Mozilla's Frank Hecker on Politics 2.0, Open Source, and Participatory Democracy

By Timothy M. O'Brien
September 12, 2008

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I had a chance to interview Frank Hecker at this year's Personal Demoracy Forum in New York City in July. Both Frank Hecker and Brian Behlendorf represented the Mozilla Foundation at this conference focused on the intersection between politics and technology. In this 25 minute interview you'll hear Frank Hecker talking about Mozilla's mission and structure, as well as his own personal views on how open source could provide a model for involving citizens in participatory democracy.

For more of Frank Hecker, be sure to read his blog: For more information about the Mozilla foundation, go to: Special thanks to Micah Sifry and other organizers of Personal Democracy Forum 2008; for continuing coverage of the political internet, see

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[Interview with Frank Hecker]

Tim O'Brien: I'm sitting here with Frank Hecker at Personal Democracy Forum 2008. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do at Mozilla?


Frank Hecker: I'm currently with the Mozilla Foundation which is the non-profit parent of the Mozilla Corporation in Mozilla and Mozilla Messaging which are the for-profit subsidiaries that do Firefox and Thunderbird respectively. So I'm concerned with the non-profit aspects of the organization, the things we do as a 501(c)(3).

TO: So a non-profit 501(c)(3) is a parent to for-profit corporations; how does that really work?

FH: It's pretty simple actually. It's--the--both the Mozilla Corporation and the Mozilla Messaging, Incorporated are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the Mozilla Foundation. They're--from a legal perspective they're for-profit companies but because the sole shareholder is a non-profit they're not beholden to you know the public markets or to private investors. They can basically act in accordance with our overall non-profit mission to promote choice and innovation in the internet and not have to worry about the sort of compromises you would encounter as a private company--or as a commercial company working in the same space.

TO: So tell me a little bit about who's involved in this parent non-profit.

FH: And Mozilla Foundation is actually a fairly small organization right now. There are four people currently of which two are full-time, including me, and then two part-time. The work we do essentially has to do with two broad areas; the first is--are the non-profit aspects of the Mozilla Project and the Mozilla Foundation in terms of our mission, things beyond Firefox and Thunderbird; and then the second has to do with Mozilla Project-wide issues within the context of the open source Project. So for example, beyond Firefox and Thunderbird there are other open source Projects that are part of the overall Mozilla Project. The Camino browser for Mac is one example; so is the Sea Monkey combined browser, email, other functionality client that runs on various platforms, comparable with the old--to the old Mozilla 1.0 product, but brought up-to-date. And there's also some people working on calendar functionality that are also not part of Firefox in the [word-00:02:03] and again we oversee that as well. So we provide services for them like keeping track of their trademarks; we allow people to donate to the Project and be able to fund Sea Monkey and Camino and related things.
We also, the Foundation is the body that from a legal perspective provides a legal framework for the entire Project, so things like if you have commit access to our source code repositories you sign an agreement; that agreement is with the Foundation.

TO: When I want to be a committer for Firefox I'm involving myself with a non-profit and not the for-profit?

FH: That's correct; the--from the legal perspective it's the Mozilla Foundation, the non-profit that is ultimately responsible for the Mozilla practice as a whole including Firefox and Thunderbird. Now what's happened in practice is that for various reasons we've delegated the task of Firefox development and overseeing Thunderbird development to these for-profit subsidiaries. If you are a Mozilla developer and you're not associated with Mozilla Corporation and Mozilla Messaging and you do things like you know you become a committer and sign an agreement or you want to assign code to the Project or whatever, the copyright--then you're dealing with the Foundation.

TO: What brings you to Personal Democracy Forum?

