Killing the Messenger at Mozilla

Hero worship, “meritocracy” and the Eich crisis.

by Tim Chevalier on July 21st, 2014

In October 2008, Brendan Eich — at the time, the CTO of the Mozilla Corporation — contributed $1000 to the campaign in favor of California’s anti-universal-marriage Proposition 8. In March 2012, a link to the LA Times’ database of Prop. 8 contributions showing Eich as a donor began making the rounds of Hacker News and Twitter.

Screenshot of a search for 'Mozilla' in the LA Times' database of Prop. 8 contributors. It lists Brendan Eich's $1000 contribution.

I am not sure exactly how this news came to the public forefront at the time — I found out about it just before the LA Times reporting, from J. Paul Reed’s blog on March 7, 2012. Reed called Brendan’s donation “an open secret” within Mozilla, suggesting that internally, Mozillans had known about it for a long time. I had recently begun working for Mozilla Research as a software engineer. At the time of Reed’s blog post, Mozilla was struggling with an organization-wide conversation about inappropriate uses of the Planet Mozilla blog aggregator, brought on by a Mozillan’s blog post on Planet Mozilla that supported an anti-LGBTQ-rights organization in the UK. It appeared that there was no clear consensus about whether this blog post was acceptable, based on the length and volume of the debate about Planet Mozilla, which became a debate about whether or not Mozilla should have a code of conduct (it never adopted one, instead adopting a weak set of community participation guidelines). In contrast with that lengthy and heated debate, at the time, almost everybody shrugged off Eich’s contribution record as a personal matter that should be of no concern to the organization.

In March 2014, Eich was appointed as CEO, and ten days later, he resigned from Mozilla altogether (a company that he co-founded) amid internal and external criticism of his record of opposing queer rights.

What changed? In 2012, it was nearly taboo at Mozilla to question the individualist narrative: the story that says that Eich, like any other employee, could spend his paycheck in whatever manner he chose. In 2014, Mozillans had no choice but to engage with a more structural narrative: that it’s impossible to lead a diverse organization when you have openly and obdurately expressed animus towards members of a protected class. In 2012, it was a truth universally accepted at Mozilla that a free software project had no business taking an official position on marriage equality. In 2014, Mozilla’s chair Mitchell Baker issued an official statement of support for marriage equality on behalf of the organization. How did consensus shift so profoundly in just two years?

Triaging a Cultural Bug Report

Red, white and blue sticker that says 'I Like Eich'.

Image via Matthew Riley MacPherson

The “I Like Eich” sticker was a common sight on laptops at the Mozilla office in Mountain View when I worked there. To me, the sticker symbolizes the blurred line dividing a person’s technical merit (the output of the uncomputable function mapping individuals into a notional total order called “meritocracy”) and the cult of personality that they are able to maintain.

The tech industry has a hero problem, and during my time there, Mozilla was no exception. Famously, Eich developed the JavaScript language in ten days, in order to meet a Netscape release deadline. This is a textbook example of how tech valorizes individual “heroes”, always male, who can put in intense effort on a problem over a short period of time but not work with others on a solution in the long term.

I have no doubt that Eich’s work on JavaScript was solid, but I also see no reason to think that he was the only person who could have done the same thing. In fact, there are probably people who could have done better, but were not accorded the privileges in life needed for doing so. As far as I’m aware, Eich himself has maintained a humble attitude about his achievements, but the same can’t be said of his fans.

“Brendan has the Mozilla mission of inclusiveness, openness, and freedom engrained in his heart. This is a man who has tirelessly worked in the open for close to 20 years, giving up riches at other companies so he could create an open playground for the world to use, a counter-balance to corporate interests on the Web, and opportunity for billions, even if they never know his name.” — Ben Adida

Open-source projects are supposed to be stronger than proprietary projects because they open themselves up for detailed critique, often in the form of bug reports. Bug reports are supposed to make a software system stronger, at least if the reports are taken seriously and acted upon. So in keeping with the open-source philosophy, you would think that when the public (and some Mozillans) began to criticize Eich’s contribution record to Proposition 8, Mozilla leadership would have listened.

But Mozilla leaders refused to listen to feedback from the community. They had a chance to listen in 2012 when the public weighed in on Eich’s donation record. They had another chance to listen in 2012 during the debate about Planet Mozilla and codes of conduct that raged on Mozilla’s internal (but world-readable) discussion group, mozilla.governance. Even though this discussion paralleled a broader conversation about Eich’s donation, few Mozillans drew any explicit connection between the two debates.

Despite that, or maybe because of it, I think that the way that chair Mitchell Baker and a number of other very senior Mozillans interacted in the mozilla.governance discussions speaks volumes about why Mozilla later handled the Eich crisis so badly. A number of Mozillans (including me) were tone-policed in response to sharing our feelings about being LGBTQ employees at an organization that did not see it as a problem for other employees to use their web properties to promote anti-LGBTQ hate, whereas when cis and hetero allies made muted versions of the same points, they were praised.

