought let’s bring them together. And here’s a look at also learn from all these different movements that we’re applying openness to other fields. So that’s where you build your rainbow coalition, so to speak. Okay. And that helps give
us specific projects and people that we could be investing in and supporting over the years. And what’s interesting is even over a decade that’s had for various permutations, but a lot of the key ideas still continue. So I still think I still use convenience as this really important way to bring together a coalition, a network of people who might otherwise not work together, to really create, like, a new community of practice out of these diverse groups. And by working on specific and achievable projects, you are able to actually give people like a collaborative substrate that lets something move forward. So I think that those some of those templates that still continue. And I have definitely learned over the years, but I think those are are quite powerful tools, especially in the nonprofit space.
So that’s communities of practice. Individually walk us through the learning curve of the Open IT Studio and how that led to open dot and set the stage for the next chapters.
One theme that kind of emerged through that work of the years, which also include included web literacy, and being part of the kind of learn to code movement was this idea of before the first falling at the Physical Web.
Depending on circle you’re in, you would sometimes say different words to what we set out on IoT, because that started just to be the term that was getting more traction. But anyways, I partnered with a professor from the University of Dundee, Jon Rogers, who I had worked with for many years through the Mozilla festival, we just really got along and just said, like, hey, every time we talk, there’s all sorts of ideas and things that we can be working on. So let’s just Skype with each other once a week, and see where it goes. And so for a few months, you know, he came from a design research background, really interested in the physical aspects of the web and of interaction as an electrical engineer. I was coming from this digital rights, free culture, participatory open perspective. And so we would just mash together ideas. And then it emerged, we could actually make some sort of program that could be hosted with Mozilla and the University of DD, that tried to take those different values and approaches and apply to Internet of Things. Say we started the Open IT Studio in 2016, with the idea of, let’s support a community of practice of designers, technologists, philosophers, historians, digital rights advocates, to talk about what can we do to make it a healthier space for humans. And I think that project was quite successful, definitely a highlight of my career, there were a few things that came out of it that might be interesting for people to check out. One I can recommend is the Anatomy of AI, which is a collaboration between <blood and jeweler from Sherry labs, and Kate Crawford from AI now?>
And they took an Amazon Alexa. And they said, let’s do a truly exploded view. So in design, you have this thing called exploded me, which usually just shows you the physical parts that go into device. But we said with connected devices, the story is much bigger than just the small material parts that go into it. So <what I’m?> created the most amazing map, it’s four meters by four meters, which was exhibited at the V and A Museum in London and has toured around Europe and beyond. And it’s shows you the lifecycle of an Amazon Alexa from the mining and the smelting and the production of the components to then when it’s actually running all of the data centers and content moderation advertising to the end of life, recycling, and others and otherwise discarding of the device and what is the true cost of Amazon Alexa; what really goes into it. And I think that for me, that project, The Anatomy of AI, is such a great touchstone for when we think about IoT. Often we talk about IoT, we just see a smart light bulb, or we often just see an object, you know, some sort of traffic light or something. But it’s really the new vast network of stuff before, during and after that device where things get really interesting. So I think that that for me was just such a great example of bringing that to life.
Unknown Speaker 15:14
The victory really, really important point to highlight there, I think we’re like to really think about the analyzer the hidden costs. Because Yeah, if you see this device, it’s like, yeah, okay, here’s a device it costs x. But of course, that’s a fraction of of the story. Really. It’s just the last three minutes of a long, long saga. I mean, I guess it’s true for most products, but a connected product with chips built in. And also like a IM and cloud infrastructure, it’s a very tied into these larger hidden infrastructures.