FH: Having us be a sponsor of the Personal Democracy Forum of 2008 was really something that Brian Behlendorf, who is one of our Mozilla Foundation Board Members proposed and the Board thought it was a good idea and we ended up doing it. The impetus behind it is that while we have traditionally been an open source Project and we've traditionally been very focused on software development, our mission as it's expressed in our Mission Statement and in Mozilla Manifesto is really a broader initiative. It's to keep the web and the internet open for all people and part of it is a technical issue to provide alternative software, open source software like Firefox, Thunderbird and other products that people can use so they're not tied into proprietary products that could become a choke-point for the people's use of the web. But part of it also could be and I think in the future will be more of a broader mission beyond just developing software. What exactly that entails is not fully formed yet; that's one of the things we want to have a discussion with our contributor community, with our user community and so on--to figure out what we should be involved in. But certainly there are aspects to an open web and an open internet that go beyond just having a choice of browser, you know things like copyright and patent issues. There are network policy issues and things like that; we may or may not get involved in particular issues but I think it's fair to say that we should at least look at these areas and see if it makes sense for us to be involved in some way--because in a sense we're--by downloading and using Firefox and Thunderbird and other products, the internet web users have put their trust in us as an organization that is looking out for them and is providing them a browser and an email client without compromises that you might find if we were a for-profit commercial organization like some of the other browser--some of the other traditional browser vendors.
In a sense we work on behalf of those users and on behalf of the contributors who make the Project what it is. From our point of view, there may be things that we can do for that broader community that go beyond just providing the software.

TO: So I've heard people talk about governments getting involved in some sort of open source effort. Could the Mozilla Foundation become involved in open source systems for municipalities and governments?

FH: It's at least a possibility although I'm not sure it's something that we would directly get involved with. What we have done in the past is we have in addition to working with Firefox and Thunderbird and other Mozilla Projects--products, we have provided more general support for the open source and free software community as a whole. So for example, we've made grants to Pearl, to Open BSD, and Open SSH; we've funded SSL work; we've funded some work with the Free Software Foundation and other folks. So from our point of view, we can't just focus on the browser and nothing else; we need to look at the larger picture. It doesn't help us if we have free software and open source software in the browser space and we have issues in other areas of the overall software [stack-00:05:47].
Now would we get involved in directly funding particular classes of applications like municipal applications and so on? I don't think so--not necessarily initially but we might at least look at the broader issues of what are the roadblocks to people developing applications like that and are there things that we might find would be consistent with our DNA and our mission that would help support those efforts. It's fair to say that we're looking at expanding our horizons. Exactly what additional areas we might get involved in is still an open question. It's still open for discussions; in fact we're--as I said we're looking for input from people from our users and from people in the Mozilla community about other things they'd like to see us involved with.

TO: And where should--and where should they go and what should they do if they want to provide that input?

FH: First off you can--they should start looking to Mozilla Manifesto because that's sort of an overall statement of principles about what we think is important as an organization and as a community. Beyond that various people have blogged about this issue and Mitchell Baker for example has--he's the Chair of the Mozilla Foundation and of the corporation and has blogged about these sorts of issues and one thing people can just do is find those blog posts and comment on them.

TO: How involved are you in the day-to-day decisions that affect something like Firefox?

FH: The Foundation by design is not directly involved in the day-to-day decisions about Firefox. In other words, what Firefox features go in and things like that; that's really the task of the Mozilla Corporation and the same thing with Thunderbird. We're not involved in direct day-to-day decisions about what features get implemented and Thunderbird--that's the task of the Mozilla Messaging, Incorporated. The Foundation is more concerned with the overall aspects of how the Mozilla Project is run, what the legal framework for the Project is, what are the governance mechanisms and so on. So a good example is one of the things we've been discussing recently and Mitchell Baker has been involved with is how do we run our--what we call our module ownership system? So within the Mozilla Project there are various areas that we call--that have what are called module code or co-modules, so the layout engine within Firefox for example is--would be a module.

TO: That would be Gecko right?

FH: Yeah; within the Gecko there's eight--within Gecko there are different parts. So within Gecko there is a layout part, there's a networking part and so on and areas of the code like that might be considered modules. There are also things like security libraries and related things, the plug-in mechanism, the extension mechanism and so on. There are also areas within the Project that are not directly involved with code but are activities that need to go on. So one activity might be how to secure--reports of security you're going to build it can handle, for example; how does the whole process work. So what we have is a system that essentially assigns module ownership to various people for these various parts of the Project. There will be a module owner for the layout let's say; there might be a module owner for how security vulnerabilities get handled and so on. We have a relatively formalized system for how those people are chosen, how they advance within the raw meritocracy of the Project and so on. Part of the things that we've been doing recently and Mitchell has been doing has been working on evolving that to make it--bring it more up-to-date and have it address the sorts of issues that we find ourselves facing as a Project.

TO: I'm familiar with the [Inaudible-00:08:43] where there's a committer and a member and then the VPs that are PMCs and then there's people on the Board. What's the structure from the lowest level to the highest level?

