In the final season of Silicon Valley, Hooli ex–CEO Gavin Belson announces “tethics”, a portmanteau of “tech ethics” and a pledge companies can sign to show they uphold the principles thereof. The idea catches on, and it becomes deeply unpopular for a company to not be “tethical”. Pied Piper founder Richard Hendricks is the lone holdout, objecting that signing the pledge doesn’t actually mean anything.
The joke is that Silicon Valley has spent the entire series portraying Gavin Belson as the most flagrant example of an unethical tech CEO. Like so much of the show, it’s a sharp critique of the real tech industry.
Growing distrust of the tech industry reached a boiling point in the late 2010s. Venture–backed companies proved over and over to be jealousTwitter: Instagram has blocked photos on networkTwitterers can no longer display full Instagram photos on the social networkwww.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/twitter-instagram-has-blocked-photos-on-network/2012/12/05/59237fe2-3eef-11e2-ae43-cf491b837f7b_story.html, sneakyYes Facebook is using your 2FA phone number to target you with adsFacebook has confirmed it does in fact use phone numbers that users provided it for security purposes to also target them with ads. Specifically a phone number handed over for two factor authentication (2FA) — a security technique that adds a second layer of authentication to help keep accounts secure. Facebook’s confession follows a story Gizmodo […]techcrunch.com/2018/09/27/yes-facebook-is-using-your-2fa-phone-number-to-target-you-with-ads/ and overbearing“Link In Bio” is a slow knife - Anil DashA blog about making culture. Since 1999.anildash.com/2019/12/10/link-in-bio-is-how-they-tried-to-kill-the-web stewards of our data. In response, we’ve heard increasing calls to abandon these platforms for ones we control. It’s becoming trendy for companies to describe themselves or their products as “ethical”.
As developers, I have no doubt that we‘re capable of creating ethical technology. Like Richard Hendricks, many of us have strong convictions about exploitation, privacy and openness. We can fight back against surveillance and walled gardens.
But we need to get real for a second. The money and data that we use to build “ethical” software often goes to companies that violate the very principles we try to embody.
Microsoft used to be reviled for its hostility to open source software. Ex–CEO Steve Ballmer once said “Linux is a cancer”Ballmer: 'Linux is a cancer'Contaminates all other software with Hippie GPL rubbishwww.theregister.co.uk/2001/06/02/ballmer_linux_is_a_cancer/, referring to its viral free software license. Microsoft’s “Embrace, Extend and Extinguish”Embrace, extend, and extinguish - Wikipediaen.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embrace,_extend,_and_extinguish strategy targeted both competitors’ software and open standards, and was a central pillar of the US Department of Justice’s monopoly case against them.
Under Satya Nadella, Microsoft has turned over a new leaf. They’ve released open source projects of their own. Microsoft Azure even provides servers running Linux as well as Windows.
But Microsoft’s embrace of open source belies the harm it’s doing elsewhere. The US military contracted them to provide technologyMicrosoft workers call for canceling military contract for technology that could turn warfare into a ‘video game’Employees demanded that the company cancel a contract to supply its augmented-reality headsets to the Army, warning in a letter that putting HoloLens in the military’s hands could “help people kill."www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/02/22/microsoft-workers-call-cancelling-military-contract-technology-that-could-turn-warfare-into-video-game that would give soldiers “increased lethality, mobility and situational awareness”. GitHub, its subsidiary, is working with ICEDevelopers join call for GitHub to cancel its ICE contractOpen source developers, GitHub's power users, are joining the software platform's employees in calling for the company to cancel its contract with ICE. A boycott could be next. www.latimes.com/business/technology/story/2019-12-04/github-open-source-developers-ice-contract to round up and terrorize undocumented people and their families.
