Mozilla co-founder shares vision for a cooperative future for tech

By: Kathy Hovis,  A&S Communications
Mon, 05/13/2019

Open source software, a web of connections, a tool for meaningful collaborations, a powerhouse research tool — when Mitchell Baker thinks of the things that the internet gets right, those are at the top of the list.

But there is also a list of things the internet gets wrong. And Baker, chairwoman of Mozilla and co-founder of the Mozilla Project, said most of those come about when companies – led by humans – “create very powerful systems with very limited systems of accountability.”

Baker spoke on campus May 1 as a guest of the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity and the Department of Science and Technology Studies. She talked about the early days of Netscape, the first widely-used internet browser, and the company’s decision to release its source code to the public, which led to the creation of the Firefox browser, the Mozilla Foundation and the Mozilla Project. The Mozilla Project is a collective of employees and volunteers who are working to make the internet a global public resource, open and accessible to all.

“When the internet first came to consumers, we called it the web because it embodied our hopes for what it meant for society,” Baker said. “In the early days, we saw it as a concept with maximum capability and possibility aimed at positive, collaborative problem solving. It was an immense place to bring about individual empowerment, openness, liberty and a range of choice to a human being.

“But the tool has outpaced our understanding as a society about who we are and accountability and decency,” she said.

Baker spoke in conversation with Bruce Lewenstein, professor of science communication and chair of the science and technology studies department, and Amy Villarejo, professor of performing and media arts and faculty director of the Milstein Program. They covered topics including ethics, privacy, internet addiction, regulation and internet violence.

Lewenstein asked Baker to consider what the next generation of technology leaders will need to know in order to balance the economic and the ethical, the social and the humanitarian in the tech world.

In the past, Lewenstein said, Baker has argued that “we can’t just add another ethics course.” He asked what she thought was needed.

Baker said the word “ethics” isn’t even well-defined. “There needs to be an enhanced understanding of the interaction between technology and humanity, so clearly understanding the human brain is important — how we build patterns, how we process information, that’s a field that is rich and growing all of the time.”

She also stressed the importance of working collaboratively across fields to solve large-scale problems, but she said understanding how technology is used to stoke outrage, violence and lack of rational thought has to be a priority.

“That affects everything and the ability to manipulate a system to drive that in a large population (is important to understand),” she said. “It’s hard to solve other huge problems until we can figure that out.”


Baker’s talk was supported by the Milstein Program and by a gift from Robin Panovka ’83, a philosophy major and partner at the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in New York City.

“As technology continues to transform the human condition at an increasingly rapid pace, it is essential to break down the silos between technologists and philosophers, programmers and poets, in the hope that together we can try to shape the arc of change in a way that is consistent with our collective ideals, values and ethical beliefs, not to mention legal principles,” Panovka said. “Cornell’s unmatched breadth and depth in all the relevant disciplines positions it perfectly to play an important thought-leadership role in the fascinating developments underway.”

The Milstein Program, established through the generosity of Howard P. Milstein ’73, Abby Milstein, and Michael Milstein ’11, selects a cohort of students who have interests at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts from each new class in the College of Arts & Sciences. It combines the benefits of a liberal arts education in Ithaca in the College of Arts & Sciences with two summers spent taking courses and completing projects at Cornell Tech in New York City.

The Milstein Program brought several speakers to campus this spring, including Baker; Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater; and Todd McGrain, artist and creative director for The Lost Bird Project.


  Mitchell Baker