Thinking About Mozilla

"Red Fox inspecting an archaeological excavation at Kukak Bay, Alaska, 1965" by John Atherton

“Red Fox inspecting an archaeological excavation at Kukak Bay, Alaska, 1965” by John Atherton

Like many people inside and outside Mozilla, I was quite startled last week to discover that the board of the Mozilla Corporation—a subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation, my employer—had appointed as CEO a man whose financial support of Prop 8 had already been a major topic of conversation a few years back.

In the days since, the conversation about Eich’s appointment has been incredibly encouraging to me, both within Mozilla and in the larger tech community. I’m a new Mozilla employee, having gone full-time as OpenNews’s director of content in January, and my day-to-day work is very much focused on OpenNews, rather than the wider Mozilla world, so I didn’t know what to expect from my colleagues when this news broke. At every turn, I have been heartened by the degree of passion and care that have been apparent as colleague after colleague steps forward to express nuanced opinions, and by the commitment to equality and fairness that runs through the group like the stitches in the binding of a book. It’s less that I underestimated my colleagues before this mess arose and more that I underestimated nearly everyone’s investment in this issue.

In the conversation outside of Mozilla, I have been surprised and encouraged to see so many people get angry in service of a cause that has only gained a plurality of support in the US in the last few years. And as much as I’d rather not see a boycott of everything Mozilla does (which, it seems, most people still think of as “Firefox”) based on the actions of a single person affiliated with the organization, I am completely psyched to see this many people this angry in defense of civil rights.

So that has been incredibly good to see. But then there is the thing itself.

People have been saying things.

As these posts stack up, I see that it’s becoming a convention of the genre to dox oneself a bit—to establish priors and credentials, I guess, which seems sensible. So I’ll say that I am deeply committed to progressive causes, and not known for backing down from criticism of tech-industry culture problems. Further, as a queer employee of the Mozilla Foundation, this stuff isn’t even an abstraction to me. Perhaps most of all because of my acute awareness that my mother’s marriage to my beloved stepfather would have been illegal under anti-miscegenation laws not repealed in their home state until they were overturned in 1967 by Loving v. Virginia.

It is because I have a real stake in the issue, and because my own views on the matter are so clear, that my own ambivalence this week has been strange to me. It’s taken a while to gather my thoughts (though that probably has as much to do with having a little baby and therefore not much sleep).

The decision to appoint Brendan as the Mozilla Corporation’s CEO is unquestionably distressing to me, and I can’t help but be concerned with the effect it has on the entire Mozilla community. What is a lot harder is figuring out what to do next.

Several of my colleagues have called for Brendan’s resignation. I have not done so, despite my strong feelings on the issue, in large part because of my conviction that the open internet is not and cannot be a progressive movement or a liberal movement or even a libertarian movement. In the climate-change fiasco here in the US, we’ve seen what happens with a globally important issue becomes identified with a single political point of view. We can’t let that happen here: the open internet is not more important than gay rights or any number of other progressive causes, but it should and must be a broader movement. The moment we let “open internet” become synonymous with progressive causes—inside or outside Mozilla—its many conservative supporters will be forced into an impossible position.

It’s worth a detour here to clarify what open internet means for Mozilla. The organization’s manifesto sets out its guiding principles, including these:

The Internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible.

The Internet must enrich the lives of individual human beings.

Individuals’ security and privacy on the Internet are fundamental and must not be treated as optional.

Individuals must have the ability to shape the Internet and their own experiences on the Internet.

The effectiveness of the Internet as a public resource depends upon interoperability (protocols, data formats, content), innovation and decentralized participation worldwide.

Free and open source software promotes the development of the Internet as a public resource.

Transparent community-based processes promote participation, accountability and trust.

Those are some of the ways Mozilla defines “open.” The manifesto is behind all of Mozilla’s work, including the Firefox browser (the existence of which helped keep the web from devolving into a muddle of proprietary, inaccessible code), the company’s mobile products, and its many educational and community initiatives—including OpenNews, my professional home.

Uniquely, in my knowledge at least, the Mozilla Corporation is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation. The Corporation makes products and money, and the Foundation uses that money to fund more products and other open internet initiatives.* Open source work and distributed activism and literacy-building is at Mozilla’s heart, and that work may be radical, but it isn’t limited to a progressive political cause. Anyone who wants to preserve and strengthen a free and open internet is a natural supporter of this work, from pinko network communalist leftists like me to Tea Party supporters who want the government to keep its paws off their data.

* I got the financial relationship wrong here—the Corporation is a wholly owned subsidiary, but the Foundation’s work isn’t funded by the Corporation’s revenues. To be super clear, my intention is to explain that the Corporation makes products in support of the open internet, while the Foundation works more on the education/community side—not to imply that the folks who work for the Mozilla Corporation don’t do activist work (or that my colleagues at the Foundation don’t make stuff, which they do). It’s all activist work, in my book. Thanks to Brett Gaylor and Geoffrey MacDougall for the finance correction.