Not content to let Microsoft get all that sweet deportation money, Amazon also provides tools to help ICE surveil people‘No Tech for ICE’: Protesters demand Amazon cut ties with federal immigration enforcementThe demonstration joins growing criticism of corporations contracting federal agencies that enforce the White House's “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/07/12/no-tech-ice-protesters-demand-amazon-cut-ties-with-federal-immigration-enforcement. They were competing against Microsoft for that military contract as well, allegedly only losing because of Donald Trump’s personal vendetta against Jeff BezosAmazon Says It Lost $10 Billion Military Contract Because Trump Wanted to 'Screw' Jeff BezosAmazon thinks it lost a military cloud computing contract worth $10 billion to rival Microsoft because our vendetta-addled president wanted to personally “screw” CEO Jeff Bezos, court documents show.gizmodo.com/amazon-says-it-lost-10-billion-military-contract-becau-1840328902.
People point to Amazon as a paragon of efficiency. That efficiency comes at a human cost. Amazon warehouse workers have been pushing to unionize'We are not robots': Amazon warehouse employees push to unionizeWorkers announced launch of union push in response to working conditions as company says it does not recognize allegationswww.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jan/01/amazon-fulfillment-center-warehouse-employees-union-new-york-minnesota after dealing with exploitative and dangerous conditions. They toil in subzero warehouse temperaturesTrue Stories of Life as an Amazon WorkerAmazon is the future of retailing in America. Earlier this week, we asked the unseen Amazon employees who fill your orders to send us their stories. Here are five of their tales of life at Amazon.gawker.com/true-stories-of-life-as-an-amazon-worker-1002568208, avoiding bathroom breaks for fear of missing their targetsAmazon warehouse workers skip bathroom breaks to keep their jobs, says report“From their point of view, we don’t have the right to be ill,” one worker wrote anonymously.www.theverge.com/2018/4/16/17243026/amazon-warehouse-jobs-worker-conditions-bathroom-breaks. They are pressured to continue working on the verge of heat strokeEx-worker: I was close to heatstroke and Amazon forced me to keep workingAmazon workers are sharing their horror stories of exploitation by the corporation and discussing how to unite internationally to fight back.www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/05/29/amaz-m29.html. The company places those who experience personal trauma on performance–improvement plansA devastating expose has revealed Amazon's oppressive attitude to its staffOne woman with breast cancer was put on 'performance-improvement plans'www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/amazon-devastating-expose-accuses-internet-retailer-of-oppressive-and-callous-attitude-to-staff-10458159.html, reminding them to focus on their jobs.
Amazon also hates paying taxes. They killed a Seattle tax meant to help the homelessAmazon Crushes a Small Tax That Would Have Helped the HomelessSeattle quickly walked back a tax on major businesses that would have raised money for affordable housing after Amazon threatened to stop construction in the city.www.vanityfair.com/news/2018/06/amazon-seattle-repeal-head-tax-homelessness. The EU ordered them to repay €250,000,000Amazon ordered to repay €250m by EU over 'illegal tax advantages'Commission also says it plans to take Irish government to European court of justice over failure to collect €13bn from Applewww.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/04/amazon-eu-tax-irish-government-apple after negotiating “illegal tax advantages” with the Luxembourg government. In 2017, they paid no federal taxes on $5,600,000,000 in profitsAmazon earned $5.6B in 2017, but paid no federal taxesIn 2017, Amazon earned more than $5.6 billion in U.S. profits, but paid no federal income taxes.www.foxbusiness.com/markets/amazon-earned-5-6b-in-2017-but-paid-no-federal-taxes; in 2018, they paid no federal taxes on $11,200,000,000 in profitsAmazon paid no federal taxes on $11.2 billion in profits last yearThe company paid no taxes for the second year in a row despite roughly doubling its profits.www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2019/02/16/amazon-paid-no-federal-taxes-billion-profits-last-year/.
Google vowed to be a different kind of company, famously adopting the motto “don’t be evil”. It turns out that a lot can change in 20 years!
