Mozilla, Mountain View, and the Mean Ol’ Gays
Brendan Eich “resigned” (was forced out) on Thursday as CEO of the Mozilla Corporation and as a board member of the non-profit foundation that owns it, after a mere week or so on the job. In that short period of time, his name had become soiled, when it was revealed that he had donated $1,000 to the 2008 campaign to support California Proposition 8, which would insert a same-sex marriage ban in the state’s constitution. (Prop 8, which passed via referendum, has since been thrown out in the courts.)
The early refrain about what’s happened here—that the evil, intolerant, nationally-organized, left-gay-liberal mobilization machine took another scalp, for bloodsport!—doesn’t quite add up. The real story is much more interesting: that a confluence of factors very specific to the Mozilla Corporation, by the nature of its product, its industry, and its geographical location, make what happened to Eich almost non-transferable to what could happen to companies on a wider spectrum.
“Liberals,” writ-large, did not force Eich’s resignation. Most “liberals” probably hadn’t, and still haven’t, heard of the guy. Rather, there appear to have been two specific factors that led to his ouster: internal dissent within Mozilla, and, well, the OkCupid dating website.
Let’s start with internal dissent at Mozilla, the more important of the two. Choire Sicha at The Awl provides a crisp summary of this internal dissent, among Mozilla’s employees and board members:
Mozilla, if you don’t know it, is a much-respected nonprofit with a business nestled inside it that, among other things, makes Firefox. They elevated Brendan Eich, one of their cofounders, to CEO. Eich was a Prop 8 donor; people objected. Three board members resigned when he was given the job, including two who were former CEOs. (The organization says those board members were planning on leaving, but their departure leaves the Mozilla Corporation board with three whole members.) Employees asked Eich to step down. Eich made a commitment to help Mozilla ensure its place as an ally to the gays. And then Eich resigned, and resigned from the board of the foundation itself, which now has just five members.
In other words, it wasn’t that Mozilla made the hire, and then some external force such as the National Alliance of Gay Fascist Scalpers got wind of it and made a hissy fit. Eich’s political opinions became a “thing” because Mozilla employees and board members were disgusted by it. Being opposed to same-sex marriage is especially heretical in both Silicon Valley culture, and in liberal areas of California, the state where Prop 8 sought to dissolve 18,000 existing same-sex unions. The controversy began and ended, both physically and contextually, within the Mountain View headquarters of Mozilla.
The issue became known to the wider public, then, earlier this week, when OkCupid.com redirected its Mozilla browser users to a special message. “Mozilla’s new CEO, Brendan Eich, is an opponent of equal rights for gay couples,” it read. “We would therefore prefer that our users not use Mozilla software to access OkCupid.”
OkCupid is perfectly within its rights to put up this message. (Although, as Salon’s Josh Eidelson observes, it will be interesting to see whether OkCupid can expand its clicktivism game into political issues more difficult than same-sex marriage.) What’s most interesting about the OkCupid message, though, is how the specific nature of Mozilla’s chief product, a web browser, made the company susceptible to this form of protest. There are only a handful of firms (like Mozilla, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Opera Software, and . . . Netscape? Is that still around?) that offer browsers to the masses, and that are thereby subject to this sort of targeting from any and all organizations that have websites—which is to say all organizations.
So the Eich case does not mean, as some are construing it, that being anti-same-sex-marriage now makes you unemployable in the American economy. What it means is that if you are the anti-same-sex-marriage public face of a company that produces a web browser and is based in Silicon Valley, California, and if your fellow employees and board members think you reflect poorly on the company, then, the company may decide that your promotion was a mistake it never should have made in the first place.