FH: It's not quite as formalized as the Apache Project. They have a lot more structure I think because they have a lot more Projects with--distinct Projects within the overall Apache Project. Within the Mozilla Project it runs from contributors who would do things like testing the products, submitting bug reports, maybe submitting bug fixes in some cases, and then at a certain point as you--as you do more and more you might advance to doing--to a position of more responsibility, so it--as opposed to just submitting a bug fix and having somebody check it in for you, you'd actually have commit access on your own. So that's one step as from being a typical contributor to being a committer. We have a process in which you will do that.
Another step would be becoming either a module owner or what we call a peer of module owner. So a module owner is the people responsible for a particular area and then the module owner typically has what are called peers, people who are authorized to act with the--relatively the same authority as a module owner in cases where they're not available to do something or their services are needed for some reason. So you have the module owners and then in the step above and this is what's being formalized now, we had this idea of a set of people that oversee the entire governance framework, the module ownership module if you will. And that's what Mitchell Baker and Brendan [Ike] and other folks have been working on is formalizing that.

TO: But that's not the Board per se? There is a Board?

FH: No; especially with two parallel structures that are concerned with two different things, so from a legal perspective you have multiple legal entities. The Mozilla Foundation is a legal entity; the Mozilla Corporation is a legal entity; Mozilla Messaging is a legal entity. As legal entities each of them has their own Board of Directors, so there's a Board of Directors for the Foundation and a Board of Directors for the Mozilla Corporation and a Board of Directors for Mozilla Messaging. And from a legal perspective those are the people that are responsible for the operations of those respective organizations. However there's also from a project perspective there's the governance of the overall Mozilla Project and that's where you have contributors and committers and module owners and peers and the module ownership module, owner, and so on. It's a parallel structure and like pretty much all open source projects it's not restricted to people who are associated with one of the legal entities. So for example, you could become a module owner even though you don't work for Mozilla Corporation or Mozilla Foundation. You might be a volunteer; you might work for another company like IBM or Red Hat or Sun or whoever.

TO: When you contribute to something like Firefox, Firefox has a for-profit corporation that makes a lot of money from the Google search box; is that right? How do you convince people to contribute to Firefox knowing that they're going to be generating profit for a for-profit company?

FH: Well the simple answer is that the money being generated is to serve a non-profit mission. Mozilla Corporation from a legal perspective is a private corporation; it's not--it is not a tax-exempt organization. It's not a non-profit in that sense but because its sole shareholder is the Mozilla Foundation it ultimately serves the purposes of the Mozilla Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation is in fact a formal 501(c)(3) non-profit.

TO: So it's a form of donation to a non-profit who is goals are outlined in the Manifesto?

FH: Yeah; I think the best way to put it is it's an organization--the Mozilla Corporation and Mozilla Messaging are organizations that by their legal structure are setup to serve a non-profit mission, a public benefit purpose. They are not organizations that from a legal perspective serve private shareholder interest. So for example they're--people speculated that there's going to be an IPO for Mozilla Corporation for example. That's just not going to happen because it's not an equivalent to a startup in that respect. It's not a VC funded startup; it's a corporation that serves a non-profit mission and it happens to have a particular legal structure but--that would be the same as a--in some respects as a startup but from an overall legal perspective its goal is to serve the non-profit mission of its parents and not--parent and not to serve the interest of private shareholders.

TO: You blogged about free and open source software and how those ideals are aligned with the ideals of participation in government.