After becoming the dominant web search engine, Google realized they were sitting on enormous amounts of behavioral and search data. The dot–com crash led them to capitalize on this treasure trove, and in the process they invented something that would transform the tech industry into a digital dystopia.
Enter surveillance capitalismAttention Required! | Cloudflareharvardmagazine.com/2017/01/the-watchers: a business model that commoditizes our most private information.
It turns out that shady people have lots of uses for detailed information about you, specifically. Sometimes they want to sell you things, sometimes they want to convince you of ideas… but whatever the reason, they’re willing to pay a lot for that information. This incentivizes Google to harvest as much data about you as possible — even if your consent is dubious or withheld.
How far is Google willing to go? They indiscriminately collect personal information from public Wi–Fi networksWhy Google's Spying on User Data Is Worse than the NSA'sThe potential abuses due to corporate access to that data are as bad as the NSA control -- and the documented harm to the public has been worse.www.huffpost.com/entry/why-googles-spying-on-use_b_3530296. They place hidden microphones on home security devicesGoogle calls Nest's hidden microphone an 'error'The tech giant didn't inform customers that the home security hub had a microphone.www.cnet.com/news/google-calls-nests-hidden-microphone-an-error/. They track your location on Android and iOS and ignore your attempts to disable itAP Exclusive: Google tracks your movements, like it or notSAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Google wants to know where you go so badly that it records your movements even when you explicitly tell it not to.apnews.com/828aefab64d4411bac257a07c1af0ecb.
Google’s justification has been that if you have something to hide, you shouldn’t be doing it in the first placeGoogle CEO Eric Schmidt Dismisses the Importance of PrivacyYesterday, the web was buzzing with commentary about Google CEO Eric Schmidt's dangerous, dismissive response to concerns about search engine users' privacy. When asked during an interview for CNBC's recent "Inside the Mind of Google" special about whether users should be sharing information with...www.eff.org/deeplinks/2009/12/google-ceo-eric-schmidt-dismisses-privacy. But in practice, there’s plenty of information you might want to keep private. Research shows that digital surveillance has a chilling effect on searches for health–related informationGovernment Surveillance and Internet Search BehaviorThis paper displays data from the US and its top 40 trading partners on the search volume of select keywords from before and after the surveillance revelations papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2412564 and self–expressionNew Study Shows Mass Surveillance Breeds Meekness, Fear and Self-CensorshipThis has always been intuitively clear. Now, there is mounting empirical evidence proving it.theintercept.com/2016/04/28/new-study-shows-mass-surveillance-breeds-meekness-fear-and-self-censorship/. After Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was spying on US citizens, terrorism–related Wikipedia searches declined by over 30%About | HeinOnlineLearn about HeinOnline, a premier online research platform providing access to multidisciplinary current and historical documents.heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/berktech31&div=6.
Mass surveillance can also have negative health effects. In another study, some subjects under surveillance exhibited symptoms similar to post–traumatic stress disorderWhat Constant Surveillance Does to Your BrainTechnology is getting more adept at tracking our moves and anticipating our choices, and being watched all the time can make us feel anxious. www.vice.com/en_us/article/pa5d9g/what-constant-surveillance-does-to-your-brain.
Google has transgressed in more traditional ways, as well. Andy Rubin, the founder of Android, was given a $90,000,000 exit packageHow Google Protected Andy Rubin, the ‘Father of Android’ (Published 2018)The internet giant paid Mr. Rubin $90 million and praised him, while keeping silent about a misconduct claim.www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/technology/google-sexual-harassment-andy-rubin.html after credible allegations of sexual misconduct were levied against him. On top of that, Google invested millions in his next companyEx-Google exec Andy Rubin raises $48 million for hardware incubatorAndroid co-founder's new effort raises money.fortune.com/2015/04/06/ex-google-exec-andy-rubin-raises-48-million-for-hardware-incubator/ despite having no obligation to do so. When employees protested this, Google demoted the protest organizersGoogle Employees Say They Faced Retaliation After Organizing Walkout (Published 2019)Two Google workers who called for an employee protest over the company’s treatment of sexual harassment said they were demoted or told their role would change.www.nytimes.com/2019/04/22/technology/google-walkout-employees-retaliation.html.
