Building a digital future we can be proud of

Tristan Nitot

Last night, I was handed an award as “promoter of digital society”, by Telecom ParisTech, the leading Engineering school in the field of Internet and telecommunications (it was my dream school at the time, along with MIT). Here is the excerpt (translated into English) of the part that is relevant to this blog:

I’m embarrassed. I can’t accept this award personally. I’d feel like a fraud, even, because these 14 past years, I’ve promoted digital society through a project that all of you know: Mozilla.

PrixTechNum-onstage

The Digital Technologies Award event as seen from the stage

14 years ago last week, the Mozilla project was launched. I started promoting it, as a Netscape employee, in France, in Europe, and now around the world. But don’t get me wrong. It’s not about me as an individual. It’s about the project I work for, Mozilla.

The Web has been around for more than twenty years. Forty-two years ago, the first Internet (actually Darpanet) demo was made. But today is just the beginning. And it brings a question: what kind of digital society do we want to build?

So, even if I’m the guy standing here in front of you tonight, I think that the award should go to Mozilla, to these thousands of volunteers and contributors who work hard deep in the trenches so that the technology is serving individuals, and not the other way around. There are many challenges. The Web was built as a tool to share knowledge, but it has evolved in some ways that are concerning, sometimes looking like the “1984″ dystopia. Let’s face it: in this field, France and western countries compete with censorship and surveillance world leaders.

This issue is not specifically French nor solely European. Our on-line identities are not managed by government agencies but private companies. Anyone who has seen his Google or Facebook account shut down by mistake — and I’m sure it has happened to someone in this room — can testify on how painful it is to be locked out of your online life, thanks to a faceless corporation.

Mobile phones, the interface between individuals and their digital lives, their friends, their information sources, their jobs, are not under control by the users. Some monopolistic app stores offer thousands of apps, but they decide what you are allowed to run on your devices. This is a concern for freedom.

Electronic books are fantastic when it comes to accessing the knowledge of the world by reading, it’s amazing to be able to carry more than a thousand books in your pocket, but you still can’t lend a book to a friend.

So-called “free services” on the Web are actual unbalanced deals, where the users give literally priceless information in exchange of a service that actually costs a couple of dollars a year to operate. We should all think hard about this sentence: “If you don’t pay for this Web service, then you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold”.

All these challenges can be addressed. We need to, in order to build the world where we want to see our children live. This is why I beg you all, digital entrepreneurs here tonight, so that our collective efforts, on a daily basis, enable us to build a future of which we’ll be proud of.

I personally think that the Internet is a wonderful promise made to humanity. It’s up to each and everyone of us to make it reach its full potential, where users have control, where the notion of “user sovereignty” has a meaning. You can count on me, on Mozilla, on other non-profit organizations and hopefully you, to do our part.

Thank you.