This is a profile of Nadine Moawad, a Mozilla Fellow in the Tech and Society Fellowship program.

Nadine Moawad likes to say that the internet saved her life. She was born in the early 1980s to a Lebanese family and grew up in Kuwait, moving to Beirut after the Iraqi invasion in 1990. Moawad was raised in what she describes as a small, isolated, and conservative community with no real libraries, and limited access to information — a difficult environment for a queer adolescent. She remembers using the internet for the first time when she was about 16. “I have a very personal relationship with the internet — the original internet as a public domain. It opened up this amazing world of being able to talk to people as an anonymous user, and being able to access information,” she says.

Moawad has a long and varied history of leadership in activism related to economics, tech, and social equality. She was an early advocate of the “feminist internet,” which she describes as a movement to get more feminists involved in tech policy, design, and ethics issues across the web. She co-founded a co-op in Beirut that provided members with affordable food and essential goods during the country’s economic crisis in 2020. She argues against the privatization of the internet, and with it, “the disappearance of this mentality of the public good” that she once felt as a teenager in the days of the burgeoning “public domain” web. At the heart of her work is the conviction that workers deserve a better deal. “I’m kind of an old-school Marxist,” she says. “I think the means of production must be in the hands of the people working. It’s as simple as that.”

I have a very personal relationship with the internet — the original internet as a public domain.

Nadine Moawad, Mozilla Fellow

Moawad’s current Mozilla fellowship with her host organization Mawred, in the Mozilla Tech and Society fellowship cohort, focuses on finding fairer labor and income models for artists working in digital spaces. She’s an advisor to a new pilot grants program, Culture 3.0. That name derives from Web3, a vision for the internet’s future that places ownership of platforms, marketplaces, and apps in the hands of collective users rather than a handful of giant corporations. The Culture 3.0 grants will go to those in the Arab region with proposals that could make it easier for artists to get paid, give them more control over their work, and use open-domain systems that would benefit both creators and consumers. The grants will also bring more artists into collaborations with technology specialists so that they can explore and test new digital economics systems together.

Moawad has noted much interest among artists in DAOs, member-owned networks based on blockchain technology that allow users to make financial transactions, primarily using forms of cryptocurrency. She also thinks there is promise in other blockchain-based applications like smart contracts, which would allow publishers to connect more directly with writers, streamline sales and copyrighting, and ultimately allow writers to make more money. All the grant applications she’s reviewing for Culture 3.0 are designed to allow artists more power over the terms of their income and working conditions. “I see the advantage in artists perpetually being able to make an income from their work, rather than sell it one time,” she says, referring to a potential benefit of smart contracts.

Moawad feels a strong sense of foreboding about the future of tech because of how concentrated ownership has become, which is difficult for someone whose earliest online experiences were so beneficial and powerful. She initially believed in using the internet for positive change through online social networks, citizen journalism, and free expression in many different online forums. Today, she refuses to use the biggest social media platforms or engage in any kind of online debate. “As the internet became increasingly privatized with these big tech companies taking over, I started to retreat from that space because I could see it was all about massive profits first for them before anything else,” Moawad says.

What’s the answer, then, for an idealist like Moawad who believes in the promise of the internet as a tool of social transformation but is horrified at what it has become? “I think we should boycott these companies immediately. Not a penny more to any of these corporations — not a piece of data, not a single photo. Like, zero,” she says. While Moawad acknowledges the practical challenges to the kind of mass boycotts it would take to cause meaningful change, she sees historical parallels in past movements that seemed doomed to fail at the outset — namely, the British boycott of sugar grown by slaves in the West Indies in the late 1700s.

I think we should boycott these companies immediately. Not a penny more to any of these corporations — not a piece of data, not a single photo. Like, zero.

Nadine Moawad, Mozilla Fellow

“Do you know what it took for British people to boycott sugar?” she asks. “It was unthinkable that Brits would have tea without their sugar.” But after abolitionist William Fox printed his pamphlet in 1791, An address to the People of Great Britain, on the Utility of Refraining from the Use of West India Sugar and Rum, hundreds of thousands of British people gave up sugar, eventually forcing merchants to sell “East Indies Sugar,” which was produced without slave labor. Moawad thinks there are hopeful signs in the growing popularity of the messaging apps Signal and Telegram, which large numbers of people in the Gulf Arab states began migrating to from WhatsApp last year over concerns about WhatsApp’s data-sharing practices with Facebook.

Moawad would also love to see widespread adoption of the Interledger Protocol across the Arab region, an open-payments system that she believes would significantly improve people’s ability to make digital financial transfers. It could be a boon for artists in particular. “We have a big accessibility issue in this region,” Moawad says. “It’s very hard for us to process payments.” Moawad notes that people in her region can’t use Paypal or many other popular digital money-transferring services due to restrictive anti-terrorism measures. “I love when the solution is a protocol because then, it’s not a corporation or a government you have to go to — it’s a few technical people who have said, ‘this is a good idea.’ Why not say, ‘Free the internet, bring us back to the public domain?’ I like those kinds of ideas,” she says.