The recently appointed Branden Eich has resigned as CEO of Mozilla and stepped down from the board of its nonprofit foundation. This news comes moments after OKCupid removed a warning message that appeared to any user using the Mozilla browser Firefox to access the dating site. The message first appeared earlier this week, telling users that Brendan Eich had donated to support of California’s Proposition 8, which sought to disable the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state.
Mozilla confirmed that Eich had stepped down in a blog post, saying: “Mozilla prides itself on being held to a different standard and, this past week, we didn’t live up to it. We know why people are hurt and angry, and they are right: it’s because we haven’t stayed true to ourselves.” The post added: “Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.”
The views expressed in the post are widely divergent from Eich’s own notion that his position on gay equality is “not relevant.” Talking to the Guardian, Eich said that Firefox was a global initiative, meaning the browser was used in countries that have “different opinions” about same-sex marriage, which is “not considered universal human rights yet, and maybe they will be, but that’s in the future, right now we’re in a world where we have to be global to have effect.” Where would Mozilla be if that was its stance on an open web and privacy?
Many are lauding OKCupid for raising awareness about the issue by creating the interstitial warning message that told users about Eich’s political contributions, but the catalyst actually came from within Mozilla. Just days after Eich’s appointment was announced, employees took to social media to express their concern about Eich’s personal views and how these felt out of sync with Mozilla’s mission. Chris McAvoy, lead of Mozilla’s Open Badges project put it most eloquently in a post over the weekend:
When Brendan was announced as CEO, my hope was that he would explain himself, maybe apologize or recant his actions of 2008. Six years is a long time; maybe now he understood the larger context of Proposition 8 and its terrible effect on thousands of Californians. Instead, he was wholly unprepared to speak about the issue. We waited, being told he would write a blog post that would clear things up. The post came, but was underwhelming, and he neither apologized nor offered an explanation for the donation. [ … ] I didn’t ask for Brendan to step down because I was worried he’d discriminate against those in his reporting chain. If that was the case, I would have asked in 2012 when this story originally broke (just a few short weeks after I joined the organization).
[ … ] This very public debate about Brendan’s appointment points to a divide in Mozilla’s identity, which I’d characterize as Mozilla as tech company versus Mozilla as activist organization, which is the fundamental reason why I believe the Brendan Eich that contributed to Prop 8 isn’t the CEO that Mozilla needs. Our power as an organization comes from our ability to assert technology as activism. Webmaker, Open Badges, Web Literacy, a smart phone that puts the web in every hand, the protection of privacy and identity in the face of attacks from every corner.
Mozilla is a leading organization in the fight for an open web. That’s well established. Less known is Mozilla’s role in open education, open journalism, open research / science and web literacy. An open web is a tool to empower individuals. To paraphrase Woody Guthrie’s guitar, “This [internet] machine kills fascists.” That’s the open web we’re fighting for, a machine that ends human suffering, a machine that won’t let a government stop our sons and daughters from loving who they choose. An open web not tied to a mission like essential human freedom and empowerment is an empty web.
Not everyone at Mozilla was in agreement, naturally. Ben Moskowitz, the company’s new program development director, accused OKCupid of engaging in a “moral panic” and of “breaking the open web and disregarding the hard work of thousands fighting against corporate control.” He added that if OKCupid’s stance wasn’t an April Fool’s joke, then “the folks over there are reactionary demagogues with no respect or understanding.”
For OKCupid, though, it wasn’t a joke. Mozilla Firefox provides the dating site with 12 percent of its traffic, which made taking such a step a very serious decision. Gizmodo’s Mario Aguillar spoke with OKCupid’s founder Christian Rudder on Tuesday, to get a sense of how the company had arrived at its decision.
“It’s not like we’re looking to make political statements left and right,” Rudder said. But — “Marriage and people’s treatment of marriage is core to our business.”
The dating site’s decision unfolded over the course of three days, he told Aguillar. The founders thought about the consequences, made their choice, notified employees and then launched the warning.
By then — possibly foreseeing the backlash that Eich’s promotion would unleash — Mozilla had released an official statement saying that, as a company, they support marriage equality. OKCupid went forward anyway because it felt, to Rudder, like “the right thing to do” to raise awareness about Eich’s personal position. Speaking to Gizmodo, Rudder made it clear he didn’t want Eich to get fired, but to inform OKCupid’s users about the new leader at their browser’s company.
Whether or not it was OKCupid that tipped the scales and made Eich reconsider his appointment, it must be said that there is power in tech company activism. But we knew this before OKCupid took a stand — after all, when it comes to activism, Mozilla has everyone beat.
Eich did the right thing stepping down. Ultimately, Mozilla is more than a tech company, and the values of those leading it need to reflect those of the organization.