For the Record

and The Tragedy of Mozilla

David Flanagan


The last two weeks at Mozilla, starting with Brendan Eich’s elevation to CEO and ending with his resignation yesterday have played out like a Greek tragedy. I mean that literally: as an employee at Mozilla, this feels tragic to me. And before I can get back to work, I feel I need to write something about it.

I’ll begin with the obligatory disclaimer: I fully support marriage equality. And I’ll add that anyone who wants to attack Mozilla from the right is even more wrong than those who were attacking from the left.

One of the things that is most painful to me about this is the sheer volume of misinformation out there. We all know that people are wrong on the internet all the time. It is probably hopeless to fight that, but for the record, these are the facts as I understand them, along with my interpretation of those facts. My information is based on public and private statements from Mozilla employees, officers and board members. I do not know Brendan personally at all. I have been an employee of Mozilla for about three years. In that time I have spoken with him no more than five times. I have had a few email exchanges with him, but have not worked closely with him on any projects.

0) Brendan was one of the founders of Mozilla and was the technical leader of the project from the beginning. Without Brendan there would have been no Mozilla. Without Mozilla, there would have been no Firefox, and the internet would be very different today. [Updated April 6 with a minor clarification]

1) In 2008, Brendan donated $1000 in support of California’s Proposition 8, a political initiative campaign that succeeded in denying the right of marriage to same-sex couples. In 2008 52% of voters supported Proposition 8. Proposition 8 has since been overturned in the courts, same-sex marriage is now legal in California, and mainstream public opinion on the issue also seems to be changing.

2) Under California law, Brendan’s private donation is a matter of public record. Anyone who wants to go full McCarthy (“I have here in my browser a list…”) can download the list of supporters and opponents.

3) California law requires donors to name their employer, and that information is included as part of the public record. Therefore, the record of Brendan’s private donation includes Mozilla as his employer. This does not mean, however, that the donation was made in Mozilla’s name.

4) In April 2012, when Brendan was CTO at Mozilla someone (unknown to me, possibly known to others) noticed Brendan’s name on that list and publicized it. As I recall, there was some confusion at the time about the fact that Mozilla was listed as Brendan’s employer and the fact that it was a private donation needed to be clarified. [April 7: corrected the date]

5) Mozilla officially supports LGBT rights and this has been and continues to be true before, during, and after Brendan’s brief tenure as CEO.

6) I cannot speak for my LGBT colleagues, but I think that the consensus is that in practice Mozilla is and has always been a very gay-friendly workplace.

7) I have not heard any allegations that Brendan’s behavior was anything other than completely professional toward all employees and contributors regardless of sexual orientation. Brendan was a founder and leader of Mozilla for 16 years. He worked closely with LGBT employees and apparently kept his personal beliefs against marriage equality to himself in all of his public interactions.

8) Mozilla has policies in place that explicitly and precisely explain how we deal with conflicts between personal beliefs and community inclusiveness. Section (i) of these “Community Participation Guidelines” is directly relevant to Brendan’s situation, and I quote it in its entirety. If you want to understand what has happened at Mozilla, it is absolutely necessary to understand this:

(i) Inclusion and Diversity

The Mozilla Project welcomes and encourages participation by everyone. It doesn’t matter how you identify yourself or how others perceive you: we welcome you. We welcome contributions from everyone as long as they interact constructively with our community, including, but not limited to people of varied age, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, language, race, sexual orientation, geographical location and religious views.

Mozilla-based activities should be inclusive and should support such diversity.

Some Mozillians may identify with activities or organizations that do not support the same inclusion and diversity standards as Mozilla. When this is the case:

(a) support for exclusionary practices must not be carried into Mozilla activities.

(b) support for exclusionary practices in non-Mozilla activities should not be expressed in Mozilla spaces.

(c) when if (a) and (b) are met, other Mozillians should treat this as a private matter, not a Mozilla issue.

9) Brendan’s donation in support of Proposition 8 indicates that he identifies “with activities or organizations that do not support the same inclusion and diversity standards as Mozilla”. But he scrupulously followed conditions (a) and (b). By paragraph (c), therefore, Brendan’s donation was “a private matter, not a Mozilla issue”.

