Six years after Brendan Eich made a $1,000 donation in support of passing Proposition 8, California’s since-overturned same-sex marriage ban, flak over the contribution has the new Mozilla CEO facing questions about his ability to lead the nonprofit software project. It’s led the organization to re-emphasize its commitment to equality.
Update (04/03/2014): Brendan Eich stepped down as Mozilla’s CEO on Thursday, in direct response to the donation controversy. “While painful, the events of the last week show exactly why we need the web. So all of us can engage freely in the tough conversations we need to make the world better,” the foundation said. The original version of the story is below:
The nonprofit organization behind the Firefox web browser found itself dealing with something besides technology when it announced the name of its new CEO last week.
The naming of Brendan Eich, a longtime developer with the Mozilla Foundation and its predecessor Netscape, caused controversy due to a political donation he made in support of California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative banning gay marriage.
The conflict demonstrates the role that personal political donations play in perceptions of diversity and inclusiveness within an organization. More details:
A questionable donation: In 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that Eich donated to the 2008 political campaign backing Prop 8, the successful ballot proposition to amend California’s constitution to bar same-sex marriages that was later ruled unconstitutional. (Mozilla’s name was tied to the donation because he was required to give the name of his employer, but Eich didn’t make it on behalf of the foundation.) His appointment as Mozilla’s CEO rekindled the debate over the personal donation, leading some developers to threaten to stop their work on Mozilla products. Publications like The Guardian and ReadWrite questioned whether someone with a role in such a fundamental part of the web could continue to hold these views and urged him to apologize for his contribution.
I can only ask for your support to have the time to ‘show, not tell’; and in the meantime express my sorrow at having caused pain.
Board conflicts: Some of the dynamic of the current case isn’t related to Eich’s political views per se, but to frustration with the board’s decision to hire from within the organization rather than looking for an outside leader. In a statement to Ars Technica, the group emphasized that while the internal hiring played a factor in the board departures, it was not the only one. “The three board members ended their terms last week for a variety of reasons,” the group said. “Two had been planning to leave for some time, one since January and one explicitly at the end of the CEO search, regardless of the person selected.” Two of the three departing board members were former CEOs, including Gary Kovacs, who Eich replaced.
Playing defense: For his part, Eich wrote a blog post saying he was “humbled” by the CEO role and that he would work to encourage diversity within the foundation’s ranks. “I know some will be skeptical about this, and that words alone will not change anything. I can only ask for your support to have the time to ‘show, not tell’; and in the meantime express my sorrow at having caused pain,” Eich wrote. On Saturday, the foundation wrote a statement emphasizing its support of LGBT equality at an organizational level. “We’re proud of that openness and how it distinguishes Mozilla from most organizations,” the foundation wrote. “Most of all, we want to ensure that all Mozilla users and community members know how deeply committed we are to openness and equality for all people.”
Eich was not without his defenders in the Mozilla community. The foundation’s education lead, Christie Koehler, emphasized in a blog post of her own that she did not feel that the new CEO’s personal views reflected on the work as the organization as a whole. Koehler herself is a lesbian.
“To be clear, I’m personally disappointed about Brendan’s donation,” she wrote. “However, aside from how it affected me emotionally, I have nothing to indicate that it’s materially hurt my work within the Mozilla community or as a Mozilla employee.”