photo of Brendan Eich by Flickr user badubadu
Brendan Eich resigned yesterday as CEO of Mozilla Corp. In what may be a first for corporate America, an online dating site helped foster the breakup.
Eich stepped down just a few days after OKCupid, one of the most popular online dating sites, encouraged its users to dump Mozilla’s Firefox in favor of its rivals Chrome, Safari, Opera or Internet Explorer. On Monday, users navigating to OKCupid.com using Firefox found a letter encouraging them to access OKCupid with any other browser, though users could choose to click through to the site with Firefox if they wished.
OKCupid fired off its Dear John letter because, back in 2008, Eich donated $1,000 to support California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in the Golden State before being struck down by the courts. The donation came to public attention in 2012, but caused new backlash following Eich’s recent appointment as Mozilla’s CEO.
The initial reaction to Eich’s promotion from Mozilla employees and what it calls its broader “community,” which provides much of the labor that allows free distribution of Mozilla products, was mixed. Some called for Eich to resign, while others pointed out that Mozilla offers an inclusive atmosphere and robust benefits for same-sex partners. There were no indications Eich planned to change that, regardless of his personal views. To the contrary, Eich publicly affirmed his commitment to preserving Mozilla’s inclusive culture in a blog post several days prior to the OKCupid letter.
Mozilla’s position shifted during the course of the controversy. The organization issued a statement last weekend defending Eich’s appointment while reaffirming Mozilla’s commitment to equality, including marriage rights for LGBT couples. “We realize that not everyone in our community or who uses our products will agree with this,” the post said. “But we have always maintained that as long as you are willing to respect others, and come together for our larger mission, you are welcome.”
Yesterday, however, the company announced Eich’s decision to step down in a mea culpa posted by Mitchell Baker, Mozilla’s executive chairwoman.
“We know why people are hurt and angry, and they are right: it’s because we haven’t stayed true to ourselves,” Baker wrote. “We didn’t act like you’d expect Mozilla to act. We didn’t move fast enough to engage with people once the controversy started. We’re sorry. We must do better.”
It is noteworthy that Baker did not exactly apologize for Eich’s appointment as CEO. The apology was for a failure to “engage” with Mozillians either before or after Eich was selected. I am not sure what form such engagement might have taken. From a legal perspective, it is the board’s responsibility to choose a chief executive. Such selections are not usually made by commissioning polls or organizing popularity contests. Also unaddressed in Baker’s statement is the big, underlying question of whether Eich’s past or current personal views should have disqualified him from running Mozilla.
I have vocally supported same-sex marriage for the past 20 years. I have been a Firefox user for about the past 10. It isn’t my default browser, but I still use it sometimes and I had no plans to stop if Eich had remained on board. I see no conflict between these two positions.
I wish Eich - like all past and present gay-marriage opponents - would declare that he has seen the error of his ways, as a gesture of tolerance and acceptance. But I don’t rule the world, I don't possess a monopoly on wisdom and, except when it comes to speech that is deliberately offensive or hateful, I don’t see any point in trying to punish those who support positions that differ from mine.
In an interview with CNET prior to his resignation, Eich declined to state whether his private beliefs had changed, but insistently returned the focus to his dedication to leaving those beliefs out of his work. “It may be challenging for a CEO, but everyone in our community can have different beliefs about all sorts of things that may be in conflict,” he said. “They leave them at the door when they come to work on the Mozilla mission.”
There are those, including but not limited to same-sex couples, who undoubtedly feel that opposing their right to marry is indeed both hurtful and hateful, even if such opposition is conducted private. They may feel that community and corporate leaders especially ought to know better and be accountable for their positions.
They have a valid point. But back in 2008, when every major presidential candidate from both political parties opposed marriage rights for gay couples, was it truly an act of hate speech to support Proposition 8 to codify that position in California’s Constitution? Why blacklist Eich for supporting Proposition 8 and not do the same to other CEOs who donated an equivalent sum to the campaigns of John McCain or Barack Obama?
Eich committed himself to inclusiveness in his official capacity at Mozilla. That was essential. If his policy there had been anything else, and if Mozilla’s board tolerated it, then maybe there would have been cause to boycott Mozilla products (most of which are distributed free of cost to users). But that was not the case.
So what if Eich gave $1,000 more than five years ago to support the wrong side in the gay-marriage debate - a side that has already lost in court? So what if he refused to disavow that past position? It seems odd to force a capable corporate leader out of his job due to his political views, and even odder to do so under the banner of tolerance.