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Welcome to the Era of Politically Correct Web Browsing

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Just days after being named the new head of web-browser maker Mozilla, Brendan Eich has stepped down after being outed as an opponent of gay marriage. On Tuesday, dating site OkCupid urged its members who use Mozilla Firefox to “consider using different software for accessing OkCupid.” It turns out that Eich had given money to the campaign in support of California’s Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage in the Golden State. (The U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled Prop. 8 invalid, and same-sex unions are once again legal in California.)

Welcome to the brave new world of socially conscious … web browsing. In the past, consumers might patronize certain businesses whose stated missions extended beyond increasing shareholder value (Whole Foods, for example, or Ben & Jerry’s). Or they might avoid others with politically objectionable CEOs; a reputation for being, say, antiabortion (e.g. Domino’s Pizza); or public positions opposed to certain forms of birth control (Hobby Lobby, for instance). Now we’re boycotting free products like Firefox and demanding that companies dance to the tune called by customers. I think that’s a good thing overall — but it may end up being just as difficult for consumers to live with as it will be for corporations.

Whether you care about gay marriage or politically correct web experiences, Eich’s resignation shows how businesses respond to market signals. “Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech,” writes Mitchell Baker, the organization’s executive chairwoman, in announcing Eich’s stepping down. “And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.”

Just as the Internet has empowered consumers to find lower prices, more-extensive reviews and a wider variety of goods than ever before, it’s also made it easier for them to call out companies for all sorts of dastardly actions, screwups and problems. I like that OkCupid’s intervention wasn’t a call for government action to limit people’s choices or ban something. Indeed, OkCupid didn’t even block Firefox users from its site — rather, it politely asked them to consider getting to the site via a different browser.

But this sort of action complicates the simple act of shopping for both traditional conservatives and liberals in ways that are not yet fully clear. Conservatives should like the fact that this was done without calling for government action, even if they aren’t fans of gay marriage. For liberals, they surely like the outcome — a corporation pledges to support marriage equality — even as they will have to rethink the idea that corporations or businesses don’t have “personhood” or can’t take stances on issues (as liberals like to claim when it comes to campaign-finance questions). In fact, we ascribe intention to businesses all the time based on their practices and leadership.

It wasn’t that long ago — in fact, it seems like just last week — that we accessed the web to hunt for the best deal on a new cell phone or a pair of shoes. Now we must be aware not simply of the deep politics of the companies we actually buy from but even that of the company whose free downloads we use. Increasingly, we will be asking ourselves what sorts of non-business-related policies companies have and whether we want to associate with all that — even when we don’t pay a dime for a particular good or service.

That’s fine. After all, now that we’re well past a subsistence economy, we live in a world of largely symbolic exchange, where we don’t simply choose something because we’re hungry or naked but because we want to make a statement about what sort of person we are, what sort of taste we possess and what sort of values we share.

But socially conscious web browsing will also be a time-consuming and hugely complicated activity. One of the great promises of the Internet was that it would allow all of us to sift through vast amounts of information and arrive at the best answer in record time. We all know it hasn’t quite worked out that way. We spend more time than ever hunting for new things and then even more energy comparing this option to that option. Now we have even more to consider every time we fire up our browsers.

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