And I think it’s not even just the last minutes, it’s actually the beginning of a whole new day, a whole new 24 hours, because so for example, Amazon Alexa, it’s sold incredibly cheaply. I mean, compact, like it’s very inexpensive device. But some of the main things it’s doing is it’s becoming a much more direct portal for people to order things from Amazon. But probably more importantly, it’s become a whole voice snippet, like gathering system, which is powering Amazon’s Alexa, that is probably the true value of having your Alexa in everyone’s home. For me it like that with working with Open IT Studio and with Jon, and with our collaborators or whichever one Peter, this kind of growing conversation amongst technologists, different professionals in the tech sector around how do we make the internet especially these newer emerging technologies within associated with Internet? How do we make them more understandable? How do we make decisions that lead to these products being more responsible, or the people making them be more responsible? So I think some of it is about transparency and understanding. So things like this map. And some of it are tools, like one project that we worked on together the TrustMark, the trust mark for IoT, which is something that you can then use as a tool for vetting whether your product needs a certain standard and hoping to be giving users some agency and figuring out like, is this something that I really want to have in my home or my life?
So would you say, if anyone who would be the main audience for for these, these products you’re mentioning, because you mentioned on the one hand, you really want to empower users and give them the tools to make better decisions. On the other hand, we discussed this tension, how individuals can only do so much when they are faced with giant global infrastructures and systems. Did you have like a specific audience in mind? And you’re thinking: does it depend on a project? How do you think about these things?
I think the place where we have the most effect, maybe some better leverage, is working with other professionals and practitioners. Because those are, that’s an audience. That’s kind of a more notable in size and scale, or size, and just and profile. And those are people who are making daily decisions in their lives that go into those products. So those were our key audiences. So working with Jon: he’s teaching next generation product designers. So we had a whole thing around education, from undergraduate to graduate. And now we have a PhD program funded by the U looking at responsible IoT, I think this idea of what are we doing in the higher education space to train people going into the field that will have these kinds of considerations, as well as people who are in the field who are making kind of daily decisions, and then also all sorts of kind of user advocates. So we work with Consumer Reports, we work with nonprofits, we work in the digital rights space, all these people were kind of advocating on behalf of users. And they love these kinds of examples and tools, because it helps them give point to something maybe a little more tangible or intuitive than just a policy briefing.
Policy. I wonder if what you’re describing shows that there’s there might be a generation of product designers coming up that understand these issues much, much better. And now I wonder if the same is happening in the political science schools and the law schools? What is the status there? <Or if you’re lagging behind if they’ve already like TechStars completely differently. And underwear?>
It’s a great question. I was recently reflecting with a friend of mine that when in college, I studied critical social thought. And we did a lot of thinking and writing, but very little making. And if I could recreate my degree I would have critical social and critical making as my double major. Because I think you’re right, I think actually the, let’s say the makers, I think we’re seeing this in the computer science departments and the design departments, engineering departments of all kinds are getting a lot more ethics curriculum and support to think about the ethical components of their work. I think that’s on the rise. It’s on the rise, but I think some of the other humanities actually don’t do enough making of their own. So I’m sure when you’re studying law, you would very, very few project would actually encourage you to do anything like make a trust, like a prototype, just mark that actually tries to put some of your law practice into something more tangible. And I I’m a firm believer that we learn through making and even though I’m not a skilled maker, I think that this is a an amazing process to try to turn ideas into something tangible, something that’s testable, something that lives in another mode.
What are the kinds of reactions you get when you start talking to other people about these super complex technical issues because things kind of work in our nonprofit like, that’s, that’s something that I sometimes find a bit of a struggle when you’re so steeped in that thinking, and then you are someone who you’ve learned from, but I can also learn from from the work you’ve been doing there. But they have not been sitting there thinking the same way, because they do their own thing. And then all of a sudden, you’re like, Oh, well, how do I first of all wrap my head around all the stuff you’ve been doing to see how this applies? But also, how can I distill this? And not scare anyone away and have them put their head in the sand? Because there’s such a big brain dump. And the issues are so overwhelmingly big, it’s like a weird scale and fuzzy around the edges. Does that make sense?
