Mozilla Is Not Chick-Fil-A

In 2012 the southern fried chicken restaurant Chick-Fil-A became the unlikely battlefield for marriage equality in America. Through a strange turn of events, same-sex marriage advocates and opponents converged on Chick-Fil-A franchises across the country. People lined up to buy chicken sandwiches in solidarity or to stage a boycott.

One thing’s for sure. If you eat at Chick-Fil-A, your money will support anti-gay causes. So if the long march of progress makes a fast food drive-thru a site of civic participation, well, that’s surreal—but it’s democracy in action.

This evening draws the conclusion of 11 disheartening days at Mozilla: the brief tenure of its co-founder as CEO. So why am I thinking about chicken sandwiches?

Eich is one of maybe a dozen living individuals who can claim to have built the open web. In 15 years of working at Mozilla, Eich never let his personal beliefs color his work. He and others grew Mozilla from a hobby into a world changing social movement. And, incredibly, they did it in a completely apolitical way.

But Eich as CEO was symbolic to a lot of people. It’s why people like Hampton Catlin and his husband, co-owners of a web development firm, took a stand. They and others called for Eich to apologize for funding the Prop 8 campaign or to step down. (I have complete respect for Hampton and have enjoyed several very constructive conversations with him over the past two weeks.)

The crisis that emerged over this issue was partially self-inflicted. We failed to manage the crisis. And a lot of our own people acted badly—from the top on down. We acknowledge this:

We didn’t act like you’d expect Mozilla to act. We didn’t move fast enough to engage with people once the controversy started. We’re sorry. We must do better.

At the same time, gestures from OKCupid and others show that our biggest problem is that the world does not know the story of Mozilla. Especially as a progressive at Mozilla, it was hard to watch as people who should know better pulled out the Chick-Fil-A playbook.

Contrast Chick-Fil-A with Mozilla. The Atlanta-based company has donated upwards of $5 million dollars to PACs opposed to same-sex marriage, and the company’s chief operating officer is on record that same-sex marriage advocates were “inviting God’s judgement on the nation.” Mozilla is a collective of happy mutants who want to make the world better, whose original logo was designed by Shepherd Fairey.

Mozilla was never Chick-Fil-A. A user’s decision to use Firefox would never fund anti-gay causes. The first reason is that we’re not a profit-seeking organization. The second reason is that we would never fund anti-gay causes!

We watched this week as Mozilla, a global non-profit and volunteer community making a free product to benefit humanity, was stained with the taint of homophobia, retrograde opinions, and hate.

It was an expensive moral panic. And though I am heartened that people like Andrew Sullivan feel the same:

Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today – hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else – then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.

…it’s still our fault. This was a critical test of our ability to tell our story, and we failed.

To many of the people who drew incorrect conclusions about Mozilla and our character, we might as well be selling chicken sandwiches.

What do we do from here? Mozilla needs to do a better job of explaining how we’re different. We need to play to our strengths—community, disruptive innovation, doing things in unconventional ways. Even in this storm, you could see some of those silver linings.

Mozilla needs to re-embrace the core of who we are and where we came from. In our products, in our initiatives, in our leadership. Let’s take on big challenges and pick fights again. Let’s not be like the other guys, and make sure the world knows it.

The great irony of all this is that Brendan Eich would have been the best person to return to us to these roots.

For the record, I don’t believe Brendan Eich is a bigot. He’s stubborn, not hateful. He has an opinion. It’s certainly not my opinion, but it was the opinion of 52% of people who voted on Prop 8 just six years ago, and the world is changing fast.

Most of this is ambiguous. Some of it is painful. I am equally disappointed in Mozillians and in demagogues who didn’t see the irony in hounding someone for their private opinion because of “intolerance.”

But one thing is clear: we need to treat all good people with respect and dignity, regardless of who they are or what they believe. I am glad now that the world will have a chance to know our character. And I am grateful to Brendan Eich for all that he’s done for the open web. I hope that in time he will find a way to return to the project and provide the technical leadership that Mozilla, and the world, so greatly needs.

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