2021v17, Monday: It’s not just about you.

Why an apolitical workplace is a luxury only the comfortable can afford. And a cut-out-and-keep caustic guide to AI ethics.

Short thought: One of the more interesting “little firms that could” in the online services space has long been the outfit currently known as Basecamp. Its founder, Jason Fried, has been voluble – and thoughtful and interesting – about how to do good work remotely, long before the past year made that a necessity.

But now he and David Henmeier Hanson, known as “DHH” (together the senior management of Basecamp), have solidly put their feet in it. I won’t rehearse the background in detail, because others have done it far better. The tl;dr version (and this is a really thin summary of a big story):

  • Basecamp employees – a sizeable chunk of the 60-odd staff base – started to work on diversity and inclusion issues. Management blessed this.
  • In the process, the fact that for many years the firm’s internal systems had hosted a list of “funny customer names” – many of which, inevitably, were those of people of colour – came in for understandable criticism.
  • Initially, management were onside with this criticism; indeed, they owned their part in the list’s maintenance over the years.
  • But then it got ugly. A number of staff saw the list in the context of ongoing institutional discrimination – not just or even not mainly at Basecamp, to be clear, but societally. Management (Jason and DHH) pushed back against what they seemed to see as an over-reaction.
  • Jason and DHH announced that political discussion was now to be off-limits. (They later amended this – albeit apparently without making it clear that there was an amendment – to it being off-limits only on Basecamp’s own chat and comms systems.) They also said they would withdraw benefits, instead simply paying the cash value thereof, so as not to be “paternalist”.
  • This caused uproar. An all-staff meeting saw one senior and long-time executive play the “if you call this racism, you’re the racist”, “no such thing as white supremacy” card; he resigned shortly afterwards. As many as a third of the staff have now also taken redundancy.
  • This might seem like a tempest in a teacup. Small tech firm has row; news at 11.

But it’s not. Tech is still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, particularly at its senior levels. (It may not escape your notice that the Bar isn’t much better.) Which means its leadership often misses the key point, which is this: when you’re not rich and comfortable, when your life has incorporated a lot of moments where you don’t get to expect everything will go smoothly, when you don’t have that much of a safety net, when large numbers of people at all levels of power get to mess you about just because they can, without you having much recourse, just about everything is political.

Healthcare is political, if its availability and quality vary depending on where you live and what you look like. (Don’t doubt this: I’ve seen healthcare professionals, who I’m certain would be genuinely horrified by conscious prejudice, treat Black women with breathtaking disdain compared with how they talk to people like me.) Pay is political. Work is political, because expectations and yardsticks vary unless we pay honest attention to how they’re generated and applied.

Put simply: cutting political and social issues out of the workplace is a luxury only comfortable people can afford. A luxury which exacerbates, rather than diminishes, the power imbalance built into to workplaces by the sheer fact of people’s dependence on a paycheque. (This, by the way, is why in the UK and Europe we say people can’t consent to the use of their data in the workplace. If the alternative to consent is “find another job”, that isn’t free consent for anyone without a private income.)

For Jason and DHH to take this approach is to forget that the only people for whom politics doesn’t relate to business are those who get to dictate the terms of what goes and what doesn’t. The blindness appears to dismal effect in a post by DHH on “Basecamp’s new etiquette at work”:

Just don’t bring it into the internal communication platforms we use for work, unless it directly relates to our business. I’m applying that same standard to myself, and Jason is too.

Well, that’s nice. Reminds of that line about the right of the rich to sleep under bridges. I wonder why.

Someone is right on the internet: On a somewhat related topic, issues of ethics in AI are big news, at least among geeks. Which is as it should be: the more AI or quasi-AI comes to control, dictate or direct our lives, the more concern we should have about whether the black boxes in question are exacerbating structural or other unfairness or inequality. It’s not good enough to just blame – for instance – algorithms that can’t recognise Black people on “computer says no”. People make decisions, and they must be accountable.

(This, of course, is why Article 22 of the GDPR prohibits “solely automated processing, including profiling” – although it’s by no means impossible to get round this by inserting a human into the final stage of the process, or by making statutory arrangements to allow for it.)

Big Tech isn’t that comfortable about this, so it seems – as shown by Google’s removal (whether it’s officially sacking or not isn’t wholly clear, but it’s effectively an ejection anyway) of two senior women working on AI issues.

So MIT Technology Review’s caustic A-Z of how to talk about AI ethics is horrifically on the nose. A couple of examples will suffice, I hope, to encourage you to go and read it:

ethics principles – A set of truisms used to signal your good intentions. Keep it high-level. The vaguer the language, the better. See responsible AI.

human in the loop – Any person that is part of an AI system. Responsibilities range from faking the system’s capabilities to warding off accusations of automation.

privacy trade-off – The noble sacrifice of individual control over personal information for group benefits like AI-driven health-care advancements, which also happen to be highly profitable.

