Thoughts on Mozilla using Closed-Source Software


(Giannis Konstantinidis) #1

Disclaimer: The intention behind this letter is definitely not to demonstrate hostility towards fellow Mozilla community members or Mozilla as a whole, therefore it should not be interpreted as such. It is merely aiming to provide some food for thought regarding the long-term planning of Mozilla’s cloud-based infrastructure.

Disclaimer No. 2: I’m not criticising the software itself used by Mozilla, but rather emphasizing on the fact that using closed-source software goes in contradiction with what Mozilla stands for.

TL; DR: Mozilla is relying on closed-source cloud platforms to support its operations, in constrast to its Manifesto.

Mozilla has several times helped free the web from proprietary technologies. Think of what happened to Microsoft’s ActiveX and Adobe’s Flash, for example. Firefox has brought a significant change to the way everyone can access the web and so have done multiple other open technologies developed by Mozilla.

Mozilla embraces free and open-source software, or at least strives to. The source code of Mozilla products is released under free software and open-source software compatible licenses. Likewise, the vast majority of the the content published on Mozilla websites is released under open content licenses.

Free and open-source software is actually embedded in the Mozilla Manifesto. It constitutes Principle No. 7: “Free and open source software promotes the development of the Internet as a public resource.”

Mozilla, unfortunately, sometimes tends to forget its roots. Proprietary, closed-source solutions are leveraged to support its operations, which is completely the opposite of what Mozilla promotes. I assume these selections are made in the name of ease-of-use, maintenance and cost savings. Isn’t it ironic, however, to produce and promote free and open-source software and meanwhile use closed-source software despite the existence of equal open-source alternatives?

I came across this post on Medium.com, recently. It was presumably published on behalf of the Mozila Open Innovation Team and called for participation in an online accessibility-focused, web design sprint. The idea behind the sprint is fantastic and I certainly welcome similar initiatives - although there was something else that caught my attention.

To begin with, Medium is a proprietary service. I do realise they have released quite a few open-source components on GitHub, but the core product still remains closed-source. The Open Innovation Team seems to distribute content on Medium exclusively without at least cross-posting on any official Mozilla websites (feed aggregators do not count). Does Wordpress or similar open-source content management systems not meet the expectations of Mozilla?

Secondly, the aforementioned Medium post included a call-to-action. Interested parties would need to fill in and submit a Google Form in order to apply for the sprint. I doubt I need to elaborate any further on the extensive use of G Suite by Mozilla - many operations such as their communications and project planning rely on Google services. Has Mozilla not considered open-source software like Nextcloud for cloud storage and Collabora Online for document editing?

Thirdly, it was stated that particular design sprint would take place on Slack, the well-known collaboration platform whose core technology doesn’t come under an open-source license either. Is Mattermost or similar open-source software not comparable to Slack?

My final concern is: why does Mozilla persist on using closed-source software while there are well-established, enterprise-class open-source alternatives? Discourse and Etherpad, for instance, comprise two open-source software implementations that have been serving the Mozilla community efficiently. Can’t Mozilla keep making infrastructure-related decisions in that direction?

I am hereby asking the Mozilla leadership to take immediate action and determine which is the right path to be followed organization-wide in terms of infrastructure planning. There are several open-source solutions to be considered. If Mozilla sincerely values open-source software, as it is explicitly mentioned in the Manifesto, an example needs to be set for all of us who put our faith in the organization’s mission.

Re-posting here in order to allow for discussions to take place among our community members. Thank you!


(Emma Irwin) #2

Hi Giannis,

I wonder is the end goal about being inclusive and open to the most people, or to be as pure as possible in software choices? I remember running a Open Source Comes to Campus (Open Hatch) session a few years back where we spent nearly 2 hours - TWO hours teaching people how to use IRC. Technical people, CS students - Master students needed 2 hours to learn to say hello in IRC. This was the ‘open’ we were teaching - it’s hard, and if you can’t do this, then probably open source isn’t for you.

