Activists who campaigned for the ouster of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich over a $1,000 anti-gay marriage donation made in 2008 got their wish, but may also have inadvertently opened a Pandora’s Box in Silicon Valley, where Birkenstocks and kale smoothies don’t always mean liberal political views.
Take one case that has so far gotten almost no attention: An April 8 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission by a shareholder claiming that Facebook’s political action committee “has donated 41 percent of contributions since its inception to politicians voting against LGBT rights.” Around 30 percent of the PAC’s contributions have gone to “politicians voting to deregulate greenhouse gases,” the filing states, “despite Facebook’s public support for the environment.”
The filing urges Facebook to implement a policy to ensure the company’s money goes to political causes consistent with the social media giant’s “corporate values.” Filed days after Eich resigned, the document from the president of NorthStar Asset Management says that disclosure may lay Facebook subject to public scrutiny and “embarrassment” –- but argues that the best antidote is transparency.
Facebook has not responded to requests for comment from NBC News.
Are activists incensed by the politics of major tech corporations and their executives, or do they just get mad about the incidents that go viral? The Los Angeles Times maintains a database of everyone who gave money for or against Prop. 8, and records the donations of scores of others in the tech world. It’s a bit more difficult to dig into the information compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics on the tens of millions of dollars the industry spends every year supporting or opposing political candidates and lobbying for causes including immigration reform, cybersecurity and other causes.
In the April filing, NorthStar Asset Management says that Facebook “has a young, progressive consumer which supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights,” and that backlash against Facebook PAC’s political contributions could bring down share prices. In other words, this could be another Mozilla mess in the making, with shareholders paying the literal price.
Facebook opposed NorthStar Asset Management’s proposal in its annual stockholder’s meeting notice, writing that, “we believe it is our responsibility to engage in political, legislative, and regulatory processes to advance laws and policies that are in the best interests of our company, our stockholders, the people who use our services, and our partners.”
After Eich left Mozilla after online protests prompted by the executive’s $1,000 donation toward Prop 8, the company’s board likely believed its problem had been solved. The free software company had done away with the incongruity between the company values and a leader whose politics were perceived as out of sync with those values.
No one is suggesting that Zuckerberg could go the way of Eich. But some social critics say the Mozilla CEO’s exit may mark the beginning of a form of neo-McCarthyism in Silicon Valley, where executives will be held personally and financially accountable for their political activities.
“The whole social issues landscape has transformed itself over the past five years because of the Internet,” Professor Irv Schenkle, an expert in crisis management at the New York University Stern Business School, told NBC News. “Certain companies are more concerned about or more likely to react.”
Outrage over Eich’s appointment kicked in the first week of his March 24 appointment. Three directors of the not-for-profit organization resigned in protest and Mozilla staff protested publicly on Twitter and other Internet outlets. OKCupid spread the controversy beyond the tech community by encouraging users who accessed the site via Firefox try another Internet browser. Following his appointment, Eich stated his “commitment to fostering equality and welcome for LGBT individuals at Mozilla,” but the pressure continued.
Notably, no mainline gay rights organizations called for Eich to step down. None spoke out in his defense, either.
Largely ignored in the controversy is that the 50-yard line of public opinion has moved with breathtaking speed on the issue of gay marriage. And the facts remained -– albeit, some less publicized than others. In early 2012, President Barack Obama was still against gay marriage. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Prop. 8 invalid. March 2014 rolled into April, and Eich still wouldn’t state his current views on an issue that was considered revolutionary only a few years earlier. Finally, on April 3, he resigned.
“Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech,” Mozilla’s executive chairwoman Mitchell Baker wrote of Eich’s resignation. “And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.”
“The public is free to protest a corporation’s decision to hire a particular executive, and the corporation is free — as a matter of First Amendment law at least — to terminate an executive for their political beliefs,” Jeff Hermes, director of Digital Media Law Project & Online Media Legal Network at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, told NBC News.
OKCupid said it was “satisfied” with Eich’s departure, but many of the Mozilla users commenting within the Firefox Input feedback following the resignation accused the company of suppressing the free speech it claimed to support.
“When people’s lives and careers are subject to litmus tests, and fired if they do not publicly renounce what may well be their sincere conviction, we have crossed a line,” political commentator Andrew Sullivan wrote of Eich’s departure. “This is McCarthyism applied by civil actors.”
Sullivan was called out by other social critics for hyperbole and free market ignorance. But Dr. Ellen Schrecker, an American History Professor at Yeshiva University and expert on the original iteration of McCarthyism in the 1950s, sees the parallel.
“Whether from the right or (more commonly) from the left, dissent has often been suppressed in the United States,” Schrecker told NBC News. “McCarthyism, with its historically specific focus on anticommunism, was just one episode in that broader tradition of political repression. Mozilla’s (ouster) of Brendan Eich may well be another.”
Image credit: CC by Patrick Nouhailler