And the best one comes first:

accountability – The act of holding someone else responsible for the consequences when your AI system fails.

Ouch. But yes.

(If you’d like to read more like this, and would prefer it simply landing in your inbox three or so times a week, please go ahead and subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)

2021iii10, Wednesday: Will the press ever change?

Another instalment in that popular game, “Questions to which the answer is no.”

Yeah. Right.

Short thought 1: Hearing this afternoon, so a genuinely short thought this morning prompted by the above announcement.

There’s an old rule in journalism: any time you see a headline ending in a question mark, assume the answer is “no”. On the whole, it’s a cheap sub-editor’s tactic, to get controversy into a headline and attract readers to a story with a good deal less to say. A bit like the inclusion of “quotes” in a headline: it usually means the quote is unsubstantiated, but makes for an attractive top line. If the paper thought it was true, after all, they wouldn’t need the quote marks.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the media and the royals. 

I have very little interest in the royal family. I recognise I live in a constitutional monarchy. As a lawyer, I am fascinated and concerned by the effect that has on how the law works, and doesn’t (the prerogative, for instance, bothers the heck out of me – particularly with our current government’s attitude to it). 

But the people? I’m no more exercised by them than I am by the thousands of celebrities whose names pretty much always escape me. I have impressions of them, but I realise they’re informed by very little actual information, as opposed to a mixture of propaganda and hit pieces.

Which brings me to the point. I’m painfully aware, as an ex-reporter, of just how poisonous the British press can be. How full of itself. And how utterly devoid of any ability to reflect, own its errors, and acknowledge any need for change.

You might say: a bit like the Bar, in some ways. True. But I think we’re finally facing up to our faults; not fast enough, but with a widespread realisation that our trade has been too white, too male, and too posh for far too long.

The press, on the other hand? It’s hard to read the “defence” of the media against charges of racism by the Society of Editors with anything other than incredulity. The difference in treatment of Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle tells its own story, for anyone with eyes to see. And there’s plenty more where that came from. SoE director Ian Murray’s comment that the Sussexes provide “no supporting evidence” doesn’t come close to passing the giggle test. Any half-way decent editor would red-pencil a line like that from copy they were handed in a hot second.

All institutions in the UK are tainted by bias and discrimination, built into their DNA. All institutions have a choice: face it, deal with it, do better. Or stick your fingers in your ears and shout loudly in the hope the problem goes away. 

I’m happy that apparently the SoE is riven in response to this self-satisfied, indefensible special pleading. And glad to see the letter by more than 200 journalists highlighting the SoE’s statement as a sign of “an industry in denial”. Although I’ve no great hope that anything will change.

(Incidentally, I saw in John Naughton’s newsletter last week that Bob Satchwell, an earlier director of the SoE, has just died. I didn’t know Bob well, but I knew him enough to think that he’d never have sanctioned anything as tone-deaf or simply ignorant as this. He was good people. He’ll be missed.)

Short thought 2: Some smart person (I wish I could remember who) said that the single most important job a leader has is hiring. Who they choose, to do what, tells you more about their priorities and values than anything else.

Which is why the hiring of Tim Wu and Lina Khan by the Biden administration in the US is fascinating. Tim Wu has done as much as anyone to put the principle of net neutrality and the dangers of what he termed information empires in the public eye. Lina Khan, meanwhile, wrote a seminal paper while at law school called “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox”, and is widely seen as one of the most thoughtful critics of the narrow, “antitrust is all about prices to consumers and nothing else” idea which has crippled competition law in the US for decades and arguably allowed the tech giants to dominate as they have. 

Their hiring is a very strong indicator that the anything-goes days for tech are over in the US. Watch this space.

(If you’d like to read more like this, and would prefer it simply landing in your inbox three or so times a week, please go ahead and subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)

Apple’s tin ear to competition timing.

I’ve been using Apple products my whole adult life. But that doesn’t make me a cheerleader. And on the very day a competition investigation was announced, Apple did something so apparently boneheaded that they‘re rightly being called out.

I do have a slim legal figleaf for writing this post, albeit not one born of any particularly deep legal insight. But some things demand comment. And Apple’s treatment of HEY, a new email service, is one of them.

(The legal figleaf is about whether this treatment is a symptom of broader behaviour which violates EU competition law. Scroll down to get to that bit.)

I can’t remember which of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books it was (one of these days, a start-to-finish reread beckons – my late dad introduced them to me, and it’ll be one more way of communing with him somehow). But in one of them, Stephen Maturin – never a one for hierarchy or cant – expresses his disdain for patriotism, at least in its early 19th-century format.

It “generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile“, he tells Jack Aubrey. [UPDATE: It was Master and Commander, the first in the series.]

