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Mozilla isn’t a socially responsible business (it’s better)

June 22nd, 2007 by Nicholas Reville

Seth Bindernagel, who runs the community-giving program at Mozilla, has started writing about the social and public interest role that the organization serves. This is fantastic. Far too many people know Firefox as simply a better web browser and don’t realize how crucial it is has been and will be for keeping the web open to everyone.

In many ways, I view Mozilla as an activist organization and I have a hunch that a lot of people involved with the project do as well. Mozilla has a mission– they build Firefox because it helps keep the internet open. Perhaps because Mozilla grew out of a community that’s not traditionally tied to politics and advocacy, the public interest part of their story has tended to be overlooked or pigeonholed in technical terms. But these days I don’t think anyone still sees the future of the internet as a niche issue; it would be like saying that the freedom to print and read books is only of concern to the publishing industry.

I wrote to Seth about his first post on this topic, “Mozilla as a Socially Responsible Business” and I’ve decided to post my thoughts here also.

Mozilla is an amazing example of a self-sustainable organization that advances the public good. The term ‘social entrepreneurship’ fits pretty well; Mozilla uses some business techniques in its effort to advance the public good. I think Seth’s blog post is very much on point, but I get a little nervous when I hear the term ‘socially responsible business’ and I wanted to explain why I think it sells Mozilla short.

In my view, ‘corporate social responsibility’ applies to businesses that tries to conduct its work in a responsible way. Businesses are generally designed to maximize profit and that’s most important bottom line. In that framework, any ‘socially responsible’ activity must fit the profit directive. It so happens that many things, like energy saving or donating to charity to gain publicity, do advance both the public and private good.

But Mozilla doesn’t just perform its primary mission in a ‘responsible’ way. Mozilla’s primary mission is a public interest mission, and that’s extremely different than anything ‘responsible’ that the Gap, McDonalds, or Walmart might do. A company that makes software, while buying their electricity from windmills and donating to charity, could be called a ‘socially responsible’ software company. But a business that is designed to serve the public good, like Mozilla, goes far beyond that.

This distinction becomes much clearer when you contrast Mozilla with a classic ‘socially responsible business’, Microsoft.
Microsoft is ‘socially responsible’ business by almost every typical standard– they give away money, are sponsoring the Live Earth concerts, and probably run a relatively environmentally friendly operation. They are included in many ‘socially responsible’ investment funds. But Microsoft’s core business practices are specifically and consistently designed to monopolize the market, limit consumer choice, and corrupt open standards. It would probably be impossible for Microsoft to make as much money if they stopped monopolizing operating systems and office suites; therefore, their social responsibility can’t extend to openness.

Mozilla would never seek to restrict choice or openness because the project and the organization are specifically designed to create openness. This mission is built into their structure legally (they are a 501c3 charitable organization so they can’t be acquired) and technologically (anyone could take their open-source code and compete with them at any time). But just as importantly, the founders, board members, and staff do this work because they are fighting for the public good. Mozilla pays its staff with income from a search deal with Google. Organizational theory predicts that self-preservation and expansion tend to drive key behaviors of organizations. But everyone at Mozilla would choose to drop the Google deal in a heartbeat if it started to corrupt their social mission (they really would). That’s what makes them different.

13 Responses to “Mozilla isn’t a socially responsible business (it’s better)”

  1. Nathan Jones says:

    Excellent thoughts. :-)

  2. Matt Cox says:

    I couldn’t read that without squirming; knowing full well that you wouldn’t have published anything like this on the democracy blog if you weren’t jumping in bed with them.

    (I mean from a company perspective, I don’t want to start rumours about Nicholas and Seth) :P

    Whilst I agree with a certain parts of the article, I still prefer Opera over Mozilla. Sure, Opera isn’t open source; but their ethos is equally impressive and what they strive to achieve is for the good of the internet.

  3. Aaron Strontsman says:

    I’m consistent with a lot of what you said, but …
    a) I think any company serves the public (or it would soon have to withdraw from the market), though, of course most companies think different — completely in line with what Adam Smith thought out.
    b) I don’t think you can compare traditional company models like Walmart with Mozilla, because Walmart couldn’t just give away “open food” or “free food”, they can’t just copy it as easy as Mozilla can copy software.
    c) Microsoft have built their business almost entirely upon direct customers: people who use their OS, which is somewhat straightforward. Mozilla make their money from a company (that more or less needs Mozilla to retain a platform for its Gmail and (monopolistic) search services to defend its Monopoly against Microsoft’s and Adobe’s new platforms) that makes its money from a lot of other companies that make their money from consumers, which is a somewhat complicated way of building a sustainable business. But as you’ve already mentioned Mozilla is not about building a business, but producing open implementations of open standards. Though, it couldn’t live without charging someone (either Google or the customers via fund raising). (However, this also has the advantage that Mozilla don’t need to feed hungry shareholders (directly?).)
    What I wanted to say is that Mozilla sure is a better company Microsoft could ever be, but that there is no perfect model of an organisation. And although Mozilla might be one of the best in software development, this model is not transferable to businesses that don’t sell “ideas” (software, music, books … — any creative work that can be stored electronically).

  4. Nicholas Reville says:

    Matt- I really disagree. We’ve had a close relationship with Mozilla for more than a year because we’re both working on projects that have similar goals. I’ve always admired what they’re doing and have been a Firefox user since version 0.5. I’ve definitely been able to learn more about the organization recently, but their philosophy has been visible for years. In many ways, their organization has always been a model of what PCF would like to become.

  5. Tristan says:

    Nicholas, your article is really impressive. Would you mind me asking volunteers to localize it into French (and potentially other languages)? I won’t promise it will happen (volunteers do what they want, when they want), but having the green light from you may trigger a translation.

    –Tristan Nitot (Mozilla Europe)

  6. Nicholas Reville says:

    Tristan, good idea– i’ll do that!

  7. Tristan says:

    Nicholas,

    A group of volunteers have kindly done a translation of your article. It’s now in French on my own blog:

    http://standblog.org/blog/post/2007/07/04/Mozilla-nest-pas-une-entreprise-socialement-responsable-cest-mieux

  8. [...] Je vous invite à lire la traduction de l’article Mozilla isn’t a socially responsible business (it’s better) sur Standblog, le blogue de Tristant Nitot. Cet article, écrit par Nicholas Neville et traduit par le groupe de travail Framalang (plus d’informations au début de la traduction) est une réponse à l’article de Seth Bindernagel intitulé Mozilla as a Socially Responsible Business (Mozilla, une entreprise socialement responsable) et explique pourquoi, selon Nicholas, Mozilla est plus que cela en étant une société servant le bien public et non pas une entreprise socialement responsable, terme réducteur pour elle. Je trouve cette différence particulièrement intéressante. entreprise, firefox, framalang, logiciel libre, mozilla, social, standblog Trackback URL [...]

  9. [...] I’ve had a lot of positive response to my recent post about Mozilla and ‘corporate social responsibility’, Mozilla isn’t a socially responsible business (it’s better). [...]

  10. [...] Democracy Player est à mon sens un des outils/application/communauté/chaîne de diffusion vidéo des plus intéressants disponible et développé actuellement. Voici qu’un des derniers articles de leur blogue, “Mozilla isn’t a socially responsible business (it’s better)”, vient d’être traduit en français. Une belle contribution qui précise avec justesse ce qui devrait être compris lorsque l’on parle de responsabilité sociale en général. Et c’est valable pour de nombreux secteurs à l’heure des hamburgers bio-équitables et autres gazons sans OGMs, trop souvent prétextes à mauvais commerce… [...]

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