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Eich resignation as Mozilla CEO as messy as his appointment

Brendan Eich stepping down as CEO solves Mozilla's immediate publicity problem, but many are torn about consequences of losing him as a leader and free-speech implications.

Brendan Eich
Mozilla's short-lived CEO, Brendan Eich Mozilla/Darcy Padilla

The resignation of Brendan Eich as Mozilla's CEO is proving to be just about as thorny to handle as his position against gay marriage rights that triggered the problem in the first place.

Even those who believe Eich's resignation is the appropriate solution to Mozilla's problem of leadership and morality are struggling with its consequences. After Mozilla announced Eich's resignation on Thursday, Twitter lit up with conflicted views from those who work the world of the Web.

"I can't process what's happening. So frustrated, sad, angry, and concerned. The right thing happened but at what cost. Stay strong Mozilla," tweeted John Resig, a former Mozilla employee and creator of the jQuery project that expands JavaScript's abilities.

Eich's troubles illustrate the growing power of the gay-marriage movement -- particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area where Mozilla's headquarters are located. San Francisco is a center of political power for the gay-rights movement, and the Bay Area's hyper-connected Internet-infused living can rapidly transform a controversy into a crisis.

Eich had built a strong following as co-founder of Mozilla, a savvy fighter for the Web, inventor of JavaScript, and leader of the Firefox and Firefox OS projects. His promotion to Mozilla chief executive officer from chief technology officer last week was a rare techie triumph over the usual business-school demographic.

Much of that credit evaporated as he struggled to reconcile his 2008 contribution of $1,000 to Proposition 8, a California measure against gay marriage, with Mozilla's explicit culture of inclusiveness. That inclusiveness is central to the world-spanning organization's breadth, and Eich told CNET in an interview that it protected his own views, too.

But his argument didn't persuade critics, and Mozilla management -- accustomed to taking the moral high ground -- had to defend itself from boycotts and outrage.

John Resig on Eich
screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The wildfire that brought Eich down was sparked in part by Rarebit developers Hampton Catlin and Michael Lintorn Catlin, who as married gay men took Eich's politics very personally, removed their app from the Mozilla Marketplace, and called for Eich to apologize or resign.

Hampton Catlin on Thursday, though, called Eich's resignation "the worst kind of victory."

"We never expected this to get as big as it has, and we never expected that Brendan wouldn't make a simple statement. I met with Brendan and asked him to just apologize for the discrimination under the law that we faced. He can still keep his personal beliefs, but I wanted him to recognize that we faced real issues with immigration and say that he never intended to cause people problems," Catlin said in a blog post Thursday. "It's heartbreaking to us that he was unwilling to say even that."

Credo, organization that supports progressive social change, hosted a petition signed by more than 70,000 people who asked Eich to express support for gay-marriage rights or step down. On Thursday, it began a campaign to encourage support for Firefox.

"If you're not already using Firefox, consider switching to the only browser that supports equality for all under the law, Net neutrality, and an end to mass warrantless spying by the NSA," Credo said. "Mozilla is a non-profit organization fighting to keep the Web open and free for all of us. They put people above profit, and fight for user choice and privacy."

Recode's Kara Swisher called Eich's position "pretzel logic," and indeed it's hard to argue that a philosophy of inclusiveness should protect an opinion of non-inclusiveness, but that paradoxical situation still was real for some.

"Intolerance of intolerance is still intolerance," tweeted James Snell, an IBM engineer who works on Web standards. Added Ara Pehlivanian, a Web developer and author, "Is the view that Eich should not be CEO of Mozilla the same as his view that gays shouldn't marry? Were we just equally intolerant?"

Chris Wilson on EIch
screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Also pained was Chris Wilson, a Google developer advocate who co-wrote the Windows version of the seminal Mosaic browser and worked for years on the Microsoft Internet Explorer team against which Eich so fiercely competed. "Yay on no h8 [hate]. Boo on limiting free speech," Wilson tweeted about Eich's departure.

A relative newcomer to Mozilla, Web standards expert and a former employee at Mozilla rival Opera Software, Charles "Chaals" McCathieNevile tweeted in support of Eich, though not his politics.

"Mozilla puts groupthink over adults with different political, religious, etc. beliefs working on shared goals," he tweeted, then added, "I disagree with a lot of Brendan's politics. But I respect his ability to work collaboratively with people whose beliefs he doesn't share."

Less equivocal was John Lilly, a former Mozilla CEO who resigned from its board the week before Eich took over as CEO. "I don't really know of any other organization that would write something quite like that, and so I'm very hopeful from here about Mozilla," Lilly tweeted.

Matt Asay, vice president of marketing and business development at MongoDB and a longtime open-source software advocate, fretted about precedents of Eich's resignation. Asay tweeted that Google Executive Chairman "Eric Schmidt helps Obama, some of whose policies are anathema to conservatives. Do we really want such a monoculture?"

Jonas Sicking on Eich
screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Lilly responded that in his opinion, "this was not about political values but about leadership when confronted with a difficult conversation." And, breaking his silence about why he left the board, he indicated he didn't support Eich: "I voted with my feet."

On the other side was Mozilla employee Jonas Sicking, who tweeted, "@BrendanEich always lead @Mozilla His heart and soul was Mozilla's heart and soul. Him being CEO would have just made us more of what we are."