Lessons Learned from Mozilla’s Edgy Eich Episode

It seems fair to say that we here in the Linux blogosphere are no strangers to difficult topics, but over the past few weeks FOSS fans have been struggling with what may be one of the trickiest yet.

It is, of course, the matter of Brendan Eich. Cofounder of Mozilla, creator of JavaScript, Mozilla CTO for years and then CEO for just 10 days, Eich’s term at the helm was cut short as a result of a firestorm of protest over his donation back in 2008 to the campaign for California Proposition 8 opposing same-sex marriage.

“Brendan Eich has chosen to step down from his role as CEO,” wrote Mitchell Baker, Mozilla Foundation chair, in a blog post last Thursday. “He’s made this decision for Mozilla and our community.

“We have employees with a wide diversity of views,” Baker went on. “Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public. This is meant to distinguish Mozilla from most organizations and hold us to a higher standard. But this time we failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community.”

‘No Better Than the Anti-Gay Bullies’

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There’s no doubt many in the community were jubilant to hear the news; others, however, weren’t so sure.

“Mozilla’s Brendan Eich: Persecutor Or Persecuted?” asked one headline that followed the news, for example. Others included “Bullies drove Eich from public square” and “The Hounding of a Heretic.”

“If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us,” wrote Andrew Sullivan, openly gay editor of The Dish.

‘Utter Intolerant Bullsh*t’

Here in the Linux blogosphere, responses were just as determined.

“I am a lesbian and I still think hounding Eich for standing for Prop. 8 and threatening to boycott a cornerstone of the internet and internet development if he was CEO of the Mozilla foundation is complete and utter intolerant bullshit,” wrote samantha among the 1,500+ comments on Slashdot, for example. “I am very disappointed with people doing such things and disappointed he caved to such.”

Similarly, “I disagree with him, but supporting freedom of speech is bigger than any one issue,” agreed Kaenneth.

Alternatively, “I’m not clear. When did freedom of speech extend to the operations of a private business?” countered Mighty Martian.

Linux Girl made sure to take extra vitamins for strength before she hit the streets of the Linux blogosphere to learn more.

‘A CEO Trades Some Freedom’

“I think that this played out like it should have,” offered Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone. “It’s not that Eich isn’t welcome to do what he wants with his own money, but when a corporation is selecting a CEO, I think it’s important that the values of that person are fairly representative of the corporation that he or she will be leading.

“That wasn’t true in this case, and the customers of the corporation made known their displeasure,” Stone added. “If Eich were to turn around and get the CEO position at Chick-Fil-A, don’t think we’d see any major outbursts.”

Indeed, “just as a celebrity trades some of their privacy for fame, a CEO trades some of their freedom for responsibility to their company,” agreed Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza. “If they don’t believe in it, then they shouldn’t be heading it.”

‘Tyranny of the Majority’

Similarly, “absolutely yes,” was Slashdot blogger hairyfeet’s take. “Like it or not, the CEO is the public face of a company, and in this case you had a CEO that was all for denying civil rights to a segment of the population.

“Yes, it very much IS a civil rights issue, because as long as the state gives preferential treatment to hetero couples in everything from taxes to property inheritance? Then it is a civil rights issue,” hairyfeet added.

“Oh, and before anybody brings up ‘the people voted’ as an excuse? The southern people voted by a large majority multiple times for Jim Crow, so by that argument we should have colored bathrooms and poll taxes, since the people DID vote for it,” he pointed out.

“One of the reasons we have civil rights laws is to prevent the tyranny of the majority,” hairyfeet concluded. “It’s just sad that Eich thought it was fine to discriminate against others. The CEO is often the only face of a company — best not to have ‘is a bigot’ attached.”

‘It Is Really Just That Simple’

The fundamental problem is that “what Eich did was not consistent with Mozilla culture,” Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien told Linux Girl. “Eich was always very good technically and made some important contributions to Firefox, which I think no one will deny. But there are times when that is not enough.”

Firefox is “all about freedom and cannot have a CEO who is opposed to freedom,” O’Brien added. “It is really just that simple. And the revolt by not just employees but a number of Board members made that clear.”

Then again, “I just don’t understand what political rectitude/marriage/donations to political movements/free speech has to do with making great FLOSS,” blogger Robert Pogson opined. “Lots of employees and officers of companies may have some beliefs/opinions that diverge from the boss’s. That’s perfectly normal. They only way that can be avoided is if we are all clones raised in the same laboratory.”

‘A Very Sick Operation’

Eich “affirmed that he would not discriminate in the operations of Mozilla, yet the witch-hunt still bullied him into resigning,” Pogson said. “What do the Mozillians want as leader? Some infiltrator from M$? Someone with no opinion on anything? Great software is made by people with opinions/convictions/dedication, not those mindlessly toeing some line.”

Those who objected to Eich are “guilty of what they accused him of: discrimination,” Pogson added. “It is no less discrimination to punish someone for his beliefs as his sexual orientation or his politics.