About the same time Open Data launched their Slack channel. And I was one who was upset/angry? that they dared to use Slack for the same reasons you listed. I even went out and researched all open source alternatives like Mattermost, like Rocketchat and experimented with hybrid like Gitter (blog post here) - only to slowly understand that user experience, and inclusiveness was being De-prioritized in the mission for pure opensource. Mattermost was like a beta product with a 90’s UI (when I tested it way back, apologies on that, I am sure it has improved) and and a terrible experience. But open…

I then started to notice that Open Data Slack had over 2000 (now over 4000) members. Open Data… A blossoming yet new movement had over 2000 members, and that really struck me. The Open Data community was thriving because they prioritized accessibility of their channel. How many ‘Open things’(data-sets, projects, collaborations) had been created as a result of that accessibility?

As for Medium, well many of us use it for syndication. Speaking only for myself, I do post on my own Wordpress blog - but syndicate to Medium, so that it might reach larger audiences (and it does).

These are just my stories, and while prioritizing and supporting open projects for me, in my work is important - it’s not all I consider these days. I wanted to respond because I have evolved my own thinking around the topic.


(Michael Downey) #3

Whether it be an individual or an organization, living a “life” centered around fundamental principles is a never-ending effort. For Mozilla, I suppose those principles are, in theory, the Mozilla Manifesto.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Mozilla, especially on the thinking that goes on internally (since much of that strategy is developed “behind the scenes”). But I do know what changes I have observed over the last 19 years, and I do listen to smart people who also have their own opinions. And the refrain I hear a to a troubling extent goes along the lines of “Mozilla has lost its way”. :frowning:

Now, I don’t think any organization or person should stay static, but if either is truly driven by governing principles, and those principles have face validity, then there should be some consistency in the general approaches and activities one undertakes year after year.

For many years now, I’ve been a fan of the author Stephen Covey, who thought and wrote quite a bit about principle-centered living. A few of his thoughts from his book “Principle-Centered Leadership” could be applied to the Mozilla that I (and others?) perceive over the past several years (emphasis added):

My experience tells me that people instinctively trust those whose personality is founded upon correct principles. We have evidence of this in our long-term relationships.

To value oneself and, at the same time, subordinate oneself to higher purposes and principles is the paradoxical essence of highest humanity and the foundation of effective leadership.

Correct principles are like compasses: they are always pointing the way. And if we know how to read them, we won’t get lost, confused, or fooled by conflicting voices and values.

Principles are self-evident, self-validating natural laws.

The lesson of history is that to the degree people and civilizations have operated in harmony with correct principles, they have prospered. At the root of societal declines are foolish practices that represent violations of correct principles.

Principles, unlike values, are objective and external.

Values are like maps. Maps are not the territories; they are only subjective attempts to describe or represent the territory.

When people align their personal values with correct principles, they are liberated from old perceptions or paradigms.

So like @giannisk, I also worry about selection & use of proprietary tools, as such choices do prima facie seem to contradict the principles expressed in the Manifesto. And I don’t think we’re the only ones that notice that cognitive dissonance.

I do feel (hope?) that I’m pragmatic enough that it’s important to not let strict interpretation to values hold you back from “getting work done”, so when there are not software options that reasonably get the job done, I totally understand falling back to a proprietary offering. But on the other hand, one should consider whether or not they have the capacity to support the open source ecosystem to bring “sub-par” tools up to the standards one needs.

(Big props to the team that has done that with Discourse, for example. Not only has Discourse been able to better meet the needs of the Mozilla community, but these improvements have helped other Discourse users too. The open source world needs more of that, and stuff the the MOSS grants are super valuable!)

So anyway, I don’t think there is an easy answer here. But in any org I’ve worked with or been a part of, I’ve always pushed folks to constantly remember & reflect on their guiding principles, and try to always keep their work “in check” to either align with those principles, or if necessary, adjust those principles to reflect the current reality of the organization. Maybe more of that principle-driven thoughtfulness within & throughout Mozilla would help to change what negative perceptions are out there. It may not be the only way, but certainly couldn’t hurt. :slight_smile:


(Giannis Konstantinidis) #4

Hey Emma,
thanks very much for your input.

I wonder is the end goal about being inclusive and open to the most people, or to be as pure as possible in software choices?

