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'Mozilla Is Messy': How Employees Are Blogging the Company's LGBT Debate

As the dating site weighs in, the debate over Mozilla's new CEO gets even more public.

by Max Cherney
Apr 1 2014, 10:00am
A rally celebrating the overturning of California's Proposition 8 in 2010. Image: Flickr/Keoki Seu

Mozilla employee and Javascript creator Brendan Eich’s donation to the Proposition 8 campaign—which aimed to ban same-sex marriage in California, and successfully did for several years—has been an open secret for years, so it’s no surprise that it came up yet again when Mozilla named him CEO last week. Now the debate has become even more public, with OKCupid weighing in against Eich (rather ironically, it used Javascript to do so).

From yesterday, OKCupid has been halting visitors using the Mozilla Firefox browser at their home page, where they display a plea to stop using the browser and switch to one of its competitors (helpfully linked). Their reasoning is pretty straightforward. “We’ve devoted the last ten years to bringing people—all people—together,” the site reads. “If individuals like Mr. Eich had their way, then roughly 8% of the relationships we’ve worked so hard to bring about would be illegal.” 

The company has since denied that their action was a PR stunt, and told the Daily Dot that it “wasn’t particularly strategic or pre-planned” and that they didn’t want “to make a big PR kerfuffle.” But of course, that's exactly what has happened. A quick check of Google’s news search at publication time showed 281 articles, so it’s clearly enjoyed a lot of publicity as a result, intended or not. And despite the fact that one of my colleagues believes OKCupid’s staunch support of equality for the LGBT community may hurt business more than help owing to the online dating site’s conservative user base, I remain skeptical that this is much more than a clever way to get some traffic.

OKCupid aside, the furore over Eich’s elevation to CEO has been playing out very publicly over the past week. The announcement caused a schism within the company, with one board member openly resigning over the selection, and two others ending their terms for a “variety of reasons” immediately after he was appointed. 

The company has defended its attitude toward an equal opportunity workplace, and the issue of same-sex marriage too: “... Mozilla supports equality for all, including marriage equality for LGBT couples. No matter who you are or who you love, everyone deserves the same rights and to be treated equally,” it wrote in a statement

The surprisingly public nature of the debate is a result of Mozilla's unusual environment in which employees are free to voice their opinions publicly on blogs and social media. Quite a number have availed themselves of that option.

Interestingly, several self-described “Queer Mozillians” have supported Eich. Jason Duell tweeted that Eich is “LGBTQ friendly,” and that he doesn’t “feel threatened” by Eich. Duell came out to the company as a polyamorous member of the BDSM community in 2011. Other, non-LGBT employees also support Eich as CEO.

But not everyone is as willing to separate business from personal beliefs, and some are asking for Eich’s immediate resignation. One employee, Paul le Dieu, has attempted to take an unpaid leave of absence from her duties in protest—although later found out she was unable to do so, and is now donating her salary to Mozilla’s Webmaker Program. Another, JP Schneider, writes: “Unfortunately, right now Brendan’s public image (which is also now in part Mozilla’s public image in his new role) is one showing that he donated money to deny equal rights to the LGBT community during Prop 8 in California.” Schneider goes on to note that he supports Eich’s right to hold his views.

Mozilla has apparently lost developer support as well, with Rarebit immediately halting development of several upcoming projects, as well as pulling the Color Puzzle game from the Firefox Marketplace. Rarebitwrote in their post that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Proposition 8—enabling same-sex marriage again in California—was the reason their venture is possible; one of the people behind it was able to obtain a Green Card as a result.

Brendan Eich, the new CEO of the Mozilla Corporation. Image: Flickr/Drew McLellan

As for Eich himself, he echoed Mozilla’s statement in his own blog post, explaining how open and friendly the organization was for the LGBT employees. “I am committed to ensuring that Mozilla is, and will remain, a place that includes and supports everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, economic status, or religion,” he wrote. 

But it’s worth noting that Eich doesn’t really talk about his personal views and political activities. In a 2012 blog post, Eich aimed to address the issue but didn't bring up his personal beliefs. “The post came, but was underwhelming, and he neither apologized nor offered an explanation for the donation,” wrote employee Chris McAvoy at the time.

There are others who still aim to talk the problem out, and believe that Mozilla, unlike the clean-cut corporate image many other companies present to the public, is “messy” and that’s OK.

“But Mozilla is messy,” wrote Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation. “Our ability to set aside differences does not mean that everything is simple or that we’re always civil. In fact, when the topic is the web or Mozilla itself, we quite often get into open, heated and, for the most part, thoughtful debate. Many people outside Mozilla may not understand this. But, again, it makes us stronger.”

Indeed, the most interesting aspect of this whole situation is how frank Mozilla's discussion about its own future is. On the one hand, the founders selected a CEO that contributed to a draconian piece of legislation that the highest court in the country struck down on account of its unlawful overreaching. On the other, the company prides itself on openness and acceptance of others, with a united focus on ensuring the web remains open and accessible to all.

One thing's certain; you wouldn't expect such a public debate at your typical Silicon Valley techno-monster.

Inset screenshot: Flickr/Ian Forrester
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