That wasn’t the only time Google took aim at their own employees. They’ve also retaliated against workers for reporting harassmentDozens of Google employees say they were retaliated against for reporting harassmentNearly a year after Google’s #MeToo walkout, a previously unreported internal document details dozens of employees’ stories of harassment and retaliation for reporting workplace issues.www.vox.com/recode/2019/9/9/20853647/google-employee-retaliation-harassment-me-too-exclusive, and fired employees for trying to form a unionGoogle fires four employees at center of worker organization effortsFiring is the latest in a series of disputes between Google and its workforce.arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2019/11/firing-of-four-google-employees-is-retaliatory-activists-say/ and speaking out about diversityGoogle Fired and Disciplined Employees for Speaking Out About Diversity [Updated]Last August, James Damore circulated a memo internally at Google in which he argued women were biologically less inclined to succeed in engineering roles at the company and that Google’s diversity efforts were misguided. In doing so, he set off heated debate among his co-workers—debate that, according to current and…gizmodo.com/google-fired-and-disciplined-employees-for-speaking-out-1822277125.
This might all seem tangential to upholding these principles ourselves. The point of creating ethical technology is to do better than this, right? These companies give us a template for what not to do.
The problem is that we’re using these companies when we build things. We pay GitHub the same money it uses to help deport undocumented people. We send Google the same data it sells to advertisers. Companies are only able to behave like this because we still give them our business.
Our first line of defense against harmful and exploitative practices should be to refuse to perpetuate them. But it’s not enough to just do right ourselves. If we want to build ethical software, we need to consider the full stack.
A Way Out
An ethical tech stack is one in which there are no moral quandaries with any of the technologies or companies involved. That means the money you spend isn’t being used to deport people, or pay for sexual predators’ exit packages.
There are two ways developers can make a difference. The first is to pick an ethical tech stack for any personal work and side projects. The second — more difficult but more effective — is to convince your employer to care about the ethics of their tech stack. That means making the case that whatever technology you want to use won’t hurt the business.
The good news is that using ethical technology doesn’t have to mean making compromises. Developer tooling is a highly commoditized market: there are tens of thousands of companies and open–source products competing to solve every problem we encounter building software.
Take Google Analytics: found on 61% of the most–visited websitesGoogle and Facebook still dominate tracking on the webNew survey names Google Analytics as the most popular cookie on the webwww.theverge.com/2016/5/18/11692228/google-facebook-web-tracking-survey-advertising, it’s Google’s beachhead for surveillance capitalism. It’s so pervasive that even otherwise staunch advocates for privacy often use it themselves. You get free data about how people are using your website, but Google uses that information — combined with every site using Google Analytics — to target each visitor.
Instead, consider alternatives like FathomThe Google Analytics alternative without compromiseFathom Analytics is a simple, privacy-focused (GDPR compliant) Google Analytics alternative.usefathom.com and Simple AnalyticsThe privacy-first Google Analytics alternative - Simple AnalyticsSimple Analytics is the privacy-first Google Analytics alternative that is 100% GDPR compliant. Give us a try!simpleanalytics.com. They reject surveillance capitalism in favor of a tried–and–true business model: charging their customers money. Both are easy to install, and either match GA’s tentpole features or are working on them. Fathom shows you pageviews, uniques, bounce rate and referrers. They also have a public roadmapTrelloOrganize anything, together. Trello is a collaboration tool that organizes your projects into boards. In one glance, know what's being worked on, who's working on what, and where something is in a process.trello.com/b/x2aBwH2J/fathom-roadmap where you can see the features they’re working on, such as UTM parameters and custom event tracking.
