Last week, Brendan Eich was ousted – well, he resigned, but you know how these things really are – from his position as CEO of Mozilla, the software outfit behind products like the Firefox web browser.
Why? In 2008, Eich donated $1,000 in support of Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage and was later the subject of one of 2013's most contentious U.S. Supreme Court rulings. (The upshot of that ruling is that same-sex marriage is now legal in California; Proposition 8 has lost.)
As The New York Times' Farhad Manjoo notes, a CEO with an anti-gay history would be a real challenge for a fairly progressive activist organization like Mozilla. In his two weeks' tenure there, Mozilla churned with dissent and discontent, which is the kind of thing a good manager wants to avoid, not be responsible for.
The conservative world went nuts at the ouster. I don't want to turn this column into giant link-fest – I mean, I am pretty sure that whether you Google or Bing or whatever (your politics apparently plays a part in browser and search engine usage these days) you can verify this – but I am not exaggerating when I say that Eich's resignation was called everything from a scalping to gay-rights McCarthyism and mob rule.
Local conservatives were no exception. For example, Kevin Binversie, a political operative, blogger and contributor to the "Right Wisconsin" site curated by talk-radio yakker Charlie Sykes, chimed in on Friday. "Congratulations gay rights groups," he wrote, "you’ve started a modern-day inquisition."
I write about this Eich situation this week not necessarily because of Eich – I gave up on Firefox a couple of years ago because it was a memory hog, though I kind of dig Mozilla's commitment to open-source. I write about it because Eich's ouster is part of a larger and, truly, bipartisan trend of using vast stores of public data to make what should be private moments in people's lives into very public cudgels.
From all accounts, Eich seemed a good manager and systems thinker, and I doubt very much that his private views on same-sex marriage were really a professional hurdle, since he had (until last week) two decades doing pretty well climbing ladders in liberal-libertarian Silicon Valley. But because the names of Proposition 8 donors are public – you can search Eich's name right now – people were able to find Eich's six-year-old donation and use it against him when they thought he hit too high a rung.
More pointedly, I write about Brendan Eich because Wisconsin is full of Brendan Eichs: For example, Joshua Inglett, who lost out on a student position on the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents in 2013. Thomas Wolfgram was a well-respected judge in Ozaukee County who was turned out of office last spring. To name two, anyway.
Inglett and Wolfgram both signed the petitions circulated in 2012 to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.
Those recall petitions, like donations to Proposition 8 in California, are public records, and they have been meticulously scanned, entered, and maintained online by Republicans who now have a handy list against which to check anyone who might need to have his purity tested. This is not going away anytime soon; the signatures were an issue in a Milwaukee County judicial election just last week. The recall signer won this time.
Even when people aren't losing jobs or elections over recall signatures, their private political statements still become an issue. For example, when many thousands of emails related to the John Doe investigations were released in February, the aforementioned Right Wisconsin went after reporter Emma Roller, who signed the petition while a student at UW-Madison, after she called the email dump "the start of Walker's Bridgegate" on Slate. (Right Wisconsin also targeted Judge Wolfgram.)
And who led the charge against Roller? Kevin Binversie, who just a couple of paragraphs ago couldn't believe that someone's private political speech should be used against them.
I don't really blame Binversie or Right Wisconsin; the recall data is out there and they'd be fools not to use it if they think it will help their cause. Same with those who forced Eich out at Mozilla. But that doesn't make it right, and it doesn't mean we all have to be happy and comfortable with these kinds of blacklists becoming the new normal.
People should understand that free speech doesn't mean you're free from consequences of that speech; I know that, for instance, if I ever tried to run for office I would have to answer for a decade of sometimes ill-advised blogging that is very public and occasionally very misspelled. But I've made a choice to be public with my politics. The vast majority of the million-plus who signed Walker's recall petition aren't public, and neither are the Proposition 8 donors or, for that matter, anyone who gives money to candidates.
Look, I don't want to be known as the guy who cried McCarthyism, but it really feels like the broad and easy availability of these kinds of data are not that far removed from Tailgunner Joe standing up and saying he had there in his hand a list of etc. People with access to the data should think about whether that's the kind of role they want to play.
At the very least, those who, like Kevin Binversie, are happy to wield the data in service of their own ideology shouldn't be surprised when the same thing happens in the other direction.