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Mozilla CEO's exit tests Silicon Valley's tolerance

Outgoing Mozilla chief executive Brendan Eich in a photo courtesy of the company. REUTERS/Mozilla
Outgoing Mozilla chief executive Brendan Eich in a photo courtesy of the company. REUTERS/Mozilla

(In April 4 story, corrects paragraph three to show Proposition 8 was struck down in U.S. federal court, not by U.S. Supreme Court)

By Gerry Shih

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Tech workers in Silicon Valley debated on Friday whether Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich got the comeuppance he deserved or was himself a victim of intolerance when he resigned under pressure this week amid outrage over his opposition to same-sex marriage.

Some, especially a dating website that had urged its users to boycott Mozilla's popular Firefox web browser, cheered Eich's resignation after less than two weeks as CEO of the nonprofit software company. Others viewed him as a victim and called his critics intolerant of people with different views.

Mozilla co-founder Eich, who invented the programming language Javascript, donated $1,000 in 2008 to support Proposition 8, which sought to ban same-sex marriage in California. Voters approved the measure, but it was struck down in U.S. federal court.

Eich did not respond to requests for comment on Friday, but he had posted an apology on his blog before he resigned for the pain his stance had caused. His views about gay marriage had been known within Mozilla for nearly two years, but controversy erupted after he was appointed CEO in late March.

Rarebit founders Hampton and Michael Catlin, a gay developer couple, pulled their software apps from Mozilla after Eich's appointment. OkCupid.com, the online dating site, called for a boycott of Firefox. Some on Twitter who identified themselves as Mozilla employees called for Eich to resign.

On Friday, news of Eich's departure prompted a backlash on Twitter. Many suggested Silicon Valley was intolerant of people with views outside northern California's liberal mainstream.

Even Rarebit's Hampton Catlin said he had not anticipated the issue's escalation and was saddened by Eich's resignation.

"We absolutely believe people should be allowed to have personal opinions, but we also believe that we are allowed to disagree and to try and change someone's mind by expressing our own personal story," the Catlins said in a statement.

"We absolutely don't believe that everyone who voted yes on Prop 8 is evil. In fact, we're sure that most of them just didn't understand the impact the law would have."

They said many backers changed their mind due to "the impact and pain that the law caused to friends and family members."

When Eich made his $1,000 donation in opposition to same-sex marriage, the political landscape for gay rights was different than it is today. Even presidential candidate Barack Obama and his Democratic primary rival Hillary Clinton were five years away from embracing legalization of same-sex marriage.

At the end of 2008, same-sex marriages were legal in only Massachusetts and Connecticut. Today 17 states, including California, allow such marriages.

AN APOLOGY

Before his resignation, Eich posted an apology on his blog for the "pain" he said his views had caused. He vowed to uphold a culture of equality as Mozilla's CEO, including maintaining the nonprofit's health benefits for same-sex couples.

In the Thursday post that announced his exit, Eich said he was taking a rest to spend more time with his family and would continue to work on browser software issues.

Some cheered his resignation, including OkCupid.

"We are pleased that OkCupid's boycott has brought tremendous awareness to the critical matter of equal rights for all partnerships," the company said on its main Twitter feed.

Silicon Valley's denizens pride themselves on being part of a meritocratic community that welcomes talented workers regardless of their origins or political and religious beliefs.

But analysts said the Eich episode showed there are limits to that tolerance.

Gay rights are widely embraced in the San Francisco area, long known for its thriving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Silicon Valley's tech culture reflects that sensitivity, and its companies rely on their CEOs to set that kind of tone, analysts said.

"We in Silicon Valley have a certain degree of hero worship," said Jane English-Lueck, an anthropologist at San Jose State University who has studied the industry's culture.

"The CEO has a lot of iconic visibility, and what a business leader is saying is going to have meaning to people about that company."

Eich's departure is a reminder that high-profile corporate executives can be taken to task for unpopular personal views, said Bruce Barry, professor of management and sociology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

"This might make other executives understand that you are potentially accountable for your private views," Barry said. "The fear of getting in trouble or not advancing causes people to self-censor. But that's what rank-and-file employees have always known."

Mozilla has apologized for not addressing the controversy quickly enough and said it was wrestling with the conflict between "equality and freedom of speech."

"Equality is necessary for meaningful speech," company chairwoman Mitchell Baker said in a blog post announcing Eich's resignation on Thursday. "And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard."

(Additional reporting and writing by Edwin Chan; Editing by David Lindsey and David Gregorio)

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