You’re also not beholden to another company to provide you web analytics. There are plenty of open–source services available to host on your own infrastructureselfhostedsource.tech/self-hosted/?category=web-analytics.
As ubiquitous as Google Analytics is to web analytics, GitHub might be even more so to software development. In addition to creating a tooling monocultureGitHub monocultureI continue to notice an unsettling trend: the rise of the GitHub monoculture. More and more, people seem to believe that GitHub is the center of the programming universe.nedbatchelder.com/blog/201405/github_monoculture.html, they also feed the police– and military–industrial complexes.
In late 2019, over 700 developers (myself included) signed a petition asking them to stop providing services to ICEGitHub - drop-ice/dear-github-2.0: 📨 An open letter to GitHub from the maintainers of open source projects📨 An open letter to GitHub from the maintainers of open source projects - GitHub - drop-ice/dear-github-2.0: 📨 An open letter to GitHub from the maintainers of open source projectsgithub.com/drop-ice/dear-github-2.0. What if all those developers stopped providing their code to GitHub?
There’s BitbucketBitbucket | Git solution for teams using JiraBitbucket Cloud is a Git-based code and CI/CD tool optimized for teams using Jira.bitbucket.org, which started around the same time as GitHub and is now owned by Atlassian. GitLabThe DevSecOps PlatformFrom planning to production, bring teams together in one application. Ship secure code more efficiently to deliver value faster.about.gitlab.com is an alternative that offers tight integration with many supporting services, such as continuous integration. Sourcehutsourcehut - the hacker's forgesourcehut is a network of useful open source tools for software project maintainers and collaborators, including git repos, bug tracking, continuous integration, and mailing lists.sourcehut.org is a newcomer that eschews investor money.
And as with analytics, self–hosting is an option here. Git itself is decentralized and open source; there’s no reason to rely on one company to provide it to everyone. Check out GiteaLightweight DevOps PlatformGitea is a lightweight DevOps platform. It brings teams and developers high-efficiency but easy operations from planning to production.gitea.com/, a self–hosted service with many GitHub–like features. GitLab and Sourcehut also provide open source, self–hostable versions.
At a recent meetup, someone asked about “the AWS problem”: they considered Amazon unethical but thought AWS was an indispensable part of their stack.
Virtual private server companies are starting to offer managed services to compete with cloud providers. DigitalOceanDigitalOcean | Cloud Hosting for BuildersSimple, scalable cloud computing solutions built for startups and small-to-midsize businesses.digitalocean.com offers not only servers but S3–compatible object storage, managed databases, load balancers and (if you want something a bit more microservicey) managed Kubernetes. If you don’t like them, try LinodeCloud Computing & Linux Servers | Alternative to AWS | LinodeSimplify your infrastructure with Linode's cloud computing and hosting solutions and develop, deploy, and scale faster and easier.www.linode.com, VultrSSD VPS Servers, Cloud Servers and Cloud HostingVultr Global Cloud Hosting - Brilliantly Fast SSD VPS Cloud Servers. 100% KVM Virtualizationwww.vultr.com or one of the many other companiesLow-Cost VPS Testing | Toystoys.lerdorf.com/low-cost-vps-testing from which you can rent a server for under $10 a month. You can do anything with these servicesWeb Hosting For App Developers – Marco.org I’m Marco Arment: a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast. marco.org/2014/03/27/web-hosting-for-app-developers that you can do with Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud Platform.
It takes a bit of ethical calculus to figure out what you’re okay with and what you want to stop using. For example, TypeScript is a popular programming language from Microsoft. But it’s free and open source; the only thing you’d be helping them do is launder their reputation. On the other hand, even though Google Analytics is also free, you’d be supporting surveillance capitalism by selling out anyone who uses your app.
This all might sound a bit overwhelming. It’s likely that you or your company use at least a few of the services named here (a list that’s by no means exhaustive).
But you don’t have to make the jump all at once. Start small! Swap out Google Analytics on your personal website. Create the repo for your next project somewhere other than GitHub. Set up your own server instead of using AWS.