We exhibited at the V and A during digital design weekend, and you get, like 25,000 people come through, and check out our work. And you have to talk to all sorts of people from all walks of life. And so yes, a lot of it’s contextual, but who you’re in front of. But I find in general, many people have a smartphone, most smartphones have some sort of voice assistant running on them. I think a smartphone is one of people’s first IoT devices in this way. And so actually talking to people about their phone, how do they use their phone and the user voice assistant? What do they think about that? Do they know where that data is going? What do they think about those companies have it, it’s all those funny stories around? Accent accents being misunderstood, like the Scottish person trying to talk to Siri, in these people really relate to those stories, and have their own experiences with them. And that becomes kind of a channel through which you can talk about some of these other internet health issues.
That’s right. That’s especially true for, say, a general audience. But you mentioned that you mostly target in your practice, practitioners. Are they open for these kind of arguments? Or is this a thing that a shrug off as a Yeah, yeah, security, privacy.
I’m seeing increasingly people who don’t want their work to be adding to the shadiness in the world. <What but not everyone?> just released a really great study around tech workers and their attitudes, was focused on the UK, but they showed that I think one in five tech workers, is ready to leave a job if the employers makes an error, like an unethical decision, which cost the company like 30,000 times. So I think this is anecdotally and then also in the sector, more people want to have ethical decisions in what they build. And so I’m actually finding more people, who you don’t have to convince them that these are things to work on. It’s more that was more how oftentimes, you’ll find that people are people who work in the tech sector are coming up against the business of the company is the thing that is at odds, it may be not their product manager or their design team, everyone’s on board. But you have you coming down to some bigger question around like, how is that company financed? And so I think some of the big innovations of the coming decade will actually be around reforming our economic models.
So I think we had, like I said, as a really solid basis for you know, like, if like, have companies like a fantastic group, doing a lot of like research, you’ve like increased transparency, and started building tools and mechanisms to empower people. And I think we’re like breaking, kind of like new ground, like in a fairly literal literal like knowledge, workI kind of sense. And that you’re now involved in where you you co founded a PhD program. And PhD programs are, of course about like, contributing absolutely new research and knowledge and really expanding the field in a way that hadn’t been before. Right. So can you talk a little bit about this? And we’ll also hear more about this from john Rogers, two partners, but like, how do you get involved with this? How does this come together? And where do you see this going?
I think of how this project came to life. And thanks to the maintenance of the European Commission to prioritize these kinds of training networks, which seems to be a unique thing in the world that they say we need to get universities and in the industry together to think and to move forward to these new kinds of trainings. And especially they were interested in things like a nonprofit like Mozilla, who really focus on these more societal implications of technology. So I think that’s a really amazing that they even have this kind of like structure. So it’s going to be a three year PhD program that actually the there’s five PhD students who are at this moment moving to Dundee, Scotland to start next week. And they come, they come from all over the world. And the idea is that they’re going to be researching, through design practices, their philosophical practices through coding practices, and legal practices, ways to advance a healthier Internet of Things. So what that will look like in practice is like, very much going to be determined on what they bring to it. But we focused on different layers of where we see it playing out from the body, to the home to the neighborhood, in the city. And then we also did a cross cutting project or on the checkmark, and helps to try to bring those ideas together. So I’m quite excited to see what it’s like, I think, to have a PG program paired with a nonprofit is exciting, they’re going to also come to facility Berlin, for a year and a half to be more embedded in our office here. And then they’re being advised by an array of really amazing organizations who are at the forefront of this responsible space, moving things on, simply secure. I want to take this program, as much as I want to run it.
I think it’s really neat that you’re able to get the kind of supervisor support from people who are doing this kind of tech advocacy, also.
So that kind of opens up the space beyond like pure IoT into activism into academia, but also, one of the themes that that I’ve seen throughout this is thinking about Commons, versus just exploitation, about sustainability, in terms of short term gains. And I think recently, you’ve talked more openly and more and more today, about a greener web and more sustainability in terms of the digital services and the web infrastructure we use. Where was your thinking of this?
