Brendan Eich, the bigots, and Software Freedom

Last week we learnt the news of the resignation of Brendan Eich from his position as CEO of the Mozilla Foundation/ Corporation. The controversy on Brendan Eich’s donations to opponents and campaigns against same-sex marriage ultimately prompted the inventor of Javascript to resign from the position he had just been appointed to and leave Mozilla. I followed the reactions online and decided to wait for at least a week before writing my opinion in full. Am I reopening a can of worms? Perhaps, but I think what’s at stake here is people missing an important aspect of software freedom. In this sense, this post won’t be about marriage equality or civil rights in general, it will be about the freedoms conveyed by free software and what they can ultimately mean.

For starters, let me remind you of several things:

No system is perfect…. And while Free Software is made of a set of legal norms, a philosophy, a political movement, and a way to produce and expand digital commons, Free Software in itself is something that constantly evolves. Sometimes people make mistakes. Technology changes. Licence evolve. Etc. A perfect system is a fantasy and does not exist in reality.

I have gay friends… And they’re not of the alibi-type of friends. They’re actual friends, buddies, people I have drinks with, people I meet and engage in discussions, people who tell me about their relationships, their work, their lives.

I have heterosexual and socially conservative friends… And they’re not of the alibi-type of friends. They’re actual friends, buddies, people I have drinks with, people I meet and engage in discussions, people who tell me about their relationships, their work, their lives.

When the controversy about Brendan Eich’s views and activism against gay marriage spread in the news, I thought that certainly this would not go much further than people shouting on blogs. I was wrong. While I do support gay marriage, I did not think for a moment that being a CEO of Mozilla meant that your personal views on politics and society would be judged. Everyone has political views and it is, after all, customary everywhere not to voice these opinions, nor to value them, at the workplace. Of course, I have written here and elsewhere that software freedom is political; surely then the board and the CEO of Mozilla must have some political commitment about digital rights and software freedom deeply rooted in their hearts and minds. I am pretty sure Brendan Eich is no different; but aside this, people are different. They have different stories, different ideas, different political views and different sexual orientations.  Free and Open Source Software projects gather and welcome all kinds of people. In fact, the four freedoms at the core of Free Software licenses are explicit on the notion that Free Software is made available for anyone to use, study, modify and distribute as long as the software license is respected. I’m not making that up, the statement is on the Free Software Philosophy page of the FSF web site:

The freedom to run the program means the freedom for any kind of person or organization to use it on any kind of computer system, for any kind of overall job and purpose, without being required to communicate about it with the developer or any other specific entity. In this freedom, it is the user’s purpose that matters, not the developer’s purpose; you as a user are free to run the program for your purposes, and if you distribute it to someone else, she is then free to run it for her purposes, but you are not entitled to impose your purposes on her.

By now you may be wondering where I’m going with this. The point I feel very few people made in the controversy surrouding Brendan Eich is that Free Software does not care who you are voting for as an individual or even as an organization. What matters is respecting the license the software you are studying, using, modifyng and distributing, and to a broader extent, that the development community you are contributing to -if that is the case- is not deprived from its freedom. Now let’s take a few real, yet general cases of Free Software usage around the globe.

  • Free Software such as Linux or Firefox, or LibreOffice (or BIND, or TCP/IP, etc.) is used by corporations actively engaging into child slavery
  • Free Software (again, same example) is used by the U.S. Government for various needs, some of them being of the military and data collection kind. This statement is public knowledge of course. There are some parts of this world where the U.S. Government is not hold in high regard by some peoples and / or their government
  •  Some people from extremist parties around the world use Firefox and LibreOffice
  • Some opponents of same-sex marriage, in the US  and elsewhere, are using Firefox, Thunderbird, LibreOffice, Evolution, Linux, etc.
  • Some proponents of same-sex marriage use the same software.

Where does that take us? For one thing it is abundantly clear that anyone can use and uses Free Software on a daily basis. Even people who you may not agree with on political or social  ideas. Even people you think should be publicly blamed for their ideas or their actions. Back to Brendan Eich. It is easy to point out that he is or was not just a mere user, but was appointed CEO of Mozilla. Before that, for the record, Brendan Eich was the CTO of Mozilla and the inventor of Javascript. Some people demanded his resignation on the basis of his political ideas and asserted that such ideas ought to be banned from Mozilla. Somehow the moral demand made to Mozilla is more important than the one made to other entities. I do not buy that, at least not when it does not concern software freedom and digital rights. Besides that, Brendan Eich as a CEO would not be Mozilla himself. Mozilla is fortunately much bigger than Brendan. The fact that someone denies equal rights to others may make some people uncomfortable. Some others would find such a position outrageous. But Mozilla is not changing because of the political colours of its CEO. Heck, it’s not even voting.

In this regard, I’m afraid I have bad news for all the people who thought Brendan Eich was unfit to be CEO of Mozilla: I know for a fact that there is one contributor of a major Free Software project who is an extreme right activist. He was seen by a friend per chance in an extreme right demonstration, as this friend was crossing a street in Paris. I know for a fact that projects such as LibreOffice have people who have, let’s put it that way, a rather traditional vision of marriage. I know for a fact that there are people who are actively campaigning in favour of gay marriage all around the world and who are active contributors to LibreOffice as well. And I could go on and on.

If you want to deny leadership positions to people who may have completely different views on marriage, gender and race equality inside Free Software projects or foundations, be ready for a witch-hunt. And then ask yourself the question of whether the same people should be expelled from the project. Then the next thing you should consider would be to only accept people who have been individually cleared from any dubious ideas into your project. You may not want to stop there: get new software licenses prohibiting Free Software to be used by certain kind of people. Someone tried this before and the FSF rejected it, by the way, as it was a blatant denial of software freedom. On top of this, you may want to impose a worldwide censorship and surveillance of the network just to make sure people who may have unacceptable ideas never get around to contact your project. What a fine world this would be, wouldn’t it?

Yes, even people who are outrageous bigots and blatant racists have a right to join, participate and use Free Software. We may not love everyone, but we do work with everyone and serve all of them. Free Software is not a party, it is a much bigger and broader movement encompassing technology, society, law, software and hardware, and ultimately some of our most human qualities: empathy, communication, cooperation, and sharing.  The day this will change, software freedom will die – and the true freedom haters, the censors, the real bigots, the extremists will have won.

Caveat Emptor: This post reflects my personal opinion only and not the views of the Document Foundation nor my employers, past and present.

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