From my perspective, free and open-source software is the ideal choice when it comes to being inclusive and open to most people. It provides the user with several freedoms (the four essential freedoms): to run the software for any purpose, to study how the software works and change it, to redistribute the software and to redistribute modified versions of the software.

Closed-source software, in most cases, does not provide any of those freedoms. I don’t really see how that software is inclusive when users need to pay to obtain access, when they are unable to understand how the software works or when they have no control over their data.

Mozilla is advocating for an open web - I doubt proprietary technologies help keep the web open. Which is why I strongly believe Mozilla must stand with free and open-source software as explicitly stated in its Manifesto.

I remember running a Open Source Comes to Campus (Open Hatch) session a few years back where we spent nearly 2 hours - TWO hours teaching people how to use IRC. Technical people, CS students - Master students needed 2 hours to learn to say hello in IRC. This was the ‘open’ we were teaching - it’s hard, and if you can’t do this, then probably open source isn’t for you.

Did it take them -two- hours to join an IRC channel and type an one-line message? How did that happen? There have been several easy-to-use IRC clients out there, for years. I have demonstrated the use of IRC in my university as well - the process you described didn’t take more than 5 minutes (to be replicated by students).

In any case, embracing free and open-source software doesn’t necessarily mean we have to switch to IRC communications or generally to technologies that are no longer considered mainstream. There are plenty of unidentical solutions.

About the same time Open Data launched their Slack channel. And I was one who was upset/angry? that they dared to use Slack for the same reasons you listed. I even went out and researched all open source alternatives like Mattermost, like Rocketchat and experimented with hybrid like Gitter (blog post here) - only to slowly understand that user experience, and inclusiveness was being De-prioritized in the mission for pure opensource. Mattermost was like a beta product with a 90’s UI (when I tested it way back, apologies on that, I am sure it has improved) and and a terrible experience. But open…

I realize that in some cases it is not feasible to use free and open-source software because there are no corresponding solutions available for an enterprise environment. But when there are solutions used and trusted by large organizations and even government institutions, I can’t understand why Mozilla persists on using closed-source software.

Mattermost, by the way, nowadays looks very modern in terms of UI/UX, although I must say I haven’t taken an in-depth look.

I then started to notice that Open Data Slack had over 2000 (now over 4000) members. Open Data… A blossoming yet new movement had over 2000 members, and that really struck me. The Open Data community was thriving because they prioritized accessibility of their channel. How many ‘Open things’(data-sets, projects, collaborations) had been created as a result of that accessibility?

Wouldn’t have it been the same If they had used a free and open-source alternative? Personally, I find it ironic to advocate for open data when having little or no control over my communications data that is being stored. It’s not that no other choice exists.

I also recall when Creative Commons started using Slack as well - many free and open-source community members, including myself, were upset about their choice.

I’m going to end my reply with mentioning the work the Fedora Project is doing. It produces Fedora, one of the most well-known GNU/Linux distributions. Having thousands of contributors, it comprises one of the biggest GNU/Linux and free and open-source communities out there. The Fedora Project has a very clear policy specifying the software that can be accepted to be included in the distribution. But more importantly, it relies exclusively on free and open-source software for the online inftrastructure of the community - to the extent that e.g. Pagure is officially being used instead of GitHub or similar services.

I’m not saying Mozilla needs to become exactly like Fedora. I’m saying there are leading free and open-source projects out there that have been truly embracing open technologies for years - they exist and operate very efficiently.


(Emma Irwin) #5

Sometimes people just want to talk to other people, and software is the means in my example. (Having said that how Facebook, for example uses data is a deal-breaker for me). Discourse is a great tool, but horrible for screen readers - accessibility is also about… accessibility.

Well Giannis, I guess I was doing it all wrong somehow. Errietta who was a core contributor with Freenode was teaching the session with me. You can also review open hatch curriculum if you’re interested in what people were learning.

I don’t know really, all I can report on is that they showed great success in building their community this way. And that previous to that, there was only a mailing list, active once a year on Open Source Day. Creative Commons, like Open Data uses Slackin, which is an open source tool for Slack.

And I am going to end my participation here by saying - these are my observations, my experiences . I’m not arguing with you, so much as offering you perspectives that influenced me.


