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What the Open Internet Is Not: Apolitical

One more lesson from the Firefox anti-gay-marriage boss mess.

by Michael Byrne
Apr 5 2014, 3:00pm
Image: D. Sharon Pruitt

Brendan Eich is done. Just over a week after being picked to lead the Mozilla corporation, Eich stepped down Thursday under heavy fire for his backwards ideas on gay marriage—beliefs emblemized by a $1,000 donation in support of Proposition 8, California's since-invalidated ban on gay marriage. These are beliefs clearly antithetical to those of the open-source community represented by Mozilla and, really, most all of Silicon Valley, at least the portion of it that has public beliefs. Eich's anti-gay marriage grand is indeed nothing at all compared to the anti-Prop 8 donations made by the bosses of Google and Apple. 

By Thursday I'd already uninstalled Firefox from my computer and don't plan on reinstalling it now, no matter the hurried apologies from Mitchell Baker, Mozilla's executive chairwoman, nor the plea, "We are stronger with you involved." The very public calls from a number of Mozilla employees for Eich to step down are heartening, but I can't really shake the fact that it took a week's worth of public outcry to convince Mozilla that Eich was a shithead, when it really should have taken none. Wasn't the fact of the donation enough? Why did anyone have to be convinced at all? 

Erin Kissane, OpenNews’s director of content (OpenNews being Mozilla's open-source journalism wing), wrote a long blog post about the Eich controversy, and I think it's instructive about the whole ordeal. While she calls the decision to appoint Eich as Mozilla's supreme leader "distressing," Kissane also makes a frustrating argument for, essentially, an apolitical internet:

Several of my colleagues have called for Brendan’s resignation. I have not done so, despite my strong feelings on the issue, in large part because of my conviction that the open internet is not and cannot be a progressive movement or a liberal movement or even a libertarian movement. In the climate-change fiasco here in the US, we’ve seen what happens with a globally important issue becomes identified with a single political point of view. We can’t let that happen here: the open internet is not more important than gay rights or any number of other progressive causes, but it should and must be a broader movement. The moment we let “open internet” become synonymous with progressive causes—inside or outside Mozilla—its many conservative supporters will be forced into an impossible position.

See, we must appease people that have wrong and discriminatory ideas about the world in the interests of the "open internet." Which, apparently, is worth sacrificing open society for. It's a classic cable news false equivalency: we must give the creeps and bigots equal airtime, because the world is really just this side and that side, and actual right and wrong—even a distinction as clear as allowing equal access to a government institution—is a matter of perspective. So, neither perspective can be judged because it's just politics. That's one fake-ass version of openness. 

Alienating perspectives that are themselves alienating by very definition, cutting them loose to wither and rot at the outskirts of civilization, is how civilization moves forward and becomes better and more fair. There's nothing "open" about empowering the perspective of closedness. That's what Kissane, who keeps a leadership role within Mozilla, would seem to advocate: appeasement at the expense of more humane society. Cowardly hedging.    

Of course, my not returning to Firefox has a bit to do with not having a very good reason to return; the browser has been sliding steadily into crappiness for years and, now back in the single bar embrace of Chrome, it seems rather antique—as antique as Prop 8.