“What are they going to do next? Require all officers/managers to declare all political contributions, associations, lists of friends and e-mail address-books? Where will it all end?” he wondered. “Choosing brain-dead zombies? If these are the kinds of people running Mozilla, perhaps I should find a different browser before they decide my usage is politically incorrect or blacklist certain sites or report a hit-list to some goons.”

Pogson uses open source software “because it’s the right way to do IT,” he concluded. “I don’t have to choose Mozilla’s products because there are other FLOSS choices, and I find Mozilla is a very sick operation. It’s only a matter of time before that sickness infects the product.”

Bigger Problems to Solve

Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol took a global perspective.

“You have no idea how sad I am because of this situation,” Ebersol told Linux Girl. “The man seems very talented, but, for God’s sake, why involve personal, private matters that have nothing to do with software development?

“I believe Mozilla Foundation and the Firefox line of products would benefit a lot from his expertise, but no, the guy had to be a vocal advocate against same-sex marriage,” he said. “My view is what happens in the personal lives of people is only their concern — we better not mix the things up.”

In any case, “people should marry who they love (no matter if man/man or woman/woman),” Ebersol concluded. “The world has greater problems than these. We have famine, we have never-ending wars, unemployment, diseases…”

The concept of marriage is also “overrated” historically, Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C. added. “I guess it is a good ‘political’ decision by the Mozilla organization,” he said.

‘A Lost Opportunity’

“I strongly disagree with Eich’s political leaning on the gay marriage rights issue,” Slashdot blogger yagu began.

At the same time, “I believe strongly it’s his right to have his opinion and support causes he chooses!” yagu said. “Let’s call that, hmmmm, free speech? Interesting concept.”

What’s troubling is that “the opposing view faction, whose mantra is ‘tolerance,’ shows so little tolerance (irony?) they hurt their position,” he asserted. “Their demands and short fuse do little to educate. Their knee-jerk demands that anyone who doesn’t agree with their views be banished probably do more to cause those with opposing views to ‘dig in.’

“I suppose it’s everyone’s right too to try to force someone out of their position (job, career, livelihood) because of their views, but that feels less like free speech and more like coercion and intolerance,” yagu concluded. “Now Eich has left, a valuable leader for an important company…. a loss in IT, a loss for Mozilla and a lost opportunity to engage and debate an important topic. Bummer. Could have been handled better.”

‘He Showed His Professionalism’

Google+ blogger Brett Legree also prefers to leave politics and religion out of technology, he told Linux Girl.

“With many projects using a distributed development model, the odds are great that there could be someone, somewhere making a very valuable contribution who holds personal views that go against the views of many others,” Legree explained.

Eich, in fact, has a “very good professional record” and has “championed the open Web for over a decade,” Legree pointed out. “He once again showed his professionalism by stepping down as CEO of Mozilla, because people demanded it. These are the actions of a person who believes in the project.

“I will never base an impression on how one will behave at work on how they behave, or have behaved, at home,” Legree concluded. “I believe that people on all sides could have handled this a little better.”

‘Sexuality Is Culturally Defined’

Last but not least, “what I say here will almost certainly be controversial because, living in other countries, I have seen things which most Americans have not,” began Chris Travers, a blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project.

“While I disagree with Proposition 8, the fact is that most open source software is built and used by developers coming together globally and coming from a large number of different cultural viewpoints,” Travers explained.

“Sexuality is one of those things that, much like food, is quintessentially culturally defined,” he pointed out. “What people involved in this discussion generally haven’t done is stepped back and asked what it means to be inclusive in a global, culture-spanning open source effort.

“If we are to accept a manifest destiny to use human rights to remake the world in the image of modern American ideals, then there is no room for the Singaporean or Malaysian who sees filial piety as the primary means of support in retirement and marriage as a procreative support to that end,” Travers explained. “This is far less inclusive than anything Eich has done, and so I actually find Eich’s detractors even further off the mark than I do Eich.”

‘Self-Consuming and Self-Defeating’

Most Americans have “a very narrow cultural framework through which they can understand the issues, and the institution of marriage is not the same around the world,” Travers asserted. “This is critical to understand when you have code contributors and valued community members from a variety of cultures which have different approaches to this topic.”

Those involved in “a major culture-spanning, global open source project have to try to be inclusive,” he opined. “This means avoiding having your name and money attached to controversial topics, and trying to help people come together despite deep disagreement and cultural divides.”

That task becomes far more difficult when, “as is the case in the U.S. today, culture wars become framed in entirely uncompromising terms,” Travers suggested. “On these issues, I think becoming associated with any position interferes with the ability to be inclusive.”

Whereas such ideals as tolerance, diversity and freedom “become self-consuming and self-defeating when placed in service of themselves, when they are placed in the service of the goal of learning from those we disagree with, they can be very positive indeed,” he added. “I don’t see how one can get involved in culture wars framed in uncompromising terms without compromising that.”

So, in the end, “I think it is good that Eich stepped down,” Travers concluded, “but I would also hope that had he instead contributed to efforts to internationalize the issue on the other side (say, trying to push Malaysia or Indonesia to recognize same-sex marriage), the outcome would be the same and for the same reasons.”

Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered journalist by day, she spends her evenings haunting the seedy bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere in search of the latest gossip. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.

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