Raphael Mimoun on creating tech for human rights and justice, combatting misinformation and building a privacy-centric culture

At Mozilla, we know we can’t create a better future alone, that is why each year we will be highlighting the work of 25 digital leaders using technology to amplify voices, effect change, and build new technologies globally through our Rise 25 Awards. These storytellers, innovators, activists, advocates. builders and artists are helping make the internet more diverse, ethical, responsible and inclusive.

This week, we chatted with Raphael Mimoun, a builder dedicated to making tools that empower journalists and human rights defenders. We talk with Raphael about the launch of his app, Tella, combatting misinformation online, the future of social media platforms and more.

How did the work you did early on in human rights after you completed university help you understand the power of technology and ultimately inspire you to do a lot of the work that you do right now?

Raphael Mimoun: So I never worked in tech per se and only developed a passion for technology as I was working in human rights. It was really a time when, basically, the power of technology to support movements and to head movements around the world was kind of getting fully understood. You had the Arab Spring, you had Occupy Wall Street, you had all of these movements for social justice, for democracy, for human rights, that were very much kind of spread through technology, right? Technology played a very, very important role. But just after that, it was kind of like a hangover where we all realized, “OK, it’s not just all good and fine.” You also have the flip side, which is government spying on the citizens, identifying citizens through social media, through hacking, and so on and so forth — harassing them, repressing them online, but translating into offline violence, repression, and so on. And so I think that was the moment where I was like, “OK, there is something that needs to be done around technology,” specifically for those people who are on the front lines because if we just treat it as a tool — one of those neutral tools — we end up getting very vulnerable to violence, and it can be from the state, it can also be from online mobs, armed groups, all sort of things. So that was really the point when I was like, “OK, let’s try and tackle technology as its own thing.” Not just thinking of it as a neutral tool that can help or not.

There’s so much misinformation out there now that it’s so much harder to tell the difference between what’s real and fake news. Twitter was such a reliable tool of information before, but that’s changed. Do you think that any of these other platforms can be able to help make up for so much of the misinformation that is out there?

I think we all feel the weight of that loss of losing Twitter. Twitter was always a large corporation, partially owned by a billionaire. It was never kind of a community tool, but there was still an ethos, right? Like a philosophy, or the values of the platform were still very much like community-oriented, right? It was that place for activists and human rights defenders and journalists and communities in general to voice their opinions. So I think that loss was very hard on all of us.

I see a lot of misinformation on Instagram as well. There is very little moderation there. It’s also all visual, so if you want traction, you’re going to try to put something that is very spectacular that is very eye catchy, and so I think that leads to even more misinformation.

I am pretty optimistic about some of the alternatives that have popped up since Twitter’s downfall. Mastodon actually blew up after Twitter, but it’s much older — I think it’s 10 years old by now. And there’s Bluesky. So I think those two are building up, and they offer spaces that are much more decentralized with much more autonomy and agency to users. You are more likely to be able to customize your feeds. You are more likely to have tools for your own safety online, right? All of those different things that I feel like you could never get on Threads, on Instagram or on Twitter, or anything like that. I’m hoping it’s actually going to be able to recreate the community that is very much what Twitter was. It’s never going to be exactly the same thing, but I’m hoping we will get there. And I think the fact that it is decentralized, open source and with very much a philosophy of agency and autonomy is going to lead us to a place where these social networks can’t actually be taken over by a power hungry billionaire.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that we face in the world this year on and offline, and then how do you think we can combat it?

I don’t know if that’s the biggest challenge, but one of the really big challenges that we’re seeing is how the digital is meeting real life and how people who are active online or on the phone on the computer are getting repressed for that work in real life. So we developed an app called Tella, which encrypts and hides files on your phone, right? So you take a photo or a video of a demonstration or police violence, or whatever it is, and then if the police tries to catch you and grab your phone to delete it, they won’t be able to find it, or at least it will be much more difficult to find it. Or it would be uploaded already. And things like that, I think is one of the big things that we’re seeing again. I don’t know if that the biggest challenge online at the moment, but one of the big things we’re seeing is just that it’s becoming completely normalized to grab someone’s phone or check someone’s computer at the airport, or at the border, in the street and go through it without any form of accountability. People have no idea what the regulations are, what the rules are, what’s allowed, what’s not allowed. And when they abuse those powers, is there any recourse? Most places in the world, at least, where we are working, there is definitely no recourse. And so I think that connection between thinking you’re just taking a photo for social media but actually the repercussion is so real because you’re going to have someone take your phone, and maybe they’re going to delete the photo, or maybe they’re going to detain you. Or maybe they’re going to beat you up — like all of those different things. I think this is one of the big challenges that we’re seeing at the moment, and something that isn’t traditionally thought of as an internet issue or an online digital rights issue because it’s someone taking a physical device and looking through it. It often gets overlooked, and then we don’t have much kind of advocacy around it, or anything like that.

Raphael Mimoun at Mozilla’s Rise25 award ceremony in October 2023.

How is this issue overseas compared to America?

It really depends on where in each country, but many places where we work, we work with human rights defenders who on the front lines, and journalists who are on the front lines in places that are very repressive. So there is no form of accountability whatsoever. They can take your phone again. It depends on where, but they can take your phone, put it into the trash, and you’ll never see it again. And you have no recourse whatsoever. It’s not like you can go to the police because they laugh at you and say, “What the hell are you doing here?” 

What do you think is one action everybody can take to make the world and our lives online a little bit better?

I think social media has a lot of negative consequences for everyone’s mental health and many other things, but for people who are active and who want to be active, consider social networks that are open source, privacy-friendly and decentralized. Bluesky, the Fediverse —including Mastodon — are examples because I think it’s our responsibility to kind of build up a community there, so we can move away from those social media platforms that are owned by either billionaires or massive corporations, who only want to extract value from us and who spy on us and who censor us. And I feel like if everyone committed to being active on those social media platforms — one way of doing that is just having an account, and whatever you post on one, you just post on the other — I feel like that’s one thing that can make a big difference in the long run.

We started Rise25 to celebrate Mozilla’s 25th anniversary. What do you hope that people are celebrating in the next 25 years?

I was talking a little bit earlier about how we are building a culture that is more privacy-centric, like people are becoming aware, becoming wary about all these things happening to the data, the identity, and so on. And I do think we are at a turning point in terms of the technology that’s available to us, the practices and what we need as users to maintain our privacy and our security.  I feel like in honestly not even 25, I think in 10 years, if things go well — which it’s hard to know in this field — and if we keep on building what we already are building, I can see how we will have an internet that is a lot more privacy-centric where communications are by default are private. Where end-to-end encryption is ubiquitous in our communication, in our emailing. Where social media isn’t extractive and people have actual ownership and agency in the social network networks they use. Where data mining is no longer a thing. I feel like overall, I can see how the infrastructure is now getting built, and that in 10,15 or 25 years, we will be in a place where we can use the internet without having to constantly watch over our shoulder to see if someone is spying on us or seeing who has access and all of those things.

Lastly, what gives you hope about the future of our world?

That people are not getting complacent and that it is always people who are standing up to fight back. We’re seeing it at. We saw it at Google with people standing up as part of No Tech for Apartheid coalition and people losing the jobs. We’re seeing it on university campuses around the country. We’re seeing it on the streets. People fight back. That’s where any change has ever come from: the bottom up. I think now, more than ever, people are willing to put something on the line to make sure that they defend their rights. So I think that really gives me hope.

Get Firefox

Get the browser that protects what’s important

Share on Twitter