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Don't look for morality tales in Mozilla CEO resignation saga

[commentary] If you were looking for a "teachable moment" about a Silicon Valley executive's personal beliefs versus his ability to lead a diverse community, this wasn't it.

Firefox at Mobile World Congress 2014
Mozilla promoting Firefox and its view of an open Internet at Mobile World Congres 2014. Sarah Tew/CNET

Brendan Eich's short stint as chief executive officer of the Mozilla Foundation came to an abrupt end this week. All things considered, his ultimate undoing might have been more a matter of his personal style than his personal opinion.

Eich's resignation on Thursday ended a storm of controversy that whipped up after public records revealed he made a $1,000 donation in 2008 to an organization that promoted a ban on gay marriage in California.

Many, including Mozilla employees and independent Firefox developers, viewed Eich's support for California's Proposition 8 as condoning a mean-spirited campaign to prevent gay couples from enjoying the same rights held by other US citizens. (Until it was overturned last year, Prop. 8 had rescinded the right for gay couples to marry.) Dating site OKCupid even publicly urged Firefox-using members to switch Web browsers and called out Eich on its Web site as "an opponent of equal rights for gay couples."

Others were just as upset that a supremely talented technologist -- Eich invented the JavaScript coding language in 1995 -- lost his job simply because he exercised his Constitutional right to free speech. After all, he wasn't contributing to the Nazi Party. In a widely circulated piece, Andrew Sullivan gobsmacked Eich's critics: "[Eich's fate] should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society...If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the antigay bullies who came before us."

Was this really a case where the good guys squared off against the bad guys?

Mozilla's former CEO Brendan Eich
Mozilla's former CEO, Brendan Eich. Stephen Shankland

I wish it were, but we never had a real debate about Eich's fitness to lead a famously diverse community given his apparent beliefs. Instead, we got sound bites -- lots of them. Blog items and tweets formed a caricature of Eich and of the real issues at hand.

Truth be told, Eich sounded like a decent guy trying to navigate through an entirely unexpected public relations squall. Over the course of the almost two-week-long controversy, Eich underscored his commitment to diversity -- both in a blog post as well as in an extended Q&A with my CNET colleague Stephen Shankland. Mozilla's Mark Surman, who describes Eich as one of his heroes, reflected that his former colleague did not need to backtrack on Prop. 8 but wrote that the failure to "project and communicate empathy" was "his fatal flaw as CEO."

Unfortunately, once news of Eich's donation turned into the talk of the Internet, the ensuing controversy took on a life of its own. With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it's now clear that the outcome was virtually preordained. Mozilla is locked in a hardscrabble competition with Google, Microsoft, and Apple for Internet browser share in an evermore mobile-centric world. Calls to oust its CEO was a distraction Mozilla could do without.

The private sector talks
And who knows? If Eich wasn't CEO, maybe he would have survived the tempest. But as the face of Mozilla, his words and past decisions assumed extra importance. Where to draw the line between personal beliefs and professional positions becomes the hard question.

Everything is context, and when you're sitting on top of the corporate pyramid -- especially in Silicon Valley -- there are always consequences to free speech. How this squares with the First Amendment, not to mention this industry's counterculture roots, is a question that calls for a serious airing.

Though Sullivan complained about the "ugly intolerance of parts of the gay movement" in forcing Eich's resignation, the primary pressure for removing Eich did not come from gay and lesbian advocacy groups. The criticism and public calls for his ouster emanated largely from grassroots parties that worked with Mozilla. GLAAD, a national advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, noted that it put out its first public statement on the controversy only after Eich's resignation.

That was in keeping with recent trends, where US corporations -- particularly in the tech world -- are taking the lead on LGBT issues, according to GLAAD spokesman Ross Murray.

"For something like Mozilla that's so community-based, it was important that there's that sense of community," he said. "Mozilla recognized that this hampered and hindered relations with its developers and its community and they recognized that they were an open community."

Unsatisfying ending
To be sure, the Mozilla community is an open community -- and one with decidedly mixed opinions today. Developers Hampton Catlin and Michael Lintorn Catlin, a married gay couple that co-founded tech company Rarebit, removed their app from the Mozilla Marketplace and called for Eich to apologize or resign. They described the outcome as a sad victory in their latest post on the episode.

"We never expected this to get as big as it has and we never expected that Brendan wouldn't make a simple statement," Rarebit said. "Seriously, we assumed that he would reconsider his thoughts on the impact of the law (not his personal beliefs), issue an apology, and then he'd go on to be a great CEO. The fact it ever went this far is really disturbing to us."

If this was supposed to count as some kind of victory, they wrote, it still felt like something else. In other words, if you were looking for a "teachable moment" about leading a diverse technology community, this wasn't it. Call it for what it was: a big missed opportunity.