Brendan Eich’s resignation as chief executive officer of Mozilla Corp. is exposing a split in Silicon Valley between support for left-leaning issues and advocacy of unrestricted freedom of expression.
Eich, who became CEO in March, stepped down on April 3 after being criticized for donating $1,000 to an anti-gay marriage group in 2008. He had initially refused to resign for expressing a personal opinion, before bowing to mounting pressure.
Dating service OKCupid led the charge, blocking anyone accessing its website using Firefox, the Web browser that is Mozilla’s main product. Some employees of Mozilla publicly denounced Eich’s views, taking to blogs and Twitter Inc. posts to protest. At the same time venture capitalists including Michael Arrington and Marc Andreessen came to Eich’s defense, suggesting that the backlash was contrary to the region’s -- and Mozilla’s own -- commitment to libertarian views.
“This is a particularly fascinating situation, because it involves an illiberal reaction from a very liberal community,” said Joseph Grundfest, a law professor at Stanford University. “It’s fair to say that this could have been handled differently and better.”
Mozilla, a non-profit organization, has championed efforts to make sure the Internet remains open to all viewpoints. The Web is a “global public resource that must remain open and accessible,” according to the group’s guiding document, the Mozilla Manifesto. Mitchell Baker, Mozilla’s executive chairwoman, apologized for the uproar in a statement on Eich’s resignation and said the group “didn’t act like you’d expect Mozilla to act.”
Mozilla’s board should have foreseen the uproar, said Irina Raicu, director of the Internet ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. For 16 years, Mozilla has relied on contributions from a diverse group of software developers, many who fiercely defend the need for freedom of expression on the Internet.
“This is going to make boards in the future think more deeply about this question: Is this CEO a good fit for the values of company?” Raicu said.
The political views of CEOs aren’t always grounds for resignation. In 2012, activists and the mayors of Boston and San Francisco urged boycotts of fast-food chain Chick-fil-A Inc., which donated millions through a foundation to anti-gay rights groups. While the company decided to stop giving to the groups, none of its executives resigned.
Eich has declined to comment on his views about gay marriage.
While a board may need to be involved if an executive’s views cause strife among the management team or impacts its ability to recruit employees, “it should err on the side of keeping politics and business separate and distinct,” said Charles Elson, director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware.
“This is troubling because one’s politics is one’s own business,” Elson said. “That’s been the rule in American business for a very long time.”
Silicon Valley has long been associated with progressive political causes, including gay issues. Apple CEO Tim Cook has publicly pushed for passage of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, including at an awards ceremony last December. Former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel have spoken of their libertarian leanings.
The controversy surrounding Eich concerned a $1,000 donation he made in 2008 to a group that supported Proposition 8, a California initiative that banned same-sex marriage and was later found to be unconstitutional.
David Pakman, a television and radio host who is a spokesman for GLAAD, the advocacy organization, noted that Eich’s resignation happened in a “very conservative, free-market way” as a result of pressure from Mozilla’s employees and developers, rather than from outside advocacy groups.
“This idea of those who are for gay rights are intolerant of those who don’t favor gay rights is a total ruse, a total canard,” Pakman said in an interview. “It’s a distraction and it’s a subjugation of what tolerance even is.”