Brendan Eich, the inventor of JavaScript, was CEO of Mozilla for exactly 11 days before stepping down. Image c/o Wikicommons.

Brendan Eich, the inventor of JavaScript, was CEO of Mozilla for exactly 11 days before stepping down. Image c/o Wikicommons.

Last week Brendan Eich, the newly appointed CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, had to step down amid backlash from his fellow board members, Silicon Valley elites, and the public at large for his $1,000 donation to supporters of California’s Prop 8 anti-marriage equality bill. In the grand scheme of things, a $1000 contribution from a guy that is I-invented-JavaScript-wealthy to a $38.7 million campaign, probably didn’t change much. But the headlines were never about Eich secretly bankrolling Prop 8; it’s been about what kind of person should be allowed to lead the best-known open-source organization that makes the third-most-installed browser on the planet.

There’s lots of people who say that even if you disagree with Eich, this shouldn’t be grounds for him to step down because his beliefs have no bearing on how you build a browser. I deeply disagree, and it isn’t a matter of ideological opposition, but of observable fact: technology always has a bit of its creator in it and technology is never politically neutral. Moreover, I don’t think, as many have claimed, that Eich’s departure was a failure of democracy. In fact I see it as a leading indicator for the free software community’s maturing legal and political knowledge.

Before I get into my main argument, let me give some background on the organizations at play here. It’s a little confusing given that most of the people and the work that goes into Mozilla and Firefox are not associated with the for-profit company that Eich left. What follows is a summary of the requisite Wikipedia searches held together by my own passing familiarity with Free Software history:

Mozilla has several formal entities: There’s the organization, the foundation, and the corporation. They have a sort of Russian nesting doll relationship in which the organization formed the foundation which most recently formed the corporation mostly out of regulatory necessity. The organization was formed as a Free Software lifeboat after Netscape was purchased by AOL in 1998. The organization was financially supported by AOL until 2003 when they decided to drastically reduce their commitments. The Mozilla Foundation, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, was set up to raise money for the continued development of what became Firefox, Thunderbird, and various other end user products. Today the Mozilla Foundation gains most of its revenue from Google who pays them $300 million a year to keep Google as the default search engine. The corporation was most recently set up in 2005 as a taxable, for-profit fully-owned subsidiary that would reinvest all of its profits back into the foundation. The foundation holds all of the patents and trademarks but licenses them to the corporation for their sole use.

Brendan Eich has been intimately involved in every piece of the nesting doll. He invented Javascript which was first implemented in Netscape Communicator, helped build the Foundation when AOL stopped supporting the project, served on the Foundation’s board as Chief Technology Officer, and then finally moved to the corporation as its CEO for eleven days before resigning from Mozilla entirely. Given this background, it almost seems like the timing of the outrage is arbitrary. Why object to Eich taking this particular office? The corporation reports directly to the foundation’s board, so one could even argue that the CEO position is a step down in the hierarchy.

A partial explanation for the timing is that, up until now, here was no clear indication that Eich apparently held such bigoted beliefs. His support for Prop 8 only came out in 2012 (the donation was in 2008), but two years is still a long time to take the kind of decisive action that OKCupid took when they asked Firefox users to switch browsers in protest. I can only assume that the biggest reason for the recent action is because CEOs act as avatars for the companies they lead. Eich himself said just as much in an interview with CNet when he observed that a CEO is “the one person who exemplifies the company.” I think this is especially true in Silicon Valley where companies are expected to have origin stories (e.g. garages, dorm rooms), philosophies (e.g. Don’t be evil, lean in), and great leaders. A bigoted CEO makes for a bigoted company.

Its important to pay close attention to the way Eich talks about himself as a political actor. He desperately tries to silo his identity so that people may selectively ignore the less-popular parts.  Marriage equality is always framed as an outside issue coming into a distinctly different body politic. Here are a couple of examples with emphasis added:

“…without getting into my personal beliefs, which I separate from my Mozilla work — when people learned of the donation, they felt pain”

 

“I have people there [in Indonesia] on the other side of this particular issue. They don’t bring it into Mozilla when they work in the Mozilla community.”

 

“I still think it’s pretty important to judge people by how they treat others, in my case for over 16 years, and allow them to separate some of their deeply held beliefs which do not come into play in their role at an organization like Mozilla–even the CEO role.”

 

“One of the things about my principles of inclusiveness is not just that you leave it at the door, but that you don’t require others to put targets on themselves by labeling their beliefs, because that will present problems and will be seen as divisive.”

It seems pretty clear that not only is Eich trying to chop up his own political identity, but many others as well. His extended, yet vague references to Indonesian Mozilla developers who agree with him on marriage equality is the best evidence of this. Eich seems to think that one’s political beliefs about the open internet and the concomitant organizations that sustain it, can be totally separated from one’s opinions on state-recognized marriage. This separation is predicated on the idea that some political opinions (e.g., same sex marriage) are the subject of mainstream party politics, while others (e.g., open-source) are fought out in other realms and institutions.

One the better known defenders of Eich is Andrew Sullivan, a reporter with a lengthy and distinguished background in not only journalism but LGBT rights as well. Sullivan sees the backlash against Eich as just as hateful and unfair as those who might support Proposition 8 or a similar piece of legislation. He writes:

[Brendan Eich] did not understand that in order to be a CEO of a company, you have to renounce your heresy! There is only one permissible opinion at Mozilla, and all dissidents must be purged! Yep, that’s left-liberal tolerance in a nut-shell. No, he wasn’t a victim of government censorship or intimidation. He was a victim of the free market in which people can choose to express their opinions by boycotts, free speech and the like. He still has his full First Amendment rights. But what we’re talking about is the obvious and ugly intolerance of parts of the gay movement, who have reacted to years of being subjected to social obloquy by returning the favor.