Yet if we take their words at face value, still none of the Mozilla leaders anticipated that their choice of Eich as CEO would be criticized so strongly. If we take them at face value, they did not understand why anyone would think that queer people’s rights were relevant to an open-source software project — surely they must have been aware that LGBTQ people worked for them. More so, surely they must have been aware that many people who use Firefox find Eich’s political position repugnant. Did they really think the public was going to put the Open Web ahead of their families?

Hero culture is actively harmful. Had Mozilla not been lost in hero worship of Eich, perhaps its leaders would have recognized earlier that his own values were incompatible with the mission of the organization that he co-founded, and that that mattered.

Doing Well by “Doing Good”

Image that says 'Doing good is part of our code.' Transposed across the background are many names.

CC-BY Roland Tanglao, filtered.

In 2011, I started as an intern at Mozilla Research while Mozilla was launching a bold advertising campaign aimed not at showing that Firefox was the best browser, but rather, at convincing the world that the Mozilla Corporation prioritized “doing good” ahead of profits when it came to building Firefox. Recognizing that people don’t choose software based on technical merit, they instead emphasized that Firefox is “the browser with soul”, that Mozilla has “.com brains and a .org heart”, and that “not every venture is about capital”. (Another slogan, “we don’t have to constantly remind ourselves not to be evil”, was rejected since it was deemed unwise to satirize the company that was Mozilla’s primary source of revenue at the time.)

Since issues like open standards and third-party cookies can be rather difficult to explain to the general public, I suppose the approach of generating warm, fuzzy feelings about Firefox was a sound one.

But there’s a danger in believing your own advertising copy. I think that Mozillans got so swept up in the language of “doing good” that they came to believe that the organization could do no wrong. This belief was not an effective way to address the public relations crisis about Eich, and could never have been one. No one not directly involved with Mozilla could have been expected to share Mozillans’ loyalty to it: it’s unrealistic to expect queer families to prioritize “doing good” by using an open-source browser over their own ability to marry.

As the public reaction to Eich’s appointment escalated, it became even clearer that Mozilla’s responses reflected commitment to the fixed-state model of allyship rather than the process model. The fixed-state model of allyship constructs being an ally — or “doing good” — as an identity — something that, once declared, can never change. Mozilla’s response shows the problem with this approach: it prevents the organization from being self-reflective and self-critical.

Eich’s initial response, back in 2012, to the publicity over his donation invoked his intrinsic character rather than taking accountability for his actions: “…I’m left with charges that I hate and I’m a bigot, based solely on the donation. Now ‘hate’ and ‘bigot’ are well-defined words. I say these charges are false and unjust.” The 2014 responses had much the same tenor: on March 29, the official Mozilla blog featured a post titled Mozilla Supports LGBT Equality, which concluded, “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.” The emphasis is on the fixed state of being “deeply committed” to “openness and equality”, brushing under the rug the process that led to the decision to appoint a leader who opposes equality.

In what followed, Mozillans looked ugly: nitpicking nerds saying “well, actually” in that way that values being right over being kind. When OkCupid deployed an interstitial page encouraging Firefox users to switch browsers, Mozillans accused OkCupid and its parent company, IAC of having a nefarious agenda — as if that would somehow excuse Eich’s actions. They also insisted Eich’s donation was some sort of one-time aberrance, insisting on this all the louder as more and more of his donations to white supremacist and misogynist politicians came to light.

As queer people, we cannot separate “doing good” for the open web from protecting our families, because (in Audre Lorde’s words) we do not lead single-issue lives. I think it’s dangerous to leave the online freedom movement in the hands of young white men who primarily care about their freedom to access drugs, guns and porn, but that’s exactly what Mozillans like former Mozilla Foundation COO Ryan Merkley suggested we should do when they said things like, “bringing diverse people with opposing views together, and asking them to fight for just what they agree on while looking past what they don’t, is how movements are built, and how they succeed”. But it’s not realistic to expect queer people to throw our families under the bus for the sake of the open web, or to expect us to “look past” our leaders telling us we’re not human.

The Dark Side of Meritocracy

Just as the belief that one is “doing good” can become a free pass to do bad things, tech’s faith in meritocracy has the (perhaps-)unintended consequence that having done a sufficient amount of technical work becomes a free pass to harm people. Much of what Mozillans said in defense of Eich amounted to the astounding assertion that Eich had earned the right to engage in oppression by contributing the work he had done on JavaScript.

Picture of Brendan Eich at a podium.

CC-BY James Duncan Davidson, filtered.

The tacit assumption was that certainly, criticism of the active harm Eich chose to do to queer families would be merited if he was not such a good engineer — but since Eich had done valuable work, making him a valuable person, we must relax the ethical standards we hold him to.

