A Note about the New Mozilla CEO

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about Mozilla’s appointment of Brendan Eich as CEO. In the beginning, everybody reacted quite reasonably, but now things are getting interesting, so I thought it was time to contribute to the conversation.

The Issue

There appear to be two issues with Brendan’s appointment. First, much of Mozilla’s Board of Directors was hoping their new CEO would have a lot of experience with “mobile.” This isn’t interesting to me, but I can see how the Board of Directors might be discouraged in this case. Second, more importantly, is the issue of “equity,” which is something I’m very passionate about. It’s the focus of the rest of this post.

Here’s the equity issue: in 2008, Brendan made a USD$1,000 donation to support making a law that would ban gay marriage in California. Some Mozillians feel Brendan’s appointment as CEO endangers the inclusive nature of the Mozilla community. I believe that Mozillians (and all contributors to free software communities) are right to be worried, but that we should remain optimistic.

What Is Social Equity?

For me, social equity means we judge others by their own thoughts and actions, and avoid judging them based on irrelevant personal characteristics. This is my everyday definition—it’s how I try to live. It works in combination with my idea that people should be allowed to do things by default, and prevented only when necessary (only very rarely).

Easy example: at Mozilla, it is reasonable not to hire someone for a job if they are less qualified than another applicant; it is unreasonable not to hire someone because they are a woman—that’s not relevant to their ability to do a job at Mozilla. Yet, if I were to hire someone as a fashion model, I can imagine a candidate’s gender and gender identity may become relevant. Similarly, while a candidate’s views on free-and-open-source software are relevant to a job application for Mozilla, they are not relevant to an application for a modelling company.

Is This an Equity Issue?

Yes. The difficulty here is that it’s not clear whether Brendan’s 2008 views on homosexuality are relevant. On the one hand, they’re not, because this job is about administering a technology company. After inventing JavaScript in the 1990s, Brendan has had a distinguished career at Netscape, then at Mozilla, so his qualifications for CEO are excellent. On the other hand, being CEO at Mozilla is about leading a free software community, and even more than usual technology companies, free software companies must provide a welcoming environment for all contributors, without compromise. But this doesn’t settle the issue completely.

I trust Mozilla to choose a CEO who believes in the organization’s Manifesto (have you read it?) and who will work to promote their Community Participation Guidelines (available here). At this point I still don’t see an issue, but I usually present as a straight, white, anglophone, North American male. Did you see the “straight” part? That means I can’t judge the situation by myself, and as it turns out, a gay Mozilla community member does feel threatened (blog post here).

So yes, this is an equity issue.

Reactions

However, Hampton’s isn’t the only reaction, and he only works with, not at Mozilla. Here are three mixed reactions from Mozilla employees.

A queer Mozilla employee writes about their support of Brendan as CEO here.

A gay Mozilla employee writes about their support, with reservations, here.

This Mozilla employee (orientation unknown to me) writes about their request for Brendan to step down here.

Further Thoughts

I’d like to draw special attention to the Chris McAvoy’s post, the last cited above. His justification for asking Brendan to step down is not related to Brendan’s qualifications to be the CEO of a technology company; it’s not related to a fear that Brendan will continue to work against LGBTQ rights; it’s because he believes Mozilla should actively advocate for LGBTQ rights, and that Brendan will not.

Think about this for a second! He’s asking a technology company to do social activism. For any other company, even other free-and-open-source software companies like Ubuntu and Red Hat, this wouldn’t even enter the equation. But the thing is, he’s right to raise this issue. When it comes to browser vendors (including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Opera) Mozilla is the only one whose express purpose for existence is very much related to various forms of activism for social equity issues.

So when I see articles pointing to actions such as this, it makes me pretty upset. Though of course any web company can do whatever they want with their website, I think what OkCupid has done is to simplify the issue to the point that they miss what’s actually going on here. As a result, they are advocating for companies whose primary purpose is to be profitable, and against the only major browser vendor whose express purpose is advocating for openness and freedom, and that has an established history of “leading the way” in advocating for social equity.

As a friend of mine wrote on Facebook,

[T]he CEO/Mozilla may have “evolved” on the issue since 2008. Does that not count for something? Also, OKC should say what the desired outcome is, like they’ll display the message until the CEO apologizes maybe? And boycotting the browser affects a lot more people than just the CEO… why not encourage people to send letters to Mozilla management showing them that they don’t approve? Isn’t that the most effective way to change things in business, vocal customer dissatisfaction?

Why yes, that would be “the most effective way to change things.” Instead, OkCupid is encouraging people to do something that won’t even have a measurable effect on the Web for months, and that may result in measurably negative effects several years from now.

Conclusion

In the end, I believe Mozilla made a mistake to appoint Brendan Eich as CEO. However, I believe in the Mozilla community as a whole, and its ability to work through this issue. If, at any point, Brendan becomes an obstacle to realizing the Manifesto or Community Participation Guidelines, the Mozilla community will deal with him as appropriate.

If you want to start choosing your software to match your politics, I support and welcome you whole-heartedly. It’s because I do this, and in light of Mozilla’s more-than-a-decade of web-based social activism, that Mozilla Firefox is the only web browser I can seriously consider using as my default, as it has been since 2002, when it was called “Phoenix.”

If you ask me, this is an exciting time for Mozilla. It’s a real test for them, and no matter what happens, I’m hopeful they will emerge as a stronger community than ever.