The stat that really set me back was learning that the internet contributes 2% of the world’s global carbon emissions, which basically puts it on par with the airline industry. I think for a long time, we’ve lived in some sort of digital denial that the internet is physical, in that sense, in the sense that it requires environmental resources and adds to pollution. But as in the tech sector, we’ve never shied away from imagining different futures and innovating. So it’s actually a place where I think the internet both is a heavy contributor to emissions, as well as it can be an amazing tool to reduce its own as well as used to mobilize and organize for climate action.
Recently, I’ve been really interested in the idea of becoming carbon neutral Internet, and what it would take to reduce those emissions. The great news is that there are many wonderful humans of the internet who are interested in this in this problem as well. And there’s already like an array of actions that are happening from moving data centers to renewables, to designing websites and web services that have a lower footprint, to extending the life of connected devices, there’s a whole bunch of things people are doing that in aggregate can actually reduce emissions. And so for me, that’s really exciting, not just thinking about it in the internet sector, but also just seeing the mobilization around a climate agenda. We see that really strongly here in Germany with Friday’s for future, and the recent European elections, this I think, strong mandate from the public to do something about it. And I’ve really taken that kind of momentum to heart.
Within Mozilla, we started a small group of people who are pushing for more climate activism within the organization, which you can expect to hear more from soon. And just being more involved and also learning. There’s a lot to learn about, about the climate crisis. But I think it’s something that now when I think about what does it mean to be responsible technologists, I think previously, I really saw it as being around openness and privacy, inclusion, and all these topics. But now I’m increasingly seeing it has to also include the climate and kind of moving up or probably down the stack really deeper into the base layers. I keep putting like penthouses on it, but actually basement that needed investigation. People that I’ve spoken to have felt this kind of dissonance between amazing internet future that, for example, that me and all these open movement people have been advocating for, and the hard reality of the climate crisis, but I think there’s a way to actually address that dissonance head on and not be paralyzed in action, but actually to do something about it. That’s, that’s where I’m at at the moment.
That’s really interesting that you’ve hinted at this, but it’s, I think, a really, really important reminder that oftentimes, if you want to put people first, it means that you need to work throughout all the conditions so that people just come first. So in this case you need data and design practices to put people in the center, you need to make sure that there’s a planetary perspective in order to, for the people to have a chance to be front and center. So that’s really interesting to see how there’s this big red thread that connects them all. And the thing is, it’s very illustrative of, of the tech industry in the tech scene over the last 10 years, from kind of utopian activists, as soon as we can, like, digitize and everything will be better, automatically to have, okay, there’s actually there’s complications once it hits a certain scale, and more people come in and all that stuff, and the dynamics change, and now we need to remedy some of the potential problems, too. Oh, now we really need to dig in and, and see if we are contributing to a problem because it’s such a dominant force of power.
Now. I think we could wrap up, is there anything I should have asked anything you’d like to add any anything, any shout outs you want to give?
I mean, just think about this project being in the context of the European Union. In much of my work over the years, I’ve really seen the European Union be this kind of beacon of hope, from be it from a regulatory perspective, be it from an agenda setting perspective be addressed from like a celebration of multiculturalism will do lingual ism. And now, also putting the climate high on the high on the priority list. Even as a non US citizen, I really believe in the project of the EU. And I think it’s one of the most modern and exciting things that is happening on the planet, I think for the EU to really be invested in a thought leader around what the internet could be and helping to create this kind of alternative vision for it that are dominated by the prevailing centralized service capitalism models. I think, you know, that hasn’t made me more public, public good perspective. I think there’s something I really am hopeful for and to help lead. So that’s exciting. And one of the reasons I was excited to participate in this project.
Awesome. Well, thank you so much for making the time.