How much Europe is included in an open web?

Interview with Mozilla’s Chief Innovation Officer Katharina Borchert

How much Europe is included in an open web?

Interview with Mozilla’s Chief Innovation Officer Katharina Borchert

Freedom, openness and diversity for all: this is the Internet that Mozilla is fighting for. For this great mission to be successful, local priorities increasingly come to the fore. Despite some similarities: Europe is distinctly different from Silicon Valley. As Chief Innovation Officer at Mozilla, the native-born German Katharina Borchert has championed strengthening Mozilla’s European perspective and presence.

How important is a local view for a healthy Internet?


Katharina Borchert: In my opinion, we’ve been too quiet in Germany. That is why I am glad that we have now expanded our office and have been able to concentrate on specific areas of competence. It is a truly representative location that reflects both Berlin and Mozilla. I am really excited about what has developed here in the past two years. Germany is one of the most important markets for us – not just on a European level but worldwide. Developing collaborative software and enabling people to contribute and actively shape parts of the Internet, has always been very well received in Germany.

"There are many small organizations in Berlin that can collaboratively make a big difference"

Besides the offices in London, Paris and Brussels, all of which carry out important functions, the Berlin office is the largest in Europe. Will the future of the European Internet be decided in Berlin?

This can be viewed from two perspectives: On the one hand, Germany has gained particular attention within Europe and has taken a special leadership role. On the other hand, Berlin has emerged as a hot spot in the past decade, especially for the Internet and technology sector. A vibrant tech startup ecosystem has evolved  here. The extremely creative atmosphere with lots of art and pop culture is also inspiring and is attracting global talent.

What role does it play that the local activism around Internet policy is very constructive and value driven?

There are many small organizations that collaborate with one another to make a big difference collectively. Berlin is simply a fertile ground for what Mozilla can offer. We do not just talk about data protection, security and privacy, but also embed Mozilla’s  principles and values in our software. We do not only talk the talk, we walk the walk. This has always made Mozilla particularly appealing to me — and also well positioned in the German market.

“The poor development of broadband Internet is much more dramatic than the German’s alleged fear of technology”
Katharina Borchert Mozilla Chief Innovation Officer

In a recent study by Bertelsmann, Germany was ranked in 44th place in terms of mobile Internet speed and was called a “digital developing country”. Is it really that bad?

The Bertelsmann study is mainly concerned with broadband development. And in this area, Germany is indeed in a dire situation. There are countries where 73% of the population have access to broadband Internet. In Germany it is 6.6%. We are losing the connection to the future. This is a real warning signal that I regard as much more dramatic than the German’s alleged fear of technology or the hesitance in adapting new technologies. If you look at industry automation processes or developments around the Internet of Things, Germany is actually in very good place.


So, how much of Europe is included in a free and open for all Internet?

This depends significantly on how Europe will set the pace. It concerns all possible topics from data protection to broadband development. Europe has certain characteristics and values that the Internet needs and which Europe can be proud of.


Is there anything else Silicon Valley can learn from Europe?

Data protection is certainly an issue where Europe has already set extremely important priorities for the past ten years. In the US, regulation is always the last resort. They prefer to rely on the regulatory forces of the free market. This is quite different in Europe: Legislation is often viewed as an important approach to reflect a social value consensus and to take into account the interests of all citizens.


How can these different worlds come together ideally?

As someone at home on either side of the Atlantic, I see an interesting tension. The regulatory impulse from Europe also has an impact on product and market design from Silicon Valley. I believe that this is a European strength, and many Americans might might certainly beg to differ: Europe has a different view on security and data protection. This also concerns discussions such as workers’ rights in the digital economy and how we shape the future of a digital labor market with increasing automation.

“We fight against monopolization on the web. In that respect, Mozilla's opinion is very European”
Katharina Borchert Mozilla Chief Innovation Officer Mozilla Berlin Office

So, what does Mozilla already do well?

Mozilla is a great employer, doing many things, whether here or in the States, that have become standard pratice in Europe. Parental leave programs, for example, are still rather unusual from the American perspective. Mozilla offers a great one nevertheless. In this way, Mozilla reflects European values. This also applies to the attitude towards concentration of market power on the web. In the US, this is not perceived as a threat, while most people in Europe are very critical of monopolies or a strong concentration of power. In that sense Mozilla’s opinion is very European, because we actively try to fight them.


