Understanding the Mozilla CEO mess


This is a revision of a post I put up a few days ago. Events changed, so I felt the need to take the previous version down. My apologies to those who wanted to read it that hit a 404. (I didn’t know it had been linked to by someone other than myself yet) I wanted to avoid looking like I was more a part of the debate than I am, so even with the updates I added, I felt the need to redo things a bit here.

This is going to be a bit of an off-topic post to many of the few readers I have on this blog. If you aren’t already aware of the firestorm at the selection of Brenden Eich as the new Mozilla CEO, then you might not be my target audience for this post. I suggest going off to Youtube and watching some funny videos, as it might be more productive for you than reading this. This issue is a god forsaken mess, so be prepared for a little rant.

I am not a Mozilla employee. I volunteer as a bug triager on Bugzilla from time to time, though not nearly as much as I used to. I have permissions in the system to edit and close bugs as warranted, so I’m not entirely an outsider to Mozilla. I consider myself to be part of this community in some way but my opinion should be taken as that of a bystander who is not directly involved.

Of the list of things I could be discriminated against for, my sexuality is not one of them. I am, however, young enough to not attempt to special-case gay rights issues as anything other than basic civil rights.

This post is long because this issue is complicated and most of the problems stem from people talking without fully comprehending everything involved here.

What happened?

Mozilla got a new CEO last week, with no apparent discussion prior to the decision, and the PR of everything involved was bungled completely, nearly tearing Mozilla apart. All too many people involved woefully underestimated the scale of the problem.

Brendan Eich was promoted from CTO to CEO. He previously donated a large sum of money to a propaganda campaign promoting a referendum to remove existing marriage rights from Californians via a slim temporary majority. He treated this like it was a personal political issue, but Mozilla’s name was on the financial disclosure forms so he nonetheless dragged Mozilla into a realm in which it did not belong. He never apologized for doing so and after becoming CEO did not properly deal with the PR backlash from outside of Mozilla and within, nor did he properly deal with the HR issues within Mozilla as many Mozilla employees were now profoundly uncomfortable with their new boss. He is not entirely to blame. This mess escalated in an entirely perfectible way with seemingly nobody inside Mozilla discussing anything productive until Brendan Eich was forced to resign yesterday. This was not a victory for anyone, but it was nonetheless a resolution to this mess.

I support gay rights, support free speech and belief, and supported Eich as CEO initially, though he would not have been my choice because this mess was entirely predictable. I wish he was just given more power and responsibility without feeling the need to change the ‘T’ in his title to an ‘E’. However, defending his handling of the situation is completely impossible. I initially wrote a long article explaining the issue and my stance the day before he resigned because I fully expected a resignation by that point, or at least a proper statement. What he was doing instead was apparently botching an interview with CNET.

I took down what I previously wrote now that events have changed things. This is the replacement here with edited top and bottom bits. The backstory parts are unchanged, as is the sentiment I’m trying to convey. This was all stupid and entirely avoidable.

I see no reason why Brendan Eich couldn’t have said the right things and ascended to CEO with only a minor PR hit. That didn’t happen. In fact, he has largely been ignoring the issue, or at least that’s the impression I get. This is not the sort of thing that is just going to blow over. This is not an issue over free speech, or campaign finance laws, or even rights and equality. This is a PR problem. Brendan has dragged Mozilla into a mess that Mozilla should not have to deal with in any way.

A table of contents for this long summary:

Backstory, part 1: Prop 8 & Gay Marriage in the US

If you’re still reading this and don’t know what’s going on, here’s the gist: In 2008 the state of California in the United States of America held a routine election with a special referendum also on the ballot. Gay marriage was effectively legal in California (though not yet recognized at the federal level) and this enraged the anti-homosexual political organizations. A massive propaganda campaign was launched involving quite a lot of out-of-state money to push for this referendum, officially designated Proposition 8, which intended to circumvent the court ruling that allowed gay marriages to begin. Bigotry is a spectrum ranging from slight ignorance to spiteful hate. No matter your beliefs on this issue, you have to acknowledge the reality of this campaign was filled with hate. It passed with a slim temporary majority. Polls have been done after the fact saying that a similar referendum would go the opposite way now. Nonetheless, democracy was successfully abused to impose the will of the majority on others.