This is weird. If we wouldn’t tolerate a certain behavior from a 17-year-old newbie contributor, should we tolerate it from the CEO? By working hard, do people accrue the right to hurt others? To me, it seems backwards that Mozillans took it as a given that a leader should be held to a lower moral standard — took it as a given that one of the perks of being a leader is the freedom to abuse.

Tacit acceptance of silencing and of abuse of power runs throughout our culture, but that doesn’t make it okay in the specific instance of tech culture. And it is a recurrent pattern in tech culture. Linus Torvalds’ often-abusive rants (largely directed at other men, for what it’s worth) are excused with “assholes get things done”. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have both been notorious for verbally abusing their employees. In 2014, Apple, Google, Intel, Adobe, and other companies reached a settlement in a lawsuit showing that the companies conspired to drive down engineers’ salaries across Silicon Valley. Torvalds, Jobs, Gates, and the CEOs of the other wage-fixing companies have escaped much criticism for their behavior (Jobs in particular, during his life, was worshipped) because they are believed to have accomplished many valuable technical things.

In tech, great power seems to come with diminished responsibility — or at least diminished accountability. And all that “meritocracy” seems to mean in tech is the privilege accorded to white men to work their way to the top — only with technical labor, as the discounting of the opinions of Mozillans who were not engineers shows — so they can subjugate and harm other people once they get there.

Defending The Open Web

What does it mean to defend “the open web” if the vision of “the open web” is only constructed to serve heterosexual people? The question is especially acute given Mozilla’s recent failure to uphold even the most fundamental values we might construct as underpinnings of “the open web”. Do those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary market share deserve either?

Ultimately, Eich resigned, recognizing that his presence was doing more harm than good for Mozilla. He at least had the self-awareness to realize that no amount of demanding fidelity to “the open web” would undo history and make the public stop caring about queer people again. The same can’t be said about many Mozillans.

On a practical level, Eich’s resignation demonstrates the failure of “meritocracy” as an organizing principle. Mozillans themselves admitted that Eich lacked empathy: the Mozilla Foundation’s executive director, Mark Surman, wrote, “Brendan’s biggest flaw, IMHO, was his inability to connect and empathize with people.” The problem with meritocracy is that “merit” is subjective; Mozillans were surprised when they discovered that the rest of the world did not apply the same metric for measuring merit as they did.

Their failure to empathize also exhibited itself in the astonishing conclusion that some Mozillans drew after the fact: that the entire crisis arose from the public’s failure to understand Mozilla’s “mission”: Andrea Wood, in a representative example of this astonishing claim, wrote, “The world doesn’t yet realize that it needs Mozilla more than ever.” The possibility that even if the world understood Mozilla’s purpose perfectly well, the world would still have other priorities, is apparently unthinkable.

If Mozillans had not expected the rest of the world to accept the same ways to assess merit that they did, perhaps they would have been able to comprehend why Eich as a CEO was incompatible with Mozilla’s mission. If they had not assumed that the rest of the world’s priorities were the same as their own and the world just didn’t know it yet, perhaps criticism of Eich’s record of support for white supremacists and homophobes wouldn’t have come as a surprise.

What changed in the past two years? In March 2012, six states and the District of Columbia recognized same-sex marriage, and talking about what were mischaracterized as Eich’s “private beliefs” — or about how he chose to make those beliefs public through his political participation — was nearly taboo. In March 2014, 14 states (and DC) recognized same-sex marriage, and I suspect that only Mozillans were surprised to see Eich’s homophobia recognized for what it was: public action. What I think changed at the same time is that the rest of the world moved from seeing queer people as “them” to seeing us as “us”. Of course, this process began before 2012 and is still ongoing (and certainly, cis gay men and cis lesbian women are much closer to being “us” than hetero or queer trans people are, while cis bisexual and pansexual people are somewhere in between).

Mozilla, an unusually homogeneous tech company even by tech industry standards, was insulated from this process of change, as well as being insulated from the awareness that it had a problem (due to the circular belief in meritocracy that defines merit as presence in one’s organization and vice versa). When you structure your organization so as to minimize diversity, and freeze out the few who dare to criticize within that organization, it’s hard to keep up with changing times.

On a personal note, I once shared the love for Mozilla and belief in its mission that so many at Mozilla have. My anger about Mozilla’s collective failure to empathize is a product of disappointment, and I could only be disappointed if I hadn’t once had a great deal of hope for and optimism about the organization. I’m disappointed in Brendan too. The person who told me during my internship that I would get the permanent job I wanted if he had anything to say about it is the same person who paid to air TV commercials saying I rape children. That’s hard to take.

I think highly of many individual people who work for Mozilla, but as an organization, it’s deeply flawed. It always will be so long as it constructs its struggle as a single-issue one; as long as Mozillans believe it’s possible to fight for freedom on the Internet while preserving unfair power relations between the people who use it. I think Mozilla has the potential to be better, but maintaining the belief that it’s already better won’t get it there; a cozy and well-funded clique of friends is not automatically a world-changing activist organization, especially not when it’s on the payroll of the people it says it’s fighting.