Given that Sullivan is a regular reader of Cyborgology (he frequently quotes and links to us on The Dish) I should take his reaction as a personal failing both as a writer and an educator. I am perplexed that Sullivan could write that despite quoting something I wrote on the politics of communication technology last May. The passage reads in part: “Technologies live and act beyond their creators’ intentions and quite often produce unintended consequences … The Internet doesn’t unilaterally impose or determine certain political organizations, but it does assist and afford their continued existence.” In the same post I also wrote:

the politics of technology are difficult to see because technologies that “work” are very compatible with the dominant political order, or a community that is large enough to provide and sustain the practical necessities for its continued existence. Technologies’ perceived “neutrality” is the up shot of this compatibility.

This issue of technologies’ compatibility with hegemony is doubly important when we talk about free software communities. Sullivan would have us see Eich’s stepping down as undemocratic: the result of an unreasoning mob demanding the head of someone who espouses one of two equally legitimate viewpoints on a topic that has nothing to do with his role as CEO. But nothing could be further from the truth, because, in fact, the removal of people with unpopular opinions from positions of power is supposed to be the very essence of representative democracy. What is Free Software if not technology that is created through –as Mozilla’s own manifesto states– “Transparent community-based processes [that] promote participation, accountability and trust”? How could a community encourage participation or build accountability and trust if its figurehead doesn’t recognize them as legitimate or equal? Kicking out Eich is what democracy in the workplace looks like.

That being said, we should also be cognizant of the fact that Mozilla isn’t just a workplace. It is, at its broadest and biggest nesting doll, an organization comprised of people volunteering their time and effort for something they believe in. Gabriella Coleman, in her book Coding Freedom, observes that Debian software developers were reluctant “to signify free software beyond a narrow politics of software freedom.” Along with writing and manipulating software, many free software developers also find themselves in the position of interpreting the finer points of intellectual property law. More specifically, they are obligated by circumstances beyond the community’s control to suss out code’s relationship to both speech and intellectual property.

Fluency and interest in legal matters obviously differs from person to person, and I don’t want to flatten the identity of free software developers and assume that whatever Coleman observed in Debian developers is completely transportable to the Mozilla community. I think it is reasonable, however, to assume that anyone deeply involved in any free software community has a heightened awareness and sensitivity to matters related to free speech. I feel comfortable with this assertion given that Coleman describes the entirety of the free software arena as “the largest single association of amateur intellectual property and free speech legal scholars ever to have existed.” Free software developers have to constantly defend their work against a property regime that sees their work as patentable and therefore subject to control. It is understandable then, that someone deeply involved in free software would immediately cast the issue as a matter of free speech.

The problem with Eich is, at its core, a problem with liberal democracy itself. (And here I’m not talking about liberal as synonymous with the American Democratic Party, but liberal as in Lockean concepts of governance and individual liberty.) Free software folks are going to be very receptive to, if not strong advocates for, defending one’s right to say an unpopular thing precisely because they want to protect free speech at almost any cost. This is why both Sullivan and Eich trot out arguments that, in many other contexts, would be considered absurd. Namely, when the interviewer compares supporting Prop 8 to overt racism or sexism, Eich turns to what is “legally permissible.” He goes on to say, “Beliefs that are protected, that include political and religious speech, are generally not something that can be held against even a CEO.” This is a textbook construction of liberal democracy: even if I hold a great amount of power, and even if my views directly contribute to the pain and suffering of others, it is legal and therefore I am unimpeachable. We see the exact same conceptualization of freedom from an anonymous Debian developer quoted in Coleman’s book, talking about what it means to write free software:

…when I write free software, I renounce the ability to control the behavior of the recipient as a condition of their making copies or modifying the software. The most obvious renunciation is that I don’t get to demand money for copies. But I also don’t get to demand that the person not be a racist; I don’t get to demand that the person contribute to the Red Cross. … I renounce the little bit of control over the other person which copyright law gives me and in that way, I enhance their freedom. I enhance it to what it would be without copyright law.

Coleman points out that this sort of neutrality to content is a “central feature of how segments of liberalism function as a moral philosophy for it enshrines certain fundamental principles—notably tolerance and free speech—as residing outside the sphere of the proper domain of politics.” Coleman’s project isn’t to debunk or reveal the underlying paradoxes of liberalism at work in free software, but I’d like to conclude by way of pointing out some well-documented problems with liberalism’s conceptualizations of tolerance and free speech.

Wendy Brown, who Coleman cites as one of those that has done a thorough job of identifying liberalism’s underlying falsehoods, describes tolerance as something that orders both people and concepts. Tolerance, she writes in her book Regulating Aversion, marks “nonliberal societies and practices as candidates for an intolerable barbarism that is itself signaled by the putative intolerance ruling these societies.” From the perspective of liberal ideology, “intolerance” is defined as anything limiting free speech rather than as prejudicial opinions that inflict harm on certain groups or individuals. This is how someone can, with a straight face, call intolerance of intolerance a bigoted act.  We must be careful to not conflate liberal ideals of free speech and the enactment of democracy.  Democracy, both in the workplace and civil society at large, can and does operate outside of liberal ideals. Democracy in the Mozilla community can look and act differently than democracy in a republic. While Eich’s ouster may appear to have violated very basic liberal concepts of free speech, it was nevertheless, a fundamentally democratic response to a socially unacceptable position. We didn’t see a failure of governance in Mozilla, we saw its flourishing.

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