In March 2019, Mozilla started its project Reimagine Open to revisit the ways Mozilla practices open to imagine better futures for our digital lives. In the following months, over 20,000 people from around 160 countries answered Mozilla’s survey and four focus groups were hosted in Europe and North America.

Now, we're writing with an update on our latest work: More focus groups, this time in the Global South. Our friends at the GIG Network supported Mozilla’s Reimagine Open project by hosting conversations in Brazil, Cameroon, Rwanda, and India about the state of the web. Here’s what they learned:

Report from the Global Innovation Gathering

“Think internet with freedom, privacy and security.”

GIG supports Mozilla’s Reimagine Open project by hosting Focus Groups all around the globe. What we learned was important and galvanizing. Across the focus groups, memories of first internet encounters were generally characterized by enthusiasm, enlightenment, enchantment, empowerment and connection. But current encounters with the internet, and its political, social and economic impacts, stir up apprehension and distress. Still, the groups expressed optimism that we can overcome these challenges, and suggested we focus on five core issues: governance, infrastructure and access, representation and digital literacy, economy, and human connection.

Focus Groups

The focus group facilitation format aims to understand themes and problem spaces people are currently working on or are passionate about with a view to the state of the web, articulate core values to create a healthy internet ecosystem, and invite feedback and further collaboration. The internet doesn’t stop at the borders of countries, so discussions over its future shouldn’t either. Therefore, Mozilla reached out to GIG the Global Innovation Gathering and asked the network members to conduct focus groups in their communities all over the world. Several GIG members answered the call and facilitated focus groups in the last weeks:

What We Learned

“Who is the internet (economy) for?”

Participants identified challenges and opportunities they personally see for a healthy online experience. The greatest challenges identified by the participants of the GIG Reimagine Open Focus Groups are also where the greatest opportunities for an open internet lie:

  • Governance. There is a global concern over internet governance. Participants spoke about their concerns and worries regarding information censorship, vulnerability to espionage and control, insecurity with regard to personal information and data. They called for responsible content with accountability on the internet. Appropriate laws (e.g. for privacy, piracy, copyright, monopolies) should be in place to ensure that the opportunities created by an open internet are realized. The internet also offers the tools to transform participatory democracy and organize mass protests, and make the voices of the marginalized heard.
  • Infrastructure and access. Provision of infrastructure to the remotest locations worldwide is essential for the further development of an open internet. Many communities face high barriers of access due to socio-political factors. Digital divides continue to persist and there are hardly any solutions to overcome them. It was stressed by one group in particular that the universalization of internet access cannot be detached from other public and global policies to reduce inequality and values ​​of social justice, human rights and free culture.
  • Representation and (Digital) Literacy. There is a biased representation of languages, cultures and demographics online. Most content on the internet is not available in local languages and not available for those who cannot read and write - this also constitutes a generational divide in many countries. Functional illiteracy in the digital world produces a whole chain of effects. Here also lies one of the great opportunities of the internet: it enables digital inclusion through digital education, and creates collaboration ecosystems and environments for self and peer learning.
  • Economy. Many of the most successful companies are aggregators whose success is possible only because of the internet. Will this last in the future, or is it a bubble? There is grave concern about the working conditions of platform workers: what mechanisms exist to protect labour of the internet? Production and access to cultural and artistic content was shaped by the major platforms, excluding many local artists and producers. Moreover, extractive economies established through hegemonies and colonialism perpetuate in online space, with the data of poor nations benefiting the rich. Who is the internet economy for? Here is also an opportunity to rethink the patterns and distribution channels of a consumption-based global capitalist system.
  • Human connection. How are online and offline selves related? The connections between people have been hampered by hyperconnection, overuse of social networks, the proliferation of “fake news” and their influence on the polarization of society. Over saturation of content, the creation of misinformation and biased opinions, and fixation on screens instead of real-life humans around us are seen as challenges. Existing social inequality is reproduced and amplified in the virtual environment. And, traditional cultures are threatened by homogenization. However, this is also one of the greatest opportunities: the internet can help close the floodgates of intolerance, global collaboration will increase creativity and the pooling of resources to collaboratively tackle the biggest challenges humanity faces: from climate change to political divisions, the internet is vital in co-creating solutions, if we manage to overcome all other challenges.

On the question who is most responsible for ensuring that the Internet develops in a positive, healthy manner, the opinions among participants and among groups differed greatly. While some participants felt that users are responsible for their behaviour, others felt this to be unfair on them. Where there is mistrust in laws and state institutions, groups tend to rely on a strong civil society to demand accountability - whereas elsewhere, governments and independent governing bodies are regarded as first and foremost responsible for the development of the internet. Tech companies are named as important stakeholders, but not as the ones who are ultimately responsible for the development of the internet.
Agreement could be reached, though, on the demand that all stakeholders - including governments, (multinational) companies, media, the education system, and civil society - must contribute towards providing digital literacy, equal access for all, and net neutrality as fundamental necessities to even have discussions like this one globally.

What’s Next?

“Normally we do not think actively about the internet and do not ask questions. But now we begin to see that many questions are unanswered.”

The Reimagine Open project has hit a nerve globally. The focus groups gave participants an opportunity to share their thoughts on a topic that is very important to them - but that does not get enough attention and room. Participants in all GIG focus groups wanted to keep discussing and exchanging, especially in the fish bowl format, the energy levels remained high long after the planned 60 minutes were over. The sentiment that emerged already after Mozilla published the initial results is shared by participants from Cameroon, Rwanda, Brazil and India: We need to invest more time and energy in protecting our privacy and security, through product, policy and advocacy! And they want to add: We need to keep investing in human connection and knowledge exchange globally - which in many places means a focus on equal access for all, on digital literacy, and on the development of tools that enable more encounters and more cultural production.

Within the GIG Network, the conversation about the state of the open internet has never stopped, and it gives us a real boost to see that we are not alone in our mission to create open, sustainable, and inclusive technologies to make the world a culturally, socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable place for all to live in. Much like Mozilla, we believe in the power of the community to solve challenges. We look forward to continuing the conversation, sharing our experiences, and together demanding more from governments, corporates and ourselves!