The Internet community holds dear a handful of principles. Freedom of speech and equal rights are two at the top of the list.

And when they clash, the discussions can be uncomfortable, even painful.

That's the position Mountain View-based Mozilla, a nonprofit foundation best known as the developer of the Firefox browser, finds itself in.

The controversy centers around a $1,000 donation by Brendan Eich of Mozilla to the campaign for Proposition 8, which defined marriage as being only between a man and woman.

That contribution came to light in 2012 when Eich, a Mozilla co-founder, was still the firm's chief technology officer. After a flurry of comments, the uproar fizzled.

The issue resurfaced this week with Eich's promotion to the company's top job on Monday.

Some Mozilla employees have tweeted and blogged their support for him. Others are critical of the appointment and have asked him to step down.

Christie Koehler, a gay employee, said that "over the years I have watched Brendan be an ally in many areas and bring clarity and leadership when needed." But Kat Braybrooke, who works at Mozilla, tweeted that "like many @Mozilla staff, I'm taking a stand. I do not support the Board's appointment of @BrendanEich as CEO."

In blog posts, the company jumped into the fray online. The organization honors "diversity in sexual orientation and beliefs within our staff and community, across all the project's activities," it said.


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In his own blog post on Wednesday, Eich struck a conciliatory tone, though he did not offer an explanation for his political contribution or say whether his views have changed. He said he will fight for equality and inclusion at Mozilla.

"I know some will be skeptical about this, and that words alone will not change anything," he wrote. "I can only ask for your support to have the time to 'show, not tell'; and in the meantime express my sorrow at having caused pain."

Mitchell Baker, chair of the board of the Mozilla Foundation, which oversees the Mozilla corporation, wrote on her blog she "was surprised in 2012, when his donation in support of Proposition 8 came to light, to learn that Brendan and I aren't in close alignment here, since I've never seen any indication of anything other than inclusiveness in our work together."

She stood by his appointment. "My experience is that Brendan is as committed to opportunity and diversity inside Mozilla as anyone, and more so than many."

Free speech and equality are "are well represented inside Mozilla. Often by the same, conflicted people. Our current situation is forcing us to choose between them," wrote Geoffrey MacDougall, Mozilla's head of development, who has not come out either in support or in opposition of Eich's appointment but said in a tweet he wants "to see this work out for everyone."

Mozilla, according to a statement on its website, is a special place devoted to promoting "openness, innovation & opportunity on the Web."

And promoting Eich is not in conflict with Mozilla's self-defined principles of an open Internet, said Irina Raicu, the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

"But the question is whether it was a mistake to appoint as CEO someone who has made this sort of donation -- whether his other values will be attributed to the organization," she said. "The employees who are responding certainly seem to think so."

While Mozilla is in an uproar over this issue, it also faces pressure on a separate front. Three of Mozilla's board members resigned, according to The Wall Street Journal, over the choice of Eich as chief executive, but not because of his political views. The departed board members reportedly wanted an outside candidate to tackle Mozilla's business challenges, according to the Journal.

Mozilla declined to comment for this story. Its process, while fascinating for outsiders, can't be comfortable for those on the inside.

"Mozilla needs your love and help right now," wrote Matt Thompson, Mozilla's director of community engagement and chief storyteller, on his own blog. "More than just a debate about our CEO, this threatens to divide us in other ways if we let it."

Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and mquinn@mercurynews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/michellequinn.