FH: But first I'll preface this by saying that what I wrote in the blog post and what I'm going to tell you now are really my personal opinions. They're not really official Mozilla Foundation statements. But from a personal point of view, I think that the free software and open source world has a lot that's congruent with this emerging idea of participatory democracy and harnessing Web 2.0 concepts and software and applications in the political and policy realms. And a lot of it I laid out in the blog posts but I'll just--I'll mention a couple things. One of them is that open source projects could potentially be a good model for how you enlist people in participating more in policy issues and in the operations of the government as opposed to just going to a polling place every four years and voting for somebody or as opposed to just writing a check to a political candidate. The key is really to give people a way to contribute that makes use of the skills they have and the time that they have and provide some feedback that their contribution is actually valued and has actually made a difference.
One of the things that open source projects really have going for them is that they've done very well at figuring out how to get volunteers to be enthusiastic about participating and to provide volunteers a path by which they can come into a project, they can start doing simple things, but even the simple things make a difference. You report a bug and you can see that your bug got reported; you can read the bug report in the public bug system. You can see that it got fixed; it's a real feeling of accomplishment on the part of the person that their action no matter how small was able to make a difference. And they can progress in that to more time-consuming and more demanding tasks. They could become full-time; they can become very active bug reporters. They could fix bugs; they could do things like that. Open source projects have done very well I think at providing a smooth path by which people can come into a project and then become very involved and become really major contributors. And that's something I don't think has worked too well on the government side on the public policy side. You know people feel alienated from government because they don't understand how their particular actions affect their City or their State or their nation in terms of how it's operating. You know there's really not that much connection between voting every four years and how things get done. People tend--don't see that connection and so they get apathetic about voting and doing other things.
One of the interesting things in some of these participatory democracy ideas is really the idea of let's harness the power of web [inaudible-00:14:49], let's harness the power of Web 2.0 concepts, social networking concepts, harnessing collective intelligence concepts to get people more involved in the way that their government is operated and how their government is changes, you know how political candidates get elected. And I think if done right it can be a very powerful thing because I think that ultimately no matter what your political views you can't ignore the fact that government exists and government makes a big difference in people's lives for good or ill. We as people within the free software and open source community even though we may disagree on the particular things that are important in terms of what government might do I don't think there's any question that we have a stake as members of that community in terms of promoting good public policy, in terms of promoting things like innovation and economic growth and education and so on--not just for ourselves but for the future as well, because long-term if free software and open source community doesn't exist in an isolated bubble apart from the rest of the world--it exists as part of our overall social system, it exists as a part of our overall economy and if social and economic and political missions are not conducive to doing open source development then that's going to really hurt what we--what we do. And so that was the point I made in the blog post was that we have an interest in countries around the world--not just in the developed world but in the developing world as well. We envision countries around the world promoting good governance and getting their countries to a point where people have the leisure time, they have the educational experience; they have the skills that they can participate in this overall universe with this free software and open source.

TO: In a future world that's more participatory; you would envision a world where a citizen can involve themselves in government just like a manning list? I mean what is the equivalent of commit access for citizen involvement in government?

FH: Well it's sort of--this is where you get into blue sky thinking but it could be something as simple as providing ways for citizens to contribute information or to perform a task. Again you could think by analogy to what happens in open source projects today; there are people that contribute information, things that they know that other people don't that would be useful to know like the fact that there's a bug and here's what the bug is; so in a political context or a government context that may be people that contribute information that their government could use to basically improve services to citizens. And the key there would be having a way for that information to actually have action taken based on information and then have the person who provided the information actually know that action was taken so that they're rewarded an incentive to do more. If you look at people who contribute things like bug fixes and code enhancements in the open source project there might be analogies to that in the governance area. You might have people that contribute--that would contribute to creating policies or to drafting legislation which is after all the code by which government works. And as people do more and more of that they might find themselves deeper into the whole frame of governance; they may not work for the government but they would be influential potentially in how the government operates, just as for example when an open source project--it might be run by a company but you don't necessarily have to work for the company in order to make a difference within that project. So I think the key is going to be finding the--finding areas that are analogous between government and open source development in related spheres like collaborative development through things Wikipedia and so on, finding the areas that analogous in the government sphere and then putting mechanisms in place that promote the same--the sort of casual contributions building potentially to larger and larger contributions that you find in open source development.

TO: Talk about the difference between the conflicts between a meritocracy and a participative democracy.

FH: I think one major difference is that in a meritocracy at a certain point you can basically say you know we've heard your ideas but your ideas just don't work. You know your code doesn't work; you've got bugs; your code doesn't perform and therefore we're going to ignore you. That's what you can do in an open source project and because open source projects are voluntary you don't have to participate in them; you know you can basically say to those people you can stick around if you want to but--but really you're not contributing to the project so maybe it would just be better if you went away. And of course they can go away and they can even go away and try to start a project of their own because that's what the Freedom [of the Fourth-00:18:34] provides.

