Exclusive: Mozilla CEO Eich says gay-marriage firestorm could hurt Firefox (Q&A)

Brendan Eich's 2008 donation to an anti-gay-marriage cause now dogs his new CEO job. In his first interview about it, he resists calls to resign or recant, but argues inclusiveness makes Mozilla's world-spanning community possible.

Update, April 3 at 12:45 p.m. PT: Mozilla announced Thursday that CEO Brendan Eich has resigned after controversy erupted over his support for an anti-gay marriage ballot proposition in California. Below is CNET's exclusive interview with Eich just two days earlier.


Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich
Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich Stephen Shankland/CNET

Brendan Eich knew there would be challenges taking over as Mozilla chief executive -- competing with Chrome, rebuilding the Web as a foundation for apps, finding a mobile foothold for Firefox OS.

What he didn't expect was that a political issue would push aside those technology concerns. Eich's donation of $1,000 to the Proposition 8 effort to ban gay marriage in California, made in 2008 and uncovered through public records in 2012, became a rallying point for a large and vocal group that has fought for years for those marriage rights. More than 70,000 people have signed a petition asking for Eich to resign if he can't unequivocally say he supports marriage equality.

Now, in his first interview on the subject, Eich is responding with a message that Mozilla is at its core inclusive -- not just of gay-marriage supporters but also of people like him or gay-marriage opponents in Indonesia who also are part of the Mozilla cause. Those beliefs must be checked at the door on the way into Mozilla, he argues.

"If Mozilla cannot continue to operate according to its principles of inclusiveness, where you can work on the mission no matter what your background or other beliefs, I think we'll probably fail," he told CNET.

Mozilla is accustomed to leveraging the Firefox browser to pursue its philosophical fight to keep Internet technology open and under the control of its users. In a reversal, Firefox has become a point of leverage in a very different fight for gay-marriage rights.

Hampton Catlin -- CEO of app developer Rarebit, the company he and his husband, Michael Lintorn Catlin, co-founded -- publicly announced Rarebit is boycotting Firefox OS. Dating site OKCupid told Firefox users to switch to a different browser. Blog posts about inclusiveness at Mozilla from Eich, Mozilla Chairwoman Mitchell Baker, and Mozilla itself didn't quell the controversy.

Though Eich refuses to discuss his own beliefs explicitly or say whether they've changed, he disagreed with the assertion that being opposed to gay-marriage rights is equivalent to being sexist or racist, and he said political and religious speech is still protected.

Eich is the inventor of JavaScript, the co-founder of Mozilla, and before his CEO appointment last week was the nonprofit organization's chief technology officer. He talked Tuesday with CNET's Stephen Shankland, and the following is a transcript of the interview.

Shankland: Is a political firestorm about gay-marriage rights how you expected to start your new career as a CEO?
Eich: It's not what I expected. I had lots of other things to work on. I'm doing two jobs, which is challenging, but I expect it'll get better.

You made the donation in 2008, and it came out in 2012. Did you consider this to be no longer an issue?
Eich: I wasn't sure. There were a lot of other considerations getting me to be CEO. I think I'm a good fit for it. I'm doing a great job at it. It's important to look beyond the particulars. Mozilla has always worked according to principles of inclusiveness. It may be challenging for a CEO, but everyone in our community can have different beliefs about all sorts of things that may be in conflict. They leave them at the door when they come to work on the Mozilla mission. We are a broad, big, mission-based organization. It's not to say some of those other beliefs aren't as contributing to the open Web, but we will not succeed globally without being maximally inclusive by leaving exclusionary beliefs at the door. I've done that for 16 years. I've done open source for 20 years. I think my reputation is well-known. Mozilla.org was founded 16 years ago today. The open source went up on March 31.

I've always treated people as they come, I've worked with them, tried to get them into the project, I've been as fair and inclusive as anyone -- I think more. I intend to be even more so as CEO because I agree there's an obligation to reach out to people who for whatever reason are marginalized.

What message do you want to send to those who are asking for your resignation or for you to recant your earlier opposition to gay marriage?
Eich: Two things. One is -- without getting into my personal beliefs, which I separate from my Mozilla work -- when people learned of the donation, they felt pain. I saw that in friends' eyes, [friends] who are LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered]. I saw that in 2012. I am sorry for causing that pain.

The other thing is imagine a world without Firefox. Mozilla is under a threat here. We don't know how big. If Mozilla cannot continue to operate according to its principles of inclusiveness, where you can work on the mission no matter what your background or other beliefs, I think we'll probably fail. A world without Firefox and without Firefox OS and without our approach to putting the user at the center of cloud services instead of having users get pulled into walled gardens -- I think that would be a pretty dark world. I would encourage people to think about that, even if they have a hard time understanding me or meeting me at the Mozilla mission and working on the common cause.

