Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Conflicted CEO at Mozilla

Freedom is full of paradoxes. The very idea of freedom of speech implies a fundamental paradox. Where there is freedom of speech, it guarantees you the ability to speak out against freedom of all kinds, including the freedom that allows you to speak.

This paradox was never more apparent than in the case of Brendan Eich, who for reasons that have not been explained, somehow became CEO of Mozilla. I was mortified when I learned this had happened. I am an everyday user of Mozilla’s popular Firefox web browser, and a very occasional financial and technical contributor, and I was already unhappy to see the way the quality and stability of the browser has declined in recent years. From what little I had heard of Eich, his background is not identified with software quality. Perhaps worse, he is noted for an indifference to matters of software security, which is a matter of utmost importance when it comes to network communications tools such as web browsers.

Eich’s professional background probably should have disqualified him from an executive post at a software company, but his political activities are reason enough to disqualify him. The media, understandably, seized on just one of Eich’s political contributions, but Eich, I learned along with everyone else, has a long history of contributions to political causes that may fairly be characterized as extreme. The only apparent connecting link is that the causes and candidates all actively oppose the principle of personal freedom. This is a big problem if you want to be a Mozilla executive. You cannot comfortably be taking public positions against personal freedom while at the same time occupying a position of trust, shepherding Internet communications tools where the potential to undercut users’ personal freedom is an everyday concern.

When you look at Eich, you see the paradox of freedom that I mentioned. He is not merely, or mainly, a supporter of anti-freedom causes. He is also a fervent supporter of open-source software, a cause that fundamentally is identified with freedom. Some of the politicians he has supported would ban the very open-source software Eich has worked on if they got the chance, but that is the paradox of freedom at work. This kind of conflicted public presence is perhaps what you expect from an ordinary worker, but corporate officers are held to a higher standard. They cannot undercut their official duties with these kinds of contradictions. An office is, by definition, a position of trust. An officer cannot publicly stand against the principles that his office stands for. The Mozilla CEO in his public persona cannot stand against personal freedom any more than he can make public statements in opposition to the ideas of Internet standards or network security, or any of the other principles or qualities that Mozilla specifically stands for.

Eich had a chance to distance himself from his past actions, but elected not to do so. And so Eich, rightly, is out, and Mozilla’s users and supporters can hope the board is not so reckless when it chooses its next CEO. Despite all its recent problems, Firefox is still the most imitated web browser and the one that all other web browsers are compared to. With a well-chosen leader, I hope, perhaps the level of quality that Mozilla represented in the past can come back.