Opinion

What does Mozilla's CEO step down reveal about free speech?

Brendan Eich’s decision to step down as CEO of Mozilla, less than two weeks after he was promoted to the position on 24 March 2014, raises some interesting questions for the organisation and for advocates of free speech and equality (in everyday life and on the web).

Eich’s appointment became mired in controversy very soon after last month's announcement because of his $1,000 contribution to a campaign against gay marriage in California in 2008. The CEO of app developer Rarebit, Hampton Catlin, announced a boycott of Firefox, dating site OKCupid urged Firefox users to switch to a different browser and over 70,000 people signed a petition headlined 'Tell Mozilla: Your new CEO must reverse his anti-gay stance, resign or be replaced'.

Eich had sought to defuse the row in a series of interviews, arguing personal beliefs were not allowed to influence someone's behaviour when working for Mozilla. He told CNET that “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”.

He also issued a personal statement stressing that he was “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”.

Was it enough to mollify his critics? Apparently not. In a Mozilla blog post dated 3 April 2014, Mitchell Baker, executive chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation, announced that Eich “has chosen to step down from his role as CEO. He's made this decision for Mozilla and our community”.

Obviously, despite his commitment to ensuring Mozilla would remain a place that includes and supports everyone, Eich and the organisation decided it wasn’t enough to convince the doubters calling for an apology and for Eich to repudiate his beliefs. If he had apologised and renounced his former views, he might have kept his job but that would have made a mockery of Mozilla’s claim to welcome contributions from everyone “regardless of age, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, language, race, sexual orientation, geographical location and religious views”.

In her blog post, Baker said Mozilla had not lived up to its “different standard” and hadn’t “stayed true to ourselves. We didn’t act like you’d expect Mozilla to act”.

Baker stated that “Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard”. Forcing someone out of their job because of personal beliefs that do not intrude on the company’s daily workings suggests it found the task too hard to reconcile.

“We have employees with a wide diversity of views,” Baker writes. I can’t help wondering if those views were not quite as wide in their diversity on 4 April as they were on 3 April. “Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public,” she adds. But not if you want to keep your job? In Eich’s case, his beliefs and opinions appear to have forced his resignation from the CEO post.

Was it necessary? Who decides what personal beliefs are acceptable for the top job at Mozilla and which ones warrant immediate exclusion from consideration? The upset of those in the LGBT community at people who oppose their right to get married is perfectly justified.

But when the law of the land extends, as it already has in many places, to enable them to get married and the ethos of organisations such as Mozilla is to ensure LGBT workers will not be discriminated against because of their sexuality, it seems a bit extreme to seek to deprive someone of their livelihood because of their personal beliefs. If Eich was actively seeking to change Mozilla’s ethos to reflect his personal beliefs that would be a different matter entirely but no one has said that was the case.

There’s a quote commonly attributed to Voltaire which is usually wheeled out in instances like this to talk about the right to freedom of speech: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Mozilla obviously set itself a “different standard” in Eich’s case. I leave it to you to decide whether you are pleased or disappointed that Mozilla acted the the way you expected it to.

This was first published in April 2014

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