So. A year ago I left my position running the Wikimedia Foundation and began the process of figuring out what to do next. (Spoiler: not yet complete.)
I had eaten, slept and breathed nothing but Wikimedia for seven years — in effect, I had embodied it. That may sound unhealthy but it really wasn’t: there was lots of overlap between me and Wikimedia, and I didn’t mind parking the stuff the job didn’t need. But it did mean that afterwards, it made sense for me to do some self-scrutiny and a kind of reset. What had been actually me versus what was just the job, and therefore what did I want to keep doing, to discard, or maybe revive.
The first thing I did was spend a month in Iceland looking at volcanoes and lounging in hot springs. That was glorious and I recommend it to anyone.
I’d guessed by the time I got back I’d be ready to dive into something, but I was wrong. And so I spent many months in a kind of lazy exploratory mode. Making risotto. Playing board games. Collecting together and synthesizing everything that is known about the gender gap in tech. (Yes, for real. It’s here.) Travelling. Reading. Giving talks. Advising friends.
And simultaneously, trying on possible futures like they were hats. Did I want to run an important cultural institution whose influence was starting to wane? No. How about a campus speaking tour? No. A start-up with a difficult business model and some tough marketing challenges? Ha. No.
My goal has always been the same. I want to work on stuff i) that’s aiming to make the world better for ordinary people; ii) that is actually making the world better, not just trying and failing. And iii) where I can personally be most useful. I care about impact and scope and scale and effectiveness. And so the question for me was pretty simple: where were the biggest and most important problems, that need help from someone like me.
Gradually that answer started to come, at least provisionally, into focus. By now we know that the internet shakeout is well underway, with power and money increasingly consolidated among a tiny number of players. As Bruce Schneier has famously said, the internet’s business model is surveillance: most of the industry makes its money by tracking and stockpiling and monetizing information about its users. (Of those who don’t, many have no obvious business model at all, which is .. not reassuring.) That mountain of user data has turned out to be irresistible to state actors and other authorities, who now find themselves able to know vastly more about the habits and activities of ordinary people than was ever previously imaginable.
This all sucks. Initially it looked like the internet would rebalance the scales and empower ordinary people, but what’s actually happening is the opposite.
So here’s what I’m going to do.
Starting now, and supported by the First Look organisation, I’m beginning two projects related to anonymity, privacy, and free speech.
The first is narrowly focused on Tor, where I’ll be developing a strategic plan for and with the Tor Project.
I’m doing that because Tor is important — it’s the most secure and widely-used anonymity-supporting software that we’ve got. Tor is controversial because (like phones and cars and banks) its users include criminals. But what matters more to me is its use by people like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. I want the organisation behind Tor be as strong and effective as possible, and so I am going to put some energy towards helping make that happen.
My second project will be to research the broader state of “freedom tech” — all the tools and technologies that enable free speech, free assembly, and freedom of the press. I want to figure out, from a user-centric perspective, what kinds of freedom-enabling technology products and services people have access to today, what impediments they’re running up against in trying to use them, what functionality is needed that’s entirely missing from the current landscape, and what kinds of interventions would need to be made in order to start getting it built. Do we need easier, faster funding, and/or other forms of support, for individuals and tiny teams? Or bigger, better-funded organisations, with expertise the space currently doesn’t have? What would move the needle? That’ll be my focus.
I’m extremely grateful to Pierre Omidyar and First Look for funding this, and to the Tor Project for being so fabulously welcoming to me. This is important work, and I’m super-pleased to embark upon it.