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[Brendan] Eich Carumba: The difficult marriage of politics and business

Column Brendan Eich might have been a good CEO, but Mozilla will never know
Fri Apr 04 2014, 13:01

THE LAST TWO WEEKS have highlighted the difficult balancing act that we must make in these modern enlightened times.

Brendan Eich, Mozilla's very short-term CEO, was appointed to a position at a technology firm, and was expected to do well in that role. Eich has a solid software pedigree, was a long standing Mozillian, and had the backing of (most) staff. However, he also holds opinions.

One of those opinions, on the issue of gay marriage, is one that many people don't agree with, although others support his views, as shown in the comments below our news story on Eich's brief tenure as CEO.

There you will read that men have dinkles and ladies don't, and that the two go together like peaches and cream. It is Arthur and Martha, say those readers, not Arthur and Arthur.

This is Eich's view apparently, because he did at one time donate $1,000 in support of Proposition 8, which looked to block gay marriage in California.

Eich presumably does not enjoy the idea of two men or two women getting married and thought it wise to kick money into a campaign that gets in the way of the course of such a relationship.

That is his opinion. He has a right to his views and a right to donate money where he wants to donate it. Not everyone has to agree with him, and as we have seen here, apparently not many people are willing to.

Mozilla, which was sure of the appointment when making it, has changed its mind, and has told its loyal customers that it wished it had paid more attention when people starting lighting virtual fires and searching web stores for virtual pitchforks.

Eich's role and his position were defended for a short time, but ultimately Mozilla appears to have pushed him into falling on his sword, and put his head on a pike as an apology to its critics.

Eich has been at Mozilla for over a decade and is the chap that created Javascript. Internally, and to his peers, he must have looked like the best bet for the job.

His donation was well known and Mozilla must have been aware of it, and it might have come up during discussions about his appointment as CEO. I would like to know how it was discussed and what was said in those meetings.

Today, having read the note from Mitchell Baker, it is hard to imagine the Mozilla board shrugging its shoulders over the donation and giving it a big ‘meh, so what?', but presumably that is what happened.

That decision has lost it some face, attracted a lot of outrage and criticisms, and forced its hand into making the sort of decision that large technology companies do not make lightly.

"Mozilla prides itself on being held to a different standard and, this past week, we didn't live up to it. We know why people are hurt and angry, and they are right: it's because we haven't stayed true to ourselves," said Baker. "We didn't act like you'd expect Mozilla to act. We didn't move fast enough to engage with people once the controversy started. We're sorry. We must do better."

But Mozilla knew full well what it was doing when it promoted Eich, and can only have been making a calculated risk. Its calculations were very wrong, and that has cost it.

Baker bemoaned the difficulties of balancing free speech and the right to opinion. I'm not sure where she has been, but that is not a new issue. Unpopular opinion, regardless of who finds it unpopular, will always be opposed and challenged, and for each strongly held opinion there is an equally strongly held opposite one.

The question of whether it is right for a gay couple to marry is not one that should be gauged by the machinations of large software companies. Mozilla put itself in the position of being that guardian. I expect it will not make that mistake again.

Whichever side you stand on, it is hard to view anyone as the winner here. The gay lobby has been accused of rampant McCarthyism, and its community has been divided over the man and Mozilla. What we had was a group that stands up for its beliefs protesting against a man standing up for his beliefs.

If Eich's 'resignation' is a victory for equality and understanding, it is a hollow one. µ


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