Two years later, a federal judge ruled this as unconstitutional. Prop 8 wasn’t like other states’ campaigns to ban gay marriage. It sought to undo existing rights Californians had, not stop them from coming into existence. It was explicitly discriminatory and was struck down. The Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment of the US constitution was cited as the protections being violated. This decision was appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court. In 2013 the Supreme Court of the United States of America ruled that the initial lower court ruling was valid and that those appealing the case had no legal standing to do so. It did not just rule that Prop 8 was unconstitutional; it ruled that those seeking to restrict the rights of homosexuals are not legally involved in the issue and have no right to do so. (at least through these processes) The stay on the first federal court ruling was lifted and California began issuing gay marriages again.

Due to another Supreme Court ruling the same year, some federal restrictions on gay marriage were lifted and gay marriages are effectively recognized in the US now. Only certain states recognize them or issue them and the entire issue is still murky with lots of legal rights in limbo. Essentially gay marriage is legal federally but gay weddings aren’t legal everywhere. Married gay couples can now file joint federal tax returns but state taxes will vary wildly from state to state. It’s still a mess and people will still be fighting for improvements here for years to come. (if you want more info than this, you’ll have to seek out a more detailed source than me)

Backstory, part 2: Brendan Eich did something stupid

In 2008 Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich donated $1000 to support Prop 8. If you look this up in public records, it lists “Mozilla” right next to his name. Our laws require large donors to list their employers so we can check to make sure companies aren’t cheating political donation systems by coercing their employees into donating for political issues without being noticed. This donation was discovered and publicized in 2012 and plenty of people were furious. Not only was Brendan exposed as a bit of a bigot, but a rich bigot. (to reieterate: bigotry is a spectrum ranging from slight ignorance to hate, and this action was certainly somewhere on that spectrum) This donation was an order of magnitude larger than most people would consider donating to anything. By virtue of Mozilla’s name being put down on the financial disclosure form he dragged Mozilla into this mess. That was objectively wrong.

You can say it’s not fair that Brendan’s personal issues be made public, but they were. You can say that it’s not fair to say this reflects badly on Mozilla, but it does. You can say that this was all in the past, but that doesn’t change anything.

Other reporting has said that Brendan donated a couple thousand dollars towards congressional candidates in favor of Prop 8, and he likely voted for Prop 8 himself. He should have stopped there, because nobody is really mad at that part today. What people are mad at is the way he conducted himself. If he was to be personally involved in the messy politics at play here he should have damn well kept it private and done everything in his power to keep Mozilla out of it. Instead, you can search for a list of donors to Prop 8 from Mozilla and his name pops right up. This was stupid. His beliefs and rights in this discussion are irrelevant. This was horrible PR that could have been avoided without having to actually stay out of it fully.

There was a joke circulating on Twitter that what we’ve really learned from this mess is that people should really just use shady political organizations that avoid having donor names disclosed. The sad truth is that might have been vastly preferable.

The real problem here is not just that Brendan contributed a large donation towards actively stripping the existing rights from people that did not affect him. It’s not that he financially supported an illegal referendum. (the fact that it was ruled illegal after the fact does not absolve anyone here) It’s not even that he has refused to apologize for all of this. The real issue at core here is that he made a mess of things for Mozilla. He was promoted from CTO to CEO and PR and HR issues became his job. In his first week in office he was not successful in doing it.

Recent story, part 1: Mozilla did something stupid

On the Internet, dates don’t matter that much. The difference between an article written in 2008, 2012, or 2014 is just a number on a screen. The fact that Brendan made this bad decision 6 years ago is irrelevant. The fact that the initial PR mess from this was 2 years ago is irrelevant. The Supreme Court rulings were just last year. This is very much a current issue. I find it strange that anyone tries to argue otherwise.