And the open internet’s opponents—from companies who profit from web-as-walled-garden to governmental entities devoted to sucking private data from the internet like marrow from tender bones—would love nothing more than to be able to sideline this work as a misty-eyed liberal boondoggle or a creepy government-bloating plot to mess up the free (monopoly) market.

We must not let them.

And yet. A CEO is a symbol. Mozilla’s work is made cohesive by an activist mission, rather than by a mandate to make as much money as possible. It is difficult for me to understand how we are best served by a leader whose capacity to divide our community is so apparent.

And yet. I don’t see there’s much to gain by asking Brendan to resign. This was a board decision, and their decisions necessarily shape the future of the organization. It seems far more valuable to me to let this mess clarify for us what we want from the board that leads us, and where our priorities really lie. The promotion of Project Ascend, for example, is not a merely symbolic action: it has the potential to have real effects on the lives of nascent community members, and therefore to affect the future shape of the community itself.

And yet. I think this was a bad decision. And yet. Despite my conviction that it ignores concrete harm done to LGBTQ people and our families, I also have very strong feelings about religious tolerance. And yet.

These are the circles in which I’ve been turning as I work and answer email and do the dishes and rock my restless baby in the night.

Especially in the small hours of the morning, I find myself returning to a set of principles I’ve been trying to put together to guide me when—as is increasingly common—some ethical crisis or another convulses a community to which I belong. “Principles” is too ambitious a word—these are pencil sketches at best, toward a chart that can help me steer true when I am emotionally conflicted and exhausted and sad. So far, I have three.

The first rule is to speak against the tactics of false equivalence that inevitably follow accusations of bigotry. When people who are actively working to suppress the rights of others assume the costume of victimhood, it is wrong and it rests on a lie that requires constant vigilance to fight. Calling someone a bigot because their actions are bigoted is not “the real bigotry.” Identifying racist actions and structures is not “the real racism.” It is not worse to be accused of prejudice than to experience it.

The second rule is to try to sit quietly for a few days to listen to my conscience and to see what action the group or organization in question takes before I light any torches. Committees move slowly and consensus takes time, and I have rarely seen outside pressure to move more quickly do anything but throw sand in the gears. (Sensationalistic reporting accomplishes the same thing, of course, but with less sincerity.)

The third and most important rule is to practice triage. For me, that means that the very first thing to do when news like this breaks is look for the most vulnerable people and offer them my support and my help.

As a queer employee of Mozilla, I don’t actually feel particularly vulnerable, but I know many people in the wider community have been stung as well as intellectually offended by this choice. So my first duty is to them: to the people harmed. Neither Brendan nor our board have apologized for the ramifications of their actions, which is certainly their call. But I am sorry for the harm done. To everyone who has flinched away, and everyone re-traumatized by these events, I offer a complete and sincere apology: I have chosen to walk under this banner, and that makes me complicit, and I am so sorry for the pain I know this has caused.

I have zero idea what is going to happen, but I will say this: I believe in what Mozilla does, and believe in the integrity and care and compassion of my colleagues. And as an employee of the Foundation, I am thrilled to be working for this guy:

…who works for this guy. It’s a good reporting chain.

Whatever the board does or doesn’t do this week, I’m going to carry on doing this work with these extraordinary people, in the belief that the thing we are doing is useful in the world. I am also returning to my work with a renewed consciousness that we are not separate from the culture wars that define so much of our political landscape—and of course, we’re not any kind of example of ideological purity. We are all complicit. We are all down in it. And the reason I’ve been working on these ridiculous napkin-sketch guidelines is that so very little of what we do can be collapsed into anything two-dimensional.

Beyond that I guess I only have one more thing to say, which is to Brendan, who is doubtless also having one of the most challenging weeks of his professional life.

Brendan, I grew up in a very conservative religious home and many of the people I love the most can still be described as very religious and very conservative. I think your views on this issue are wrong, and that your actions have done harm, but I can no more caricature you as a terrible person driven by homophobia and hatred than I can break off relations with my cherished family members because they take actions similar to yours.

If you stay on as CEO, I look forward to seeing you act with the clear commitment to equality and inclusiveness in the workplace that your posts have affirmed. [Graf edited to clarify and add link.]

And more personally, whatever it is that makes you feel that the institution of marriage is threatened by the desire for equal legal rights of people like me, I hope that sense of threat eventually lessens. I don’t wish this for myself—the tide of our culture is already turning and I do believe that history is bending toward justice. I hope it for you and for your family, sincerely and with love.

Now I’m going to get to work.

fox origami courtesy hadi g1f99059

(fox origami courtesy hadi g1f99059)

Postscript: Comments are off here because I don’t have the resources required to host a good public conversation on this site right now. Please do feel free to find me at @kissane on Twitter or contact me at erin @ this domain.