That's a fair point, but it's pretty clear that people have latched onto this issue as a way to express their own political beliefs. There was the OKCupid advice not to use Firefox, the developers boycotting, and the general calls for your resignation. Is there some point at which the damage that is actually done to Mozilla and Firefox means it would be worth it for you to make a public statement directly in support of gay marriage rights, or to resign? Is the mission threatened to that degree?
Eich: I am CEO, and I'm confident I am the best person for the job right now. I serve at the board's pleasure. If that should change, I'll do something else. I don't think it's good for my integrity or Mozilla's integrity to be pressured into changing a position. If Mozilla became more exclusive and required more litmus tests, I think that would be a mistake that would lead to a much smaller Mozilla, a much more fragmented Mozilla.

We have a strong Indonesian community. We're developing Firefox OS to go into market there. I have people there on the other side of this particular issue. They don't bring it into Mozilla when they work in the Mozilla community. I met a lot of them at Mozcamp 2012 in Singapore. They don't have quite the megaphone in that part of the world. But the Mozilla mission and our inclusiveness principles really must matter to include them too.

The Mozilla blog mentioned specific actions you were going to take in the direction of inclusiveness. Can you describe those actions?
Eich: There are actions, but I don't want to talk about those without preempting some plans that I'm not going to speak about. I did say something on my blog that I'm serious about. The first thing that's coming up is to meet with somebody on staff, a supporter of me and in the LGBT community who's working on a new project to bring in new people from that community in less than ideal circumstances where they can't afford to hack on Mozilla, or they need child care, outreach, support, transportation maybe -- and to start to become contributors to Mozilla. I'm personally supporting that. I want to be held accountable for that work. It is important. It's not the only thing I'm doing. I'm listening and learning from becoming a CEO sponsor. We do need to do even more to deal with the fact we have a lot of contributors who have privilege, and that's great, but we have to find those who have less privilege and help them contribute. We need all the people around the world with talent helping, otherwise we won't achieve our mission. Mozilla really is different. We're not a giant, well-funded company. It really is people power that helps us achieve our goals. That project is called Project Ascend.

Do you think we should judge executives by their political beliefs?
Eich: For Mozilla, it's problematic because of our principles of inclusiveness, because the Indonesian community supports me but doesn't have quite the megaphone. We have to be careful to put the principles of inclusiveness first. I can see how other companies might have different reasons for existence and might take a different approach. I'm not going to say all companies have to have the same principles, but for Mozilla, that's always been how we've operated. It's how I've always operated in open communities, in open source, and at Mozilla.

I've read plenty of opinions that say you're entitled to your own opinions and political beliefs. But there are other folks who say your stance is the equivalent of overt racism or sexism. That's a firing offense and gets politicians thrown out of office. What's your response to that?
Eich: I don't believe that's true, on the basis of what's permissible to support or vote on in 2008. It's still permissible. Beliefs that are protected, that include political and religious speech, are generally not something that can be held against even a CEO. I understand there are people who disagree with me on this one.

If you were to judge some other organization, looking at that organization's CEO or executives, to what extent can you separate the moral, political, and religious beliefs of the executives from the reputation of the organization?
Eich: That's a good question, because the CEO does have some aspect of being the one person who exemplifies the company. I still think it's pretty important to judge people by how they treat others, in my case for over 16 years, and allow them to separate some of their deeply held beliefs which do not come into play in their role at an organization like Mozilla -- even the CEO role. If we don't do that, the principles of inclusiveness that we've practiced will be hurt. I know there are people who disagree on many things, but I'm fighting shoulder to shoulder whether you're gay or straight, whether you're married or single, whether you're conservative or liberal, young or old, wherever you are in the world. I'm trying to overcome barriers that marginalize people. That's super critical to our success, and it's something I can do even better as CEO, both inside the company and out. I would be asked to be judged, like I would judge other company executives, by my conduct and how I comport myself in my role.

If you had the opportunity to donate to a Proposition 8 cause today, would you do so?
Eich: I hadn't thought about that. It seems that's a dead issue. I don't want to answer hypotheticals. Separating personal beliefs here is the real key here. The threat we're facing isn't to me or my reputation, it's to Mozilla.

You haven't really explicitly laid it out, so I'll just ask you: how do you feel gay-marriage rights? How did you feel about it in 2008, and how do you feel about it today?
Eich: I prefer not to talk about my beliefs. One of the things about my principles of inclusiveness is not just that you leave it at the door, but that you don't require others to put targets on themselves by labeling their beliefs, because that will present problems and will be seen as divisive.

You're obviously taking this seriously, but do you think this is something that'll blow over in a week or two, or is it a bigger problem?
Eich: It's hard to speculate. I do take it seriously. We are trying to not only put forth principles of inclusiveness but also talk about what's going on with Mozilla and why we matter. Some people will hear the prospect of a world without Firefox and get it right away. Others may think mission accomplished with Firefox, done, OK. But Firefox OS, cloud services, user sovereignty and agency in the cloud -- those are underserved, and that's squarely and in our mission. It's right in front of us, because when you do a mobile OS, you do services, and when you do services, some of them are identity-attached services. Mozilla is the anti-walled garden. We want the user to be able to mix and match services, to take their data in and out, to own their data so they don't have to put it into some other walled garden where they don't get as good a deal.

