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the curious case of mozilla

So I’ve only been paying some minor attention to the big deal going down with Mozilla and their new homophobic CEO. I don’t really care much about any of what is happening. I don’t like Firefox or Thunderbird. I also don’t particularly care if Eich continues to be CEO. It wouldn’t make a difference if he is or isn’t. Given that he has been part of Mozilla since the beginning and also created JavaScript, he will remain influential in tech no matter what ends up happening.

What I am interested in, are some of the comments he makes in the article and what it implies about open source communities. Because this isn’t a problem unique to Mozilla.

Remember how I wrote in FOSS and the sublimation of commodity fetishism:

The value, however, comes from creating a commodity out of the human relations (ie, labour and community) that creates the end product. This community, we are expected to believe, is fair compensation for the labour required to make the product.

Keep this in mind while reading the following comments by Eich:

Eich stressed that Baker’s statement applied only to Mozilla as a corporation and foundation, rather than to its broader mission.

“There’s a difference here between the company, the foundation, as an employer and an entity, versus the project and community at large, which is not under any constraints to agree on LGBT equality or any other thing that is not central to the mission or the Mozilla manifesto.”

Eich said the reason Mozilla as a community did not take a wider stance on issues such as LGBT marriage was the same as his reason for not explaining his donation: to avoid fragmenting its community. Without a large group of people who disagreed on lots of issues, Firefox would never have happened, he said.source

Yes, he still asserts that Firefox, Mozilla’s primary product is still essential: “So imagine a world without Firefox: not good.” But it is clear that the community is more important, given the causal relation he draws: not fragmenting the community, is what allowed Firefox to exist.

So what does this emphasis on leaving out non-essential things like human rights because it might fragment the community mean? It means that the product, the Mozilla community, is more important than anything else. I cannot imagine a better example of what it means to sublimate commodity fetishism into FOSS communities.

His expressed goal is to ‘unionise the users,’ which is such a strange way to put it. Are the employees of Mozilla unionised? Do the contributors and developers belong to a union? No? Why not?

What does any of this mean if the ‘community’ is all important, more important than human rights? How far is this understanding of ‘community’ from an everyday, colloquial conception of the word, since it apparently involves no actual human beings? Will his attempts to ‘unionise’ users have any real impact, given that he does not consider human rights (and, thus, human beings) “central to the mission or the Mozilla manifesto”?

Is anyone going to say that he should be removed for his casually racist remark about Indonesia?

Eich also stressed that Firefox worked globally, including in countries like Indonesia with “different opinions”, and LGBT marriage was “not considered universal human rights yet, and maybe they will be, but that’s in the future, right now we’re in a world where we have to be global to have effect”.source

Now, not to say that anyone ought to be wagging their fingers at Indonesia and its current policies towards gay marriage, but he is shifting the blame for the irrelevance of human rights to Mozilla’s mission to ‘less progressive’ and those awful terribad countries like Indonesia.

It is interesting that his solution to the problem of competing values is, rather than encouraging diversity and creating mechanisms to have this diversity in a safe manner, to insist on hegemonic control over the community and homogeniety. Since everyone has ‘different opinions’, if you want to participate with Mozilla, you have to pretend to be like everyone else.

But who is ‘everyone else’ in this conception? Guys like Eich. Given the impact and influence of white men within tech and that the default language of the software business is English, this is nothing less than insisting that only his (and men like him) political agenda has relevance to the Mozilla mission. And that if you want to participate in the much valued ‘community’ you must do your best to emulate him or you’ll be fragmenting the community.

Last, it is also interesting that he keeps talking about ‘opinions.’ This is again a shift in framing this debate and a rhetorical move very common amongst white tech men like him. See, he is allowed to have whatever opinions he wants. He is allowed to express those opinions. Free speech! And none of this has any bearing on his work, because privacy. And because freedom.

Donating money to suppressing the rights of a marginalized group is more than mere ‘opinion.’ And certainly, he does have every right to donate his personal money to whatever cause he chooses, but this is a very different discussion than the one he is trying to reframe it as. Because if he successfully manages to reframe this recent kerfluffle into a discussion about ‘opinions’, particularly ‘unpopular’ or ‘controversial’ ones, then he’ll gain the support and sympathy from the people who matter most in the tech community: white men.

This recent media storm and the calls for boycott and/or resignation will be seen as an attempt to suppress his right to free speech. Or some other right or freedom. And the focus will be drawn away from the many gays and lesbians in California whose actual rights were suppressed as a consequence of his direct actions.

Because in this conversation, they are the ones who matter, not him.