The unfortunate flip side is that this can be a form of gatekeeping. Paying $14 per month for a privacy–respecting analytics service is hard if you’re not relatively wealthy. Running your own servers is daunting if you haven’t dug around the internals of your operating system.
These are our problems to solve as developers. We need to find ways to make ethical tech just as accessible to everyone as unethical tech is today. Privacy cannot be a luxury goodHow Privacy Became a Commodity for the Rich and Powerful (Published 2017)It used to signal a quiet, anonymous life. Now privacy is a premium that may be out of reach for ordinary citizens.www.nytimes.com/2017/05/09/magazine/how-privacy-became-a-commodity-for-the-rich-and-powerful.html.
It’s become clear that despite their utopian ideals, tech companies are the same as any other company. They bust unionsGoogle is accused of union busting after firing four employeesOne way or another, Google keeps pushing organizers out.www.theverge.com/2019/11/25/20983053/google-fires-four-employees-memo-rebecca-rivers-laurence-berland-union-busting-accusation-walkout. They suppress wagesJudge approves settlement in Apple, Google wage caseA federal judge has approved a $415 million settlement that ends a lengthy legal saga revolving around allegations that Apple, Google and several other Silicon Valley companies illegally conspired to prevent their workers from getting better job offers. www.latimes.com/business/technology/la-fi-tn-tech-jobs-settlement-20150903-story.html. They exploit tax loopholesCorporate Tax Avoidance Remains Rampant Under New Tax LawFor decades, profitable Fortune 500 companies have been able to manipulate the tax system to avoid paying even a dime in tax on billions of dollars in U.S. profits. This ITEP report provides the first comprehensive look at how the new corporate tax laws that took effect after the passage of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act affects the scale of corporate tax avoidance. itep.org/notadime. And ultimately, they depend on our moneyGoogle to overhaul advertising policies after growing boycott‘We deeply apologise,’ says company’s CBO Philipp Schindler as he announces tougher stance on hateful, offensive and derogatory contentwww.theguardian.com/technology/2017/mar/21/google-advertising-boycott-hateful-offensive-content and our laborConfirmed: Google Terminated Project Dragonfly, Its Censored Chinese Search EngineAtherton Research's Principal Analyst and Futurist Jeb Su reviews Google's recent admission that it canceled its secret project to launch a Chinese a censored search engine codenamed Dragonfly that filters out websites and search results about human rights, democracy, religion, and more.www.forbes.com/sites/jeanbaptiste/2019/07/19/confirmed-google-terminated-project-dragonfly-its-censored-chinese-search-engine/#7483fa967e84. Boycotts and walkouts are important and powerful tools. But even without a big coordinated protest, we can still show these companies that they can’t take our business for granted.
I love building things, and I love technology. But I refuse to build on the backs of people who are more vulnerable than I am. We as developers can solve this by refusing to sell out our customers’ data and closing our wallets to companies that harm others.
If you’re moved to action but aren’t sure where to start, here are a few links to get you going:
- ethical.netHome - ethical.netLatest articles from the blog The newsletter Subscribe for fortnightly guides to ethical living and news on the best new ethical brands 🙌 Sign Upethical.net
- switching.softwareswitching.softwareEthical, easy-to-use and privacy-conscious alternatives to well-known softwareswitching.software
- Cutting Google out of your lifeGitHub - tycrek/degoogle: A huge list of alternatives to Google products. Privacy tips, tricks, and links.A huge list of alternatives to Google products. Privacy tips, tricks, and links. - GitHub - tycrek/degoogle: A huge list of alternatives to Google products. Privacy tips, tricks, and links.github.com/tycrek/degoogle
- Restore PrivacyHomeGiving you the tools and information you need to restore your privacy, secure your devices, and stay safe online.restoreprivacy.com
- Self Hostedselfhostedsource.tech