In this context, Mozilla has created the concept of Internet Health. What is it about?

We looked at the development of environmental protection and the environmental movement for this concept of Internet Health. From our perspective, the Internet is one of the largest, most powerful and most valuable public resources of our time. A resource that is at risk.


What does that mean?

Thanks to network effects the market power is in the hands of a few, very influential, supranational corporations. This means that these companies will increasingly decide how to use this resource, which is supposed to be open and public, as well as deciding what happens with our data. Mozilla cares about very different topics in this context, ranging from privacy and data security, to copyright and a decentralized network structure.


How does Mozilla assess the health of the Internet?

We are currently identifying core indicators through which we hope to make better measurable how the Internet develops. Very similar to the rate of deforestation or water purity for environmental protection. We are approaching this in a very collaborative way, involving many people helping to define these indicators. We also invite people to participate in actions Mozilla is taking, for example in running advocacy campaigns. We regularly publish the results in our Internet Health Report. Civil society thus has the opportunity to take control and say ‘Hey! We do not agree, this resource must be open and we must have sovereignty over our data!’

“Digital literacy initiatives across age groups and countries are a crucial aspect of Internet Health”

What can we do right now for the threatened resource that the Internet is?

First of all: create awareness. This is also a core task of Mozilla. The Internet is a system that wants to be consumed. But unless we actively fight against certain things, we can not use it freely. How we use the Internet will be entirely determined by others. Therefore, digital literacy initiatives across age groups and countries are a crucial aspect of Internet Health.


How does your role as Chief Innovation Officer relate to Internet health?

Our core task is to include as many different perspectives as possible into our innovation processes. We are an open source company. Part of our culture and our DNA is to develop products, technology and policy collaboratively. The boundaries between Mozilla employees, academic and corporate collaborators, and volunteers who are committed to our mission are fluid. One big keyword here is crowdsourcing. A great example for this is our Project Common Voice. It is about creating speech recognition software and databases that are openly accessible – unlike Siri and Alexa.

“Innovation also comes from outside an organization. This means, being open and collaborative, trying new methods and finding external allies”
Katharina Borchert Mozilla Chief Innovation Officer

With the power of the community against monopolies …

Indeed. There is only a handful of companies that have sufficiently large databases of voice samples in multiple languages to build these speech recognition systems. And these databases are not publicly accessible, neither for research, nor for startups – only for the companies that own them. To enable competition and broad innovation we decided to build our own voice database with the help of crowdsourcing, and open it up for anyone to use. My team developed a website and an app that make it easy for everyone who wants to participate to donate their voice to our project. These data sets can then be used to train and improve speech recognition technology. This example demonstrates Mozilla’s approach to capture the creativity and power of many people to build a project together and create a new public resource.


With the new Berlin office, Mozilla is aiming to be not only a European hub, but also a meeting point and interface for Internet policy makers, activists, founders and creative people. Does the modern idea of community go beyond code and technical development?

Innovation means to constantly improve our own processes and practices. Open source software development will continue to be central to the way Mozilla works. At the same time, we are trying new ways to be open and collaborative. This involves a range of partnerships: with research facilities, other companies or non-profit organizations that share our values and are interested in what we’re doing. It also means collaborating on everything from code to new products to policy positions to standards to open data.


With employees from 13 countries, the Berlin office is currently the most international location for Mozilla. In addition, there is an extremely wide range of expertise…

This office is characterized by a great variety of people. We have a very good gender balance, we have people from different geographic regions and cultural backgrounds. And we also have people with very different professional  backgrounds and areas of competence. This includes really everything from community development to marketing to app development, crypto engineering, data scientists and voice recognition specialists.


What else is special about the Berlin office?

I do notice certain qualities which I find very German in the most positive and charming way. When you get here, you will first notice this endlessly long table in the kitchen, which is seats  40 people. You eat lunch together! In fact, I believe that it is a very German cultural asset: having meals together. I have not experienced this in any other Mozilla office, and I appreciate that very much.

Text: Anne Nürnberger
Photos: Falko Siewert