In a government and in a political entity you can't tell people to go away. If you're a citizen you're a citizen and just because a citizen says something stupid you can't read them and you can't thereby say that they're [read or right-00:18:46] out of the political structure. But what you can do within a democracy at least is you can basically say well we have mechanisms by which we attempt to persuade each other what the better course of action is and we hold a vote or do some other things like have a representative vote. If you lose the vote, well that's just the way it is and we'll do it our way and we don't--we're not going to do it your way. So that's one of the major differences. There's also a difference in the sense that a lot of times in open source projects people look at it as an issue of having technical questions as opposed to values-based questions. Is this the correct way to do something as opposed to is this the moral or good or bad way to do things. People think that in the meritocracy you're judging things rationally based on you know pure technical consideration. I don't really think that's necessarily true in all cases, because I think there's more overlap between the open source world and the political world than you might--people might think. There are a lot of things in the open source world that are values-based. A good example we had in the Mozilla Project was the whole discussion around disclosure of security vulnerabilities in the browser. Now a part of this is a technical question which is really you know--would it make the browser better or worse if we did full disclosure vulnerabilities? Would people be more likely to create vulnerabilities and exploit them or would they be less likely to? It's also a values question; there's some people that think that full disclosure is a worthy value in and of itself even it may--happens to make the project--or happened to make the product worse because you had more security exploited. You can also look at things like the GPL versus the BSD license; that's a values debate for the most part and not necessarily a technical debate. So in the open source world we have values-based discussions just like in the political world. I don't think it's purely a matter of meritocracy versus a non-meritocracy. I think the major difference between the open source world and the political world is that in the open source world it's a voluntary association and you either join or you don't, and if you don't--you don't want to join then you go up and do your own thing and the Freedom of the Fourth let's you do that. In the political world, as I said we're all in all this together at a certain level; you can't ream people out, you can't deny certain people are citizens and have rights that are [inaudible-00:20:39] citizens.

TO: If the government gets into the business gets into the business of creating software, do you believe that--that software should be released under an open source license and if so which one?

FH: Well remember that in the US at least the original idea was that the US government could not in fact copyright software. Traditionally and I'm talking about many, many years ago, traditionally all software created by the US government was in fact put into public domain. It wasn't even under an open source license because there was no copyright associated with it. What happened over the years is that--that story got weakened in various ways. You had government contractors that were developing software for the government and government contractors are exempt from those rules. You can--depending on the contract, the government contract could in fact retain copyright to government funded software. You also had people in government who thought it would be a good idea to commercialize government technology rather than leasing it in the public domain--to pick a vendor and let them have the rights to commercialize it and patent it and copyright it and so on. Personally I think that the original idea was the best idea; I think the government--if it's government funded then it should be available to the people either by putting it in the public domain or by being put under a liberal open source free software license like MIT or BSD or something like that. That's my personal opinion.

TO: What is the biggest challenge for the Mozilla Corporation and the Mozilla Foundation? What do you see--do you constantly worry that's something is going to come out of the weeds and just blindside you guys?

FH: Well let's say first off I can't really speak for the Mozilla Corporation but I'll--I can speak to some of the general broader Mozilla concerns that I have, and again this is--these are personal opinions. I think there are two broad challenges--one on the technical side and one on the non-technical side. On the technical side, I think the challenge is taking the success that we've had with Firefox and Thunderbird and other products in the traditional computing environment, traditional Windows or Mac or Linux based desktop environment and translating that success into the new environments that are coming out. The mobile environment for example and things like that--so we do have an initiative in mobile--to do a mobile version of Firefox, but as you might know the mobile market is very different from the you know desktop market and so there are new challenges there. So that's a technical--that's one example with technical or market challenge. I think another challenge for the Mozilla Foundation is really to think through what its mission should be and what it should be doing and beyond what it's doing now. In other words, is there a larger set of activities that the Foundation might be able to be involved in and might want to be involved in that goes beyond just being a sponsor for the Mozilla Project in the development of Firefox and Thunderbird and the [inaudible-00:22:56] Mozilla products. That's I think a little bit of a challenge for the Foundation--almost a definitional challenge; it's really a question of what should the Foundation be, how should the Mozilla Foundation best serve its constituencies and while retaining its overall mission of promoting an open web and an open internet and participation by people in a decentralized manner how it might evolve the set of activities it undertakes.

TO: Is the Mozilla Foundation going to get involved in space exploration?

FH: I think I can fairly safely say that the Mozilla Foundation is not going to get involved in the space exploration--not in terms of actually trying to put Firefox in orbit or anything like that--no.

TO: Are you sure that it's not already in orbit?

FH: That's actually a good question; I have no idea.

[End Hecker Interview]

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