(rugk) #7

I also second the first post here. There are moe areas where it applies, e.g.:

  • the use of Google Analytics on many, many websites. Beside that it is of course a Google tracking service, which – not surprisingly – makes many people upset (even so that some abandon Firefox), but it generaly also, of course, is proprietary JavaScript.
  • Auth0, used to signin to this forum and as it seems also for Mozilla internal services, is yet another proprietary service. After Mozilla abandoned it’s own service for that (Persona), they now depend on a proprietary service, which could always go down, which might really hurt their own internal services. Besides the fact that Auth0 get’s the power of authenticating Mozilla employees, tracking them and do other evil stuff. Also, it has other downsides as well.

Just so you see: It has not have to be this way. This forum itself, BTW, is a really nice FLOSS software. Discourse is completely open-source, so yeah! It works.


(David - UK Community & Rep) #8

OK I’m going to bite on this. I’ve recently stopped co-organising a London Linux meetup after a solid year, due to my commitments within the Mozilla UK community. These somewhat purist FOSS debates really get to me.

What is the PURPOSE of this thread? It’s clearly coming from a place of anger.

I am hereby asking the Mozilla leadership to take immediate action

Come on, really?

Mozilla actively supports, and puts its money where it’s mouth is, through their MOSS program. They’re not about 100% free liberated open source software (FLOSS) usage**. Never have been. They do a huge amount of promoting alternatives, creating them, supporting them, and yes sometimes dropping them. That’s the nature of the tech industry.

As community members we can choose to build and create whatever the hell we want. If you wish to show Mozilla how amazing something is, build your own community around that thing. Yes, Discourse is a great example of that. But it’s taken YEARS to get adoption from Mozilla. Once adoption has shown to everyone how clearly amazing that thing, then people start to listen. Momentum turns heads, not shouting.

Making demands of an organisation might not be the best way about seeking change. Just my two cents.

** Edited hours later. I meant in everything they use.


(Kairo) #9

My largest concern is that MoCo is increasing becoming closed to people who do not want to use services that fall into the “unhealthy for the Internet” categories of Mozilla’s own [https://internethealthreport.org/](Internet Health Report) - using Slack, a centralized proprietary service, more and more is one example of that. The whole GApps topic always bugged me from that POV (even though I understand the internal reasons for doing it - I had discussions with people responsible for those decisions back then).
But then, I feel an even larger problem is that even NDA Mozillians cannot participate in some areas because they can’t access information and documents, which are increasingly staff-only.
That said, my motivation to contribute is also declining, due to other projects being also interesting and more open and welcoming, and due to a number of people I highly respected leaving Mozilla.


(David - UK Community & Rep) #10

Mozilla has been testing Mattermost https://chat.mozillafoundation.org/


(David - UK Community & Rep) #11

Has Mozilla not considered open-source software like…

https://wiki.mozilla.org/ParticipationSystems/CoCo_Tools_List


(Giannis Konstantinidis) #12

Hey David,
thanks for your input.

Let me quote myself:

Yes, it does support free and open-source software and open content. It is very well-known.

The issue I see is, while it promotes software freedom and openess on the web, it still leverages closed-source cloud solutions for its infrastructure despite the existence of equal, enterprise-class alternatives.

Not everybody has the time, motivation or even skills to start building communities. Not everybody makes a living from contributing to open-source projects, either.

People can, however, publicly express their disagreement on something, make calls-for-action and allow for discussions to take place. Simple as that.

I never made any demands, I simply asked. Please don’t put words into my mouth.

Thank you!


(Giannis Konstantinidis) #13

Splendid! How can we get involved? How can we help?

I’m sorry, but this is merely a software comparison table. This particular table does not currently reflect any attempts from Mozilla to implement free and open-source infrastructure solutions - with Mattermost being the only exception. Also, it hasn’t been updated for almost one year.


(David - UK Community & Rep) #14

Have you considered: the reason you are increasingly feeling this way might be that these locked down components of Mozilla have always existed but, via Mozilla’s improving transparency, you are becoming more aware of them?