Mozilla claims to be a very open and transparent organization, however the selection of its new CEO was profoundly opaque. All of a sudden Brendan Eich was the new CEO with no apparent discussion prior. Three Mozilla board members have since stepped down. (read here) It appears to be in protest of the CEO decision, however again, we’re lacking in transparency here to know what’s fully going on. This is a PR issue, so the real reasons don’t actually matter. They probably should, but they don’t. The appearance is that people are resigning from Mozilla because they cannot stand the selection of Brendan Eich as CEO, not just because he is a bad pick for PR reasons, but because they wanted to hire someone with specific experience in the mobile sector. Mozilla has always felt that its sponsorship by Google is a Sword of Damocles hanging over their head and the current strategy is to diversify into the mobile space with Firefox OS. It appears some higher-ups really wanted to get a CEO specifically for this prospect, not just promote the CTO.

They should have foreseen the firestorm that promoting Brendan to CEO would be. It was obvious to plenty of people, but apparently not to those in charge. He never apologized for his support of Prop 8 and it should have been blatantly obvious that the top person for Mozilla should be a uniting personality, not someone seen as divisive. This may not be fair to Brendan, but again, it doesn’t matter. It’s the reality of the situation. Mozilla sucks at PR and this is the worst example yet of them messing it up. Nobody would have complained if Brendan remained as CTO, even if he was given greater responsibility and authority within Mozilla. This was all completely unnecessary.

Recent story, part 2: Many voices & a Firefox boycott

There has been a din of Mozilla employees and community members voicing their opinions on Twitter and their blogs. There are gay Mozilla employees standing up for Brendan saying that they have no problems working with him, though he may personally make them uncomfortable. There are other gay Mozilla employees who believe that Brendan should step down and cannot lead in his current position. There have also been a parade of friends and colleagues of Brendan asking for people to set aside this issue and just move on. This is not helping anyone. When you post to your blog as a Mozilla employee, you’re just talking to your peers. This issue is bigger than this and will not blow over of its own accord.

There were people within the community and outside of it calling for a boycott of Firefox and other Mozilla products. A Firefox boycott is wrong and profoundly unfair to everyone else involved with Mozilla. A messy partial boycott nonetheless happened. Boycotts don’t really work the way those who start them think they will, but they do effectively turn a messy situation into a messier situation.

The highest profile boycott was from OkCupid. (read the CNN article on the topic here or the NBC article here or the BBC article here, because yes, this has reached mainstream news) Again, this action on their point is very wrong. It is also hypocritical, as it has been revealed that OkCupid’s SSL certificate is provided by GoDaddy, which is also supposedly being boycotted for misogynistic advertising campaigns. None of this matters, of course, because this is a PR issue. The hypocrisy of supporting one morality boycott whilst ignoring another is irrelevant. (it’s also an inherent problem in all boycotts; you can’t boycott everything) The only thing that matters is that a major company has started to tell its users to switch browsers in response to Brendan being Mozilla CEO. You can of course say that responding to this action is wrong, but it doesn’t matter. The reality of the situation is that this CEO selection and PR mishandling put us on a path towards a large-scale messy protest against all of Mozilla.

Coincidences and perceptions

Coincidentally, Google Chrome usage has now slightly surpassed Mozilla Firefox usage for the first time. (read here; previously, some metrics said it had, but not everyone had concurred) This is also something which one would normally say is not relevant, however in the realm of PR, it is. We are now in a situation where the tie of 2nd place browser is now breaking towards Google and at the same time a boycott of Mozilla was starting. This has to be stopped if Mozilla wishes to continue to exist as it does now.

Google has perfected the not-quite-open-source movement. They’re very good at having lots of open source code… with proprietary crap dumped on top of it. Google Chromium is open source but Google Chrome is not. (it is officially proprietary freeware) Android is Linux, but without all that pesky openness. Google Chrome is still the new shiny and Mozilla has only just recently realized that advertising itself as a non-profit company working against the for-profit Google is a good idea. (again, Mozilla is sometimes clueless when it comes to PR) Search for OkCupid on Twitter and you see a litany of people saying they’re uninstalling Firefox and switching to Google Chrome because they don’t want to support the bigotry at the top. Again, this is not fair, but it doesn’t matter. It was nonetheless happening at an alarming rate.

