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.