What exactly happened with the board? You had 60 percent of your board step down [three out of five]. You got one new board member, so you're back up to three. What was going on there? What were the issues that led so many people to step down all at once, right as you were taking over as CEO?
Eich: It was two weeks ago, before the CEO appointment. Three board members ended their terms for a variety of reasons. Two were planning to leave for some time. Ellen Siminoff [CEO of online education company Schmoop] was planning to leave since late last year, another one was going to leave at the end of the CEO search. And John Lilly left for a variety of reasons. John was CEO and was busy with venture capital relationships Greylock [Partners]. John had done a ton of work for Mozilla at some cost to his partnership.


Is there any truth to the Wall Street Journal story that said it had to do with dissatisfaction with Mozilla's attempt to penetrate mobile market?
Eich: Not so far as I know. I'm not on the board, but that's not credible to me.

How would you characterize Mozilla's success thus far in the mobile market?
Eich: We're going full speed ahead to get into with mobile market, both with the new higher-end phones with Firefox OS and the new $25 phone where we expect to get a lot of volume -- not only competing against smartphones where the old Android 2.3 is basically all but dead, but also converting people with feature phones to their first Web-enabled smartphones. That is going to happen very soon, because those channels are flowing. The sooner we can get in there, the better. That's been something I've worked on, and something I think will get us onto the mobile OS pie chart. That will help with all sorts of things. Once we do that, we go up the device capability scale and scale around the world.

Supposing you get a significant number of Firefox OS users, it seems to me there's an even worse version of the Android problem: Although there are a lot of Android devices in absolute terms, the activity of the users is much lower on average than with iOS. They download fewer apps, pay for less stuff, browse the Web less. I suspect people with $25 Firefox OS phones, potentially on very limited data plans or using their phones basically as a smartphone, their activity levels could be even lower than Android's on average. Wouldn't that undermine your efforts to have influence when it comes to Web and app developers?
Eich: You're right that with different segments of market you get different app usage. A first-time smartphone user coming off a feature phone might not even know what apps are apart from the few that were on the feature phone. Games are an important category. Most people do look for games. Even for Gingerbread phones there are non-Google Play marketplaces. They aren't that good in my opinion. We can easily deal with that and have great games. Getting down to a smaller screen and less memory is challenging, but the games also tend to be simpler. There are other things like communications apps that are obviously pretty important. Even though people have data plans that are pre-paid, they do use operator billing [in which app purchasing and app service fees are attached to the phone bill]. It's the easiest way to pay. There are no credit cards in a lot of the emerging markets. We think there is a way to monetize for app developers. We also look at not just the global sites, but also the local tail [very geographically specific apps] that can be very specific and can be very Mozillian. We get people developing apps because they're excited about Firefox OS.

What's your response to OKCupid, which recommended Firefox OS users switch browsers?
Eich: We didn't hear about it until it was up. We're talking now, because it may be they'll take it down. They didn't seem to be aware of the statement that Mitchell Baker made over the weekend. As an organization, Mitchell said, Mozilla supports LGBT equality. I don't think they heard about that. There's a good chance that'll come down. I can't promise you. We're talking to them now.

The other was developers Rarebit, two husbands [married to each other] who take your actions very personally and withdrew their app from the Firefox marketplace.
Eich: I met with one of them. It was actually a good meeting. I'm not not going to speak for him. What started a week and a day ago has changed. It's not for him the same as it was. For everyone involved in this a week ago, if they start to see things go big in a way that could mean the end of Mozilla, the loss of the principles of inclusiveness, a world without Firefox, they have concerns that transcend the concern about me. I had a good meeting over this weekend.

Do you consider this an existential threat to Mozilla?
Eich: I don't know. If it is, the vision of Mozilla will be lost. I don't think anyone else will carry the user-first agenda above all other considerations. I understand big commercial corporations can't do it. They have to ultimately answer to their shareholders. They can have founders with large shares and that can say they're willing to take a hit in order to be long-term thinkers, and I admire that, but in no way can they do what Mozilla does. We bled for the user. We did Firefox when nobody thought the browser was a competitive market or ever would be again. We did Firefox OS when people said there was no need for a mobile OS but there was obviously a gap below the market. And we're doing a user-centric approach to services that involve identity and choice and control of data. Mozilla has to uphold its principles, has to have integrity to advance its mission.

I feel strongly about what's happened, and I feel I'm still the best CEO for the job. I've got lots to contribute and I'll help us turn some corners. The corners that need me as CEO, not just founder or CTO, are a big mobile turn that involves services [and] user identity and agency in the cloud. If we get our message out about inclusiveness and how Mozilla cannot succeed without being truly globally inclusive, then we'll have trouble. I expect I'll be helpful there, too, in the long run. We're in a struggle now, but if we get through it, we'll be stronger for it. That's been true of all our struggles at Mozilla. When we pull everybody together for common mission, that's when we really succeed.

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Show Comments Hide Comments