Mozilla Foundation Responds to Net Neutrality Threats with Daring Open-Web Initiative

Nathaniel James, Community Engagement Specialist at the Mozilla Foundation, spoke at American University yesterday about Mozilla’s “disruptive” plans to keep the internet open and accessible -- plans that could change how we think about everything from journalism to education.  In a guest post, AU graduate student Trina Stout reports on the talk.--Matthew Nisbet


What is the Mozilla Foundation?

Mozilla is perhaps best known for Firefox, its web browser. Firefox is a product of the Mozilla Corporation, which is owned by the Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is “to promote openness, innovation, and opportunity on the web.” As such, both Firefox and Mozilla’s email client, Thunderbird, are open source (anyone can contribute to the code) and free.

Mozilla believes that the open web is “the most powerful communication tool in the history of humanity,” and is concerned about growing threats to net neutrality. So the Foundation recently asked itself: What can we do, beyond offering a web browser, to keep the internet open and free?

Their answer is Drumbeat.

James describes Drumbeat as “a start-up/philanthropy hybrid within Mozilla” that seeks to connect people of various skill levels -- artists, teachers, lawyers, plumbers, coders -- to creative projects that serve to keep the web open and accessible to all. Drumbeat provides support for the projects in the form of free coding, publicity, and sometimes funding.

The goal, says James, is to make the web more “hackable, mashable, and shareable.”

Drumbeat: From Culture-Spanning Videos to Free University Education

As an example, James cited the project Universal Subtitles: an open-source tool to easily add captions to any video on the web. A barista in Chicago will be able to pull up a video, type along in the language of her choice, and then submit her subtitles.

Like Wikipedia, these captions will be editable, so if the barista misheard a word, the next user, perhaps a dentist in Tokyo, could correct it. The outcome is a searchable (because the words are now text) video that can be shared across cultures and languages.

Wikified video captioning may seem like just a neat novelty, but Mozilla intends to bring their open-source philosophy to bigger spheres, such as the arts, journalism, and education.

For education, classes have already begun at Drumbeat’s Peer 2 Peer University, where anyone, anywhere in the world, can learn college-level computer science skills for free from volunteer web developers. And anyone can suggest a course, meaning that P2PU could move faster than programs at traditional institutions. James admits that there are kinks to be worked out, such as the problem of accreditation, but hopes that P2PU will nonetheless open -- and improve -- the web.

What do you think of the idea of open-source education? Will it ever rival conventional education in the United States? What about in other countries?

--Guest post by Trina Stout, a graduate student in Public Communication at American University's School of Communication in Washington, DC. Before graduate school, she worked for the environmental news and humor site Grist.

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