(David - UK Community & Rep) #15

@giannisk you may not have intended it, but the use of a phrase “I hereby ask” is most often used in official proclamations , legal demands, or decrees. I’m genuinely sorry if that’s not what you meant.


(Dave Lane) #16

I’ve just written this response, riffing on Giannis’ excellent (and much-needed) essay… I still need to read all of this thread, but I think based on what I’ve seen so far, we, as a community committed to openness, have to recognise the danger of accepting expedience when it is contrary to our principles. Because doing so fundamentally undermines our legitimacy.
I should also say, I’m impressed by Giannis’ very thoughtful approach - I think those who interpret his intent as anger (which, in my opinion, is a very valid response in the face of what is really betrayal of values) are missing the point. I think it means he cares deeply about this community. For a community’s leadership to have full legitimacy with its constituents, it must engage in prefiguratism - using means which are consistent with its ends. (I define it in more detail in the essay above).


(Dave Lane) #17

For what it’s worth, Giannis, Mattermost, Rocket.Chat and other “Slack alternatives” are easily on par with Slack and in many ways (thanks to their openness, and being built on more modern platforms) are ahead of Slack from a superficial usability perspective. They’re streets ahead in being FOSS, distributed, open standards-compliant, and hosted by community. I currently maintain a few Rocket.Chat instances, which is easily Slack’s equal (I’m also forced to use Slack daily to participate in various “open” communities that have chosen a closed collaboration space, so I’m able to make a pretty comprehensive comparison).


(Dave Lane) #18

For what it’s worth, Emma, I think Creative Commons is every bit as guilty of making the slide into “fauxpen” as Mozilla appears to be. I have largely pulled out of involvement with Creative Commons (global) due to their leaders’ quite decisive rejection of openness in their platform selections. Their justifications ring very hollow to me, and I’ve lost confidence in their commitment to their stated open ideals.
And yes, I’m quite disappointed by that betrayal, as I’ve invested a lot of my time and energy in Creative Commons over the years (including 3 years on the advisory board of the New Zealand affiliate) due largely to their clear commitment to open principles that I share…


(Dave Lane) #19

By the way, Emma, if your goal is accessibility, a good way to achieve that is to a) use an FOSS messaging platform first and foremost, on principle, and then b) use a Slack bridge (assuming, at the moment, Slack offers a fundamentally better service for those with difficulty accessing the FOSS platform in its current form) to allow equal participation for those who prefer the capabilities of a proprietary platform. Using accessibility to justify proprietary over FOSS is not really the best approach to achieving an open aim (doing so implicitly damns FOSS in favour of proprietary which sends the wrong message, I suspect). I can offer assistance in using the Slack bridge for Rocket.Chat as I have first hand experience setting that up. Works very nicely. Taking on that extra complexity for the time being also makes it clear to participants that enhancing the accessibility support for the FOSS solution is a useful contribution!


(Emma Irwin) #20

HI David,

I was suggesting that the vision of open source, needs to include solutions that accommodate accessibility. I am neither justifying proprietary solutions, nor suggesting open source cannot manage those. I think storytelling our experiences thinking about, researching can generate better discussion and solutions. An example is that you have brought up bridging, something we do with community tools (although I can’t speak to those other than to be using them myself). This is a better discussion imo than ‘use open’. It’s what does that look like for people who will never use IRC, what does that look like for people already using Slack - (btw, I also really liked Rocketchat).
Once again - I am only sharing my experiences as I would hope others would feel comfortable to as well.


(Dave Lane) #21

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Emma. I just think it’s crucial to recognise that a proprietary tool like Slack simply isn’t acceptable for a community that exists to promote openness… Its use could only be legitimately justified if it could be said that “there is not currently a viable FOSS option, but we’ll move to one as soon as it is possible” - I’m thinking of the quote from Johnathan Nightingale promoted in the Mozilla Manifesto.
Also, a lot of people in the open community mistakenly consider Slack to be a network-effect platform. It’s not. Each new community you join requires a new account. As such, it’s just as easy to invite people into an open community - either way it’s just another browser tab… plus, in my experience the FOSS messaging platform desktop and mobile apps are far more efficient (require fewer computing resources) than Slack’s anyway…