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Mon March 31, 2014
All Tech Considered

The New Mozilla CEO's Political Past Is Imperiling His Present

Originally published on Tue April 1, 2014 10:25 am

For the Internet community, the principles of free speech and equal rights are foundational. But in recent days, those issues are clashing at Mozilla, the nonprofit foundation and tech company behind the Firefox browser.

At issue is Brendan Eich, a co-founder of Mozilla, inventor of the much used Javascript programming language and the newly appointed CEO of the company. Eich made a $1,000 donation to the campaign for California's Proposition 8, which defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. The donation had come to light in 2012, but fizzled.

When Eich was promoted last week, the issue resurfaced. Twitter erupted with voices of Mozilla employees, who doubted his suitability for CEO and called for him to step down. Other employees went public with their support of Eich. Geoffrey MacDougall, Mozilla's head of development, framed the clash this way:

"The free speech argument is that we have no right to force anyone to think anything. We have no right to prevent people from pursuing their lives based on their beliefs. That what matters is their actions. And as long as they act in the best interests of the mission, as long as they don't impose their beliefs on those around them, they are welcome.

"The equality argument is that this isn't a matter of speech. That believing that 1/n of us aren't entitled to the same rights as the rest of us isn't a 'belief'. That the right to speech is only truly universal if everyone is equal, first."

While this was originally a fascinating and public debate waged by employees, it's now reached the wider Internet user community. OkCupid, the online dating site that claims at least 1 million active users per day, is encouraging its users not to access the site through Mozilla's browser, Firefox. The message that users encounter if they sign in through Firefox explains:

"Politics is normally not the business of a website, and we all know there's a lot more wrong with the world than misguided CEOs. So you might wonder why we're asserting ourselves today. This is why: we've devoted the last ten years to bringing people—all people—together. If individuals like Mr. Eich had their way, then roughly 8% of the relationships we've worked so hard to bring about would be illegal. Equality for gay relationships is personally important to many of us here at OkCupid. But it's professionally important to the entire company. OkCupid is for creating love. Those who seek to deny love and instead enforce misery, shame, and frustration are our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure."

Separately, three of Mozilla's board members resigned, according to The Wall Street Journal, over the choice of Eich as chief executive, but not because of his political views. They reportedly wanted an outside candidate who would tackle Mozilla's business strategy.

For his part, Eich wrote a blog post committing to Mozilla's mission of openness and inclusion, especially toward the LGBT community. But he did not offer an explanation of his donation.

"I know some will be skeptical about this, and that words alone will not change anything. I can only ask for your support to have the time to 'show, not tell'; and in the meantime express my sorrow at having caused pain," Eich wrote.

But as the OkCupid move makes clear, this issue isn't going away quickly. The Mozilla Foundation's Executive Director Mark Surman is worried about how this protracted conflict will play out. He lays it out in a blog post titled "Mozilla is Messy":

"I worry that Mozilla is in a tough spot right now. I worry that we do a bad job of explaining ourselves, that people are angry and don't know who we are or where we stand. And, I worry that in the time it takes to work this through and explain ourselves the things I love about Mozilla will be deeply damaged. And I suspect others do [too]."

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