When Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich was appointed CEO last week, the response to his promotion started quietly, with three members of the board resigning without comment.
How much Eich’s $1,000 donation to support California’s 2011 Proposition 8 to ban gay marriage inspired the exodus is unclear. But as the discussion around the nonprofit’s leadership choice picked up steam yesterday, popular online dating company OkCupid took an unprecedented stand with a letter from its CEO that blocked users of Firefox, the Mozilla-produced browser — and turned the issue into a lightning rod for the tech community.
“Those who seek to deny love and instead enforce misery, shame, and frustration are our enemies,” the company’s statement read. “[W]e wish them nothing but failure.”
Things appear to be getting worse than better for Eich, who has thus far refused to explicitly apologize. In an interview with CNET on Tuesday, Eich also said that the board members left for various other reasons. In the case of at least one, a source said that was the case.
All this has left some people affiliated with Mozilla feeling betrayed, caught between their support of gay rights and their excitement about the mission-driven nonprofit that produces the Firefox browser and pushes for a more open, free and collaborative Internet.
On Monday, for example, Eich asked Hampton Catlin, a prominent developer who was until Eich’s appointment working on an app for the Firefox phone, to join him for an hour-long one-on-one coffee at Waterbar on San Francisco’s Embarcadero to try to soothe tensions. Catlin, CTO of Moovweb and CEO of Rarebit, who is gay, left the “personal” and “productive” meeting unfazed – he was still calling for Eich’s resignation.
“We’re looking for an apology,” Catlin said. “And he didn’t apologize.”
In his protest letter, which greeted Firefox users attempting to sign on to OkCupid, CEO Christian Rudder suggested that they access the dating site through another browser, such as Chrome.
“Prop 8 makes me angry,” Rudder said in an interview. “That there are people who support it makes me sad. OkCupid is never going to take a stand on gun control, but this issue matters to our business. We wanted to write something forceful because the situation demanded clarity.”
Leanne Pittsford, who runs Lesbians Who Tech meetups across the country, said the tech world is not as politically progressive as many would like to think.
“We think of the history of being a geek as not being status quo. We think, even if you’re not super progressive, you’re agnostic or you’re just not political, you’re definitely not conservative … especially not at Mozilla,” Pittsford said. “I think we’re seeing this isn’t always true. As technology becomes mainstream, moments like this will become more common.”
Pittsford was doubtful about whether Eich would be able to keep his personal politics separate from his business leadership.
“Writing a $1,000 check is a very specific thing,” she said. “If you’re willing to put down your own money, if you feel that strongly, I just have a hard time thinking work and private life are these separate universes.”
Gene Falk, the CEO of StartOut, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting gay entrepreneurs and leadership, said the Eich appointment was a wake-up call for many in the tech community.
“When people ask, why do you need an organization just for LGBT entrepreneurs, the Mozilla situation is the answer,” Falk said, noting that at a time when the race for engineers is so tight, gay-friendly workplaces tend to win the best talent.
“If a company does something that suggests that they don’t understand the issues, if it’s just middle-of-the-road when others are on the extreme, doing great stuff for equality, employees will jump ship and go somewhere else,” he added.
Catlin, whose iPhone app, Dictionary!, has been downloaded 50 million times, had seen his work on an app for the open-source Firefox phone as part of a movement for a better, more free device.
Catlin said his own work on Mozilla was driven by his belief in the nonprofit’s mission.
“We really loved that at Mozilla they believe in open-source software and the community driving technology. I thought we were fighting the good fight. But our company and our family couldn’t exist if Prop 8 still did,” he said. “How can we help further an organization that doesn’t think this is a big deal? It feels like a family member has wronged us.”
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