As I said at the beginning of this long post, I see no reason Brendan couldn’t have apologized for the stupidity of dragging Mozilla into this mess, even without recanting his beliefs, and have kept his promotion. I think it’s safe to say, however, that the time for that passed. All we have gotten out of him is a standard offensive “I’m sorry if I offended anyone” post. That’s just not going to cut it. The average person joining into this crappy boycott would never ever read a word written by Brendan in response to this, let alone change their opinion based on it. Yet again, this is not fair, but this is the reality of the situation. The only thing capable of keeping Mozilla from being perceived as Chick-fil-A with computers is a change in CEO to someone capable of dealing with the PR and HR issues involved here directly. This should not be the circus it is. We have employees, community members, and users all very disturbed at this state of affairs and platitudes are not going to fix it. It should have been blatantly obvious that this mess would continue until it was actually addressed. Brendan probably could have been a great CEO, but that’s just not coming to pass.

A resolution & confusion

In the end, the obvious result happened. This pathetic chain of events was easily predictable by plenty of people the second the new CEO choice was announced. Here’s the resolution I would’ve preferred: Brendan could’ve apologized for tacitly dragging Mozilla into his personal issues, apologized for donating money to a campaign later ruled illegal, said his personal beliefs are his own and not relevant to the job, made a statement emphatically protecting the concerns of LGBT Mozilla employees, and promised to openly discuss the issue as we worked forward. If he did all of this the day of his appointment, or preferably prior, we would be in an entirely different situation than we are now. He could have remained CEO with a positive discussion and only a minor PR hit. If he realized how horrible things were and did this a couple days into this debacle, he might’ve been able to go back to CTO and defer to someone with better PR skills to be a CEO. (personally, this was my preferred resolution) Instead, we got nothing for 11 days ending with a bad interview that could’ve been his last chance to set things right. It’s really sad, because it’s a detriment to us all that he might not work for Mozilla in any capacity anymore. I am nonetheless relieved that the bleeding has stopped.

I am genuinely confused at how horribly this has been handled. It’s depressing. This mess is beginning to make volunteers ashamed to be associated with Mozilla. Saying that transparency is messy doesn’t fix things, especially because the CEO selection was not transparent. Saying that Brendan would support LGBT issues within Mozilla doesn’t fix things, because we still had LGBT Mozillians expressing their inability to be lead by the current CEO due to his actions on the topic. Saying that this is a matter of personal belief doesn’t fix things, because money is not belief or speech, it’s quantified action. Saying that boycotts are wrong and unfounded does not stop them from happening. Saying anything about how things should be does not affect how they actually are.

This could have been handled in a way that did not cause this firestorm, but it wasn’t. This had to be fixed. I didn’t really care how, but the window for fixing it with words alone had closed and Brendan resigning was the least bad solution by far.

I am quite glad that the higher-ups in Mozilla weren’t filtering out all of the complaints as I feared they were. I was getting a sense of dread that they just turned off the Internet and decided to wait for it to blow over, which sure as hell won’t work for an issue like this within an organization and community like this. Eventually (much later than it should have) the reality of the situation sunk in, the BS over what is supposedly fair stopped, and a solution was chosen even if nobody likes it. Welcome to the real world; it sucks.

Hopefully, at some point in the future, Brendan will be welcomed back into Mozilla to return to the programming work he is good at and should be encouraged to do. Public relations, however, does not seem to be within his skill-set, unfortunately.

Reading list

Those following me on Twitter got quite a few retweets from me on this topic. I’ve ignored the non-constructive posts and retweeted the ones I personally think are worth reading. I’ll summarize them here for anyone interested. All of the following are recommended reads, however I may not personally agree with every individual point being made.

First voices & reporting
Important voices & reporting

There’s also actually rantings coming out of the anti-gay movement in the direction of Eich because they’d rather he be emphatically anti-gay, some even themselves demanding a Firefox boycott due to the Mozilla PR mess. I was going to link to an article on the topic, but I’d rather not. I’m sure there are amicable voices that agree with Brendan’s position, but the ones I have seen here are not.

Interviews with Brendan Eich
Important voices, analysis, & reporting after the fact

Comments closed here and directed to Twitter instead. I don’t want to deal with rambling responses to my rambling response.

I will reiterate at the end here what I have said all along: Brendan could’ve been a good CEO. What happened here was wrong on multiple levels, but was entirely predictable and avoidable if people just took the time to actually understand what’s going on and properly talk about it. That didn’t happen, so the result was this mess.

Update: Added another link and updated some bylines for the links.