10) Many Mozillians were uncomfortable with the situation, but most were willing to abide by paragraph (c) and treat this as a private matter. Left to ourselves, I believe we could have worked through the discomfort (as we did when Brendan’s donation was first revealed in 2011) and moved on with our mission.

[Update April 11: Mozilla’s official FAQ about Brendan’s resignation has been updated and includes a more detailed timeline than the one I include in the points that follow.]

11) On March 27th, a small number of Mozillians tweeted variants of “I am an employee of @mozilla and I’m asking @brendaneich to step down as CEO”. These tweets were reported by the tech press, and my perception is that this was the start of the media firestorm. Most (or perhaps all) of the Mozillians who tweeted this were employed by the Mozilla Foundation, not the Mozilla Corporation which means that they report to the executive director of the foundation and not to the CEO. As foundation employees, they did not share the same org chart as Brendan.

12) On March 28th, the Wall Street Journal reported that three Mozilla Corporation board members had resigned. The article incorrectly implied that the resignations were in protest of Brendan’s selection. It did not imply that the resignations were in protest of Brendan’s Proposition 8 donation, though apparently many interpreted it that way. (ABC News’s reporting on Brendan’s resignation yesterday implied that the board resignations were related to Proposition 8, for example). The truth is that two of the board resignations were entirely unrelated to Brendan, and that one was related to Brendan’s leadership abilities but not to his Proposition 8 donation. I do not know who gave this inaccurate story to the Wall Street Journal, but the implied vote of no confidence in Brendan really could not have come at a worse time.

13) Dating website OkCupid and activist organization CREDO Mobile organized online boycotts of Firefox. It is not clear to me that those behind those actions understood Mozilla or were aware of our Community Participation Guidelines.

14) On April 3rd, Brendan sent the following email:

I have decided to resign from the position of CEO effective today, and to leave Mozilla. An announcement will be made shortly.
Our mission is bigger than any one of us, and under the present circumstances, I cannot be an effective leader for Mozilla.
I have confidence in the team I’ve been leading — with everyone working together, I know that Mozilla can achieve its goals.
I will be taking time before I decide what to do next.
Mitchell will have more details to share on the transition plan.

I believe that this was Brendan’s own decision and he was not pressured by the board or leadership to make it. [Updated April 6 to add text of Brendan’s email.]

15) Brendan was encouraged by the board to remain at Mozilla in some other capacity, but Brendan felt that for the good of the project it was necessary to completely sever ties. This means the Brendan is no longer an employee of Mozilla at all and receives no money from Mozilla. Since Mozilla is “owned” by a non-profit foundation there is no stock. Brendan now has no financial ties of any kind to Mozilla.

16) Brendan remains a “module owner” and “peer” of several important modules. This means that he can choose to play an important role in the ongoing governance and technical direction of the open-source Mozilla project. It remains to be seen how active or inactive he will be in the project.

17) Brendan has converted his @BrendanEich Twitter account so that his tweets are “protected” and not publicly visible. [Update: On April 4 the account appeared to be deleted, and I reported that here. On April 5th, the twitter account is live, but Brendan’s tweets are protected.]

18) Brendan’s most recent blog post indicates that he is going to be taking some time off.

So, in the Tragedy of Mozilla, Brendan is our larger-than-life protagonist, Inventor of JavaScript, Hero of the Open Web. As in all tragedies, though, he has a tragic flaw that will be his undoing, even though he plays by the rules. The chorus of our Greek tragedy are the “I am an employee of @mozilla” tweeters who sparked the media firestorm. And the antagonists, in my mind, are the person who leaked the inaccurate board resignation story to the Wall Street Journal, and the impatient activists at Ok Cupid and CREDO Mobile who stoked the fire without seeking to understand us or giving us time to sort it out internally.

And the real tragedy here is that Mozilla would have sorted this out satisfactorily if it hadn’t been sensationalized by the media and turned into an internet witch hunt. Anyone who wrote a news story, posted to their blog, or tweeted about Brendan without understanding paragraph (i)(c) of the Community Participation Guidelines was part of the mob that brought Brendan down.

For more than 16 years, Brendan fought for openness and freedom on the web, and led many of the people who built that open and free web. This week, in a senseless, vicious convulsion, the web turned on him.



David Flanagan

Programmer at Mozilla. Author of JavaScript: The Definitive Guide and other books from O'Reilly.