Creating Technology for Social Change

Privacy awareness for a healthy internet

Youth and privacy in the Americas: Mozilla Foundation, United States/Global

How do youth allies promote young people’s critical thinking on privacy, in informal learning contexts in the Americas? This blog post is part of a series showcasing the work of different organizations at the intersection of youth development, digital rights, and online safety.

Quick facts

Who: Chad Sansing

What: Program development, research, fellowships, curriculum

Mission/vision: To keep the internet open and accessible to all

Where: United States/Global

Since: 2003

Years of operation (as of February 2018): 15

Works in the fields of: Internet health

Post summary: The Mozilla Foundation works for internet health by supporting local activists, educators, and other leaders in their work for issues like online privacy and security. They are known for their work on Internet health, including online curriculum on privacy and web literacy.  

Highlight quote from the interview: “We think that the internet has to remain a global resource that’s open and accessible to all. And what that means is people should be able to navigate with the privacy and security they want. This shouldn’t be a value proposition; it’s what makes the web truly accessible for all.”

More resources: Mozilla Foundation website; Internet Health materials; Mozilla Learning’s web literacy curriculum; Mozilla Open Leaders program.

Privacy awareness for a healthy internet

Mozilla started out a community of open source technology in the 90s with the objective of creating Firefox, an open source alternative to proprietary web browsers and standards then. The idea was for people’s experience of the web not to be dictated by corporate entities. This spirit carried forward as the Mozilla Foundation was founded in 2003 to lead open source product development, as well as do programmatic work to support the open web. They are a global organization but have headquarters in the United States.

Many of these programmatic efforts are educational. Their web literacy curriculum and materials first caught my eye for the meticulous planning behind them, their compelling graphic design and the refreshing take they proposed on youth privacy online issues. And they are just a sliver of Mozilla Learning’s work to “keep the internet growing and healthy.” This is why I decided to include Mozilla Foundation in my research, and I am grateful that Chad Sansing, Curriculum Manager for the Open Leadership & Events team at Mozilla Foundation, made time to understand the rationale behind their learning efforts and Mozilla’s values today.

Internet health is the framing that Mozilla Foundation chooses for its work today. It marks a shift that started in recent years as Mozilla tried to account for the changes in the web and technology since the project began, and do a critical examination of the conditions that endangered the open web’s safety and dependability. Mark Surman, the Executive Director of the Foundation, published a blog post announcing the first Internet Health Report and their rationale for this framing. “The Internet is now our environment. How it works — and whether it’s healthy — has a direct impact on our happiness, our privacy, our pocketbooks, our economies, and democracies.”

After community consultations, a research hub at MozFest, and much contention about the adequacy of the frame, the diagnosis, and the prognosis, Mozilla Foundation released a new report in April 2018. This report analyzes the state of the internet in five areas: privacy and security, openness, digital inclusion, web literacy, and decentralization. For obvious reasons, privacy and security is the most relevant area of the report for the purposes of this research.

Privacy and security section of the Internet Health Report 2018.

Chad sees privacy and security as crucial for Mozilla’s advocacy for an open internet. “We think that the internet has to remain a global resource that’s open and accessible to all. And what that means is people should be able to navigate with the privacy and security they want. This shouldn’t be a value proposition; it’s what makes the web truly accessible for all.”

What this means in practice is that Mozilla Foundation supports, through their fellowships and grant programs, efforts around the world that fall under the umbrella of their internet health work. “Rather than trying to convene on our own, we support the work of people who are already embedded in the communities.” Mozilla fellows have studied biometrics systems (like the Aadhar initiative in India), ransomware, attacks on encryption, corporate surveillance and the Internet of Things.

This work has led to many creative learning experiences beyond the web literacy curriculum I had initially seen, such as their partnership with Univision, to help people understand the implications of everyday practices on one’s privacy. They have also created a shopping guide, “Privacy not included,” as a response to stories on Internet of Things and stuffed animals for grandparents and kids. They also made an Escape Room-style Internet of Things experience, an offline games challenge that led to the creation of a privacy board game, and many local events.

Chad recognizes that privacy and security are not topics to be addressed with technology users only, but instead something that requires systemic change, including the development of tools themselves. “Today, it would seem that we want privacy and security, on the one hand, convenience on the other. I believe the seatbelt metaphor is useful for this. When it became clear that seatbelts saved lives, people didn’t need to go out and buy them: manufacturers started including them in cars. How can we influence the industry to include the privacy seatbelts?”

As the Curriculum Manager for the Open Leadership team at Mozilla, Chad brings together both his interest in a healthier internet and his experience as a classroom teacher in the United States. I asked him about his thoughts on creating learning experiences that truly promote critical thinking to challenge pervasive views on privacy. He recommends to “Take a three-step approach: however you introduce an idea, give people the chance to do something with it physically before you get to a technical part of the lesson. Make something so they create for themselves a thing in their mind that can give them something to hold on to. When we go into technology too fast, we short-circuit the critical thinking. You need to be very intentional about the part you want them to examine. Ask them for demos and explanation of how things work. Connect them to the personal meaning they make out of them. Allow for inquiry. And in the end there needs to be an opportunity for reflection. ‘How do explain this to your family, how do you keep a friend from making the same mistakes?’ Give them a chance to talk in their own words about where they’ll go with this.”

In 2018, twenty years after the launch of Firefox and fifteen years after the start of Mozilla Foundation, equitable access to the internet continues to be an issue, and I consider Mozilla’s work in Internet Health to be useful in pinpointing the things that need to change if we want technology to deliver on its promises. As youth and privacy work continues to develop in the Americas, I hope funders and practitioners will follow Mozilla Foundation’s example: approach of supporting local leadership that localizes discussion and advocacy on these issues with adequate stories that resonate with people, all while producing meaningful research and really, really fun and creative learning experiences.

You can learn more about the Mozilla Foundation on their website. Don’t miss their Internet Health materials, nor their web literacy curriculum and leadership programs.