Personally, I’m fine with patriotism. I’m a patriot, so long as that encompasses being honest about my country’s flaws and misconduct and wanting them fixed. But no-one but a charlatan could deny that Maturin’s characterisation is, far too often, spot on.

Tech has traditionally suffered from a similar tendency. Windows vs MacOS. Google vs everyone. iPhone vs Android. PlayStation vs Xbox. Facebook vs – well, probably common decency and humanity? (That one’s an outlier.) The flame wars and arrogance besetting tech arguments are painfully legendary. While lots of us (most, even) manage to recognise that our preferred system, app, platform isn’t perfect, and can and should learn from its competition, the sheer ugliness of tech-on-tech “conversations” (huh) gets unutterably wearing. Even setting aside its truly poisonous emanations, such as the misery inflicted on women and minorities by #Gamergate and similar foulnesses.

All this is really a preamble to explain that while I’ve used predominantly Apple kit my entire adult life – from Mac SEs at college, to PowerBooks including the wonderful Pismo, then a succession of MacBook Pros and Airs; iPhones of varying types ever since the 3G; and best of all, a sequence of iPads that have genuinely, radically, revolutionised the way I can and do work – I’m not a fanboi. (My friends from the Windows/Android side of the fence who’ve ribbed me for years are I hope honest enough to recognise this. As I do about them. I’m lucky in my friends.)

And so when Apple does something truly boneheaded, to put it as gently as one can, its friends need to call it out.

It’s come to a head through what could be a coincidence, although it’s a pretty telling one. On the same day that the European Commission announced an investigation into possible breaches by Apple of EU competition law involving the App Store and Apple Pay, HEY, a new email app by the people who brought you Basecamp, is facing getting kicked off the App Store because it sells subscriptions other than through an in-app purchase.

This boneheadedness has been brewing a long while. Apple charges a 30% cut on purchases through its App Store on iOS. (And on the Mac, although apps can be directly downloaded there, so it’s slightly different.) Apps in theory can’t route around that by selling subscriptions or licences elsewhere. Except for the ones that can. The classing of who can and who can’t would be laughable to anyone who wasn’t suffering from it – Reader apps? Really? And an unwritten business-vs-consumer divide? Come on. Dieter Bohn called it out as a prime example of the No True Scotsman fallacy, and I think he’s right (his piece for The Verge, which is excellent, is here). John Gruber, meanwhile, pointed out that the biz-consumer divide was both artificial and unworkable, and – just as bad – a betrayal of Apple’s own history.

The hypocrisy, both in HEY’s case and elsewhere, is impressive. Loads of email apps sell subscriptions elsewhere. Basecamp, for heaven’s sake, sells subscriptions through its website. That’s its business! The “Reader” definition is woolly at best. It often feels far more as though whether you get pushed around like this depends on how big you are. HEY isn’t the first, by a long way. But it’s the latest. And perhaps the timing may finally make a difference.

If I sound angry, that’s because I am. Apple’s 30% App Store tax is way, way too high. Its application is (put neutrally) sporadic. And – and here comes the legal figleaf – while I know very little about competition law (a terrifyingly technical field; try someone like Monckton Chambers for that), I really want to read what EU antitrust specialists are thinking about this.

Because to a very shaky first approximation, I wonder whether an argument could be made that Apple’s App Store policies breach Article 102 of the TFEU, which bans improper exploitation of market dominance, as follows:

  • The relevant market here isn’t all smartphones (Apple would probably walk home on that one, given that 85% of phones are Android) but iOS devices, on the basis that for a majority of their users substitution for another brand isn’t really an acceptable option given both -reference and platform lock-in.
  • Needless to say, Apple is dominant in the iOS market…
  • That dominance exists within the EU’s internal market, since iOS devices are sold across the region.
  • The dominance affects trade between member states, since a developer in Austria will routinely sell its app to customers in Malta. And so on.
  • Its pricing is excessive – in that it is 10 times what, for instance, a credit card processor might charge – and also discriminatory, in that its rules (as described above) seem to be arbitrary.
  • And it abuses its dominance by imposing an exclusive dealing obligation – by preventing anyone from accessing iOS users other than through the App Store, or more narrowly preventing them from charging other than through the App Store.

I’m pretty sure any genuine competition lawyer is going to read the above back-of-an-envelope analysis and laugh till they choke. There is no doubt acres of relevant authority which shows I’m foolishly misreading Article 102. Aside from anything else, the relevant market point is a massive what-if. But it’s not a bad place to start. (If anyone’s seen any good stuff on Twitter or elsewhere about this, from a legal analysis perspective, do let me know – whether via email or Twitter. I haven’t had time to go looking this past 24 hours owing to other deadlines, but I want to learn about it.)

And whether I’m right or not, this leaves a really foul taste in the mouth. Apple’s a commercial firm, and will do what’s best for it. No illusions on that score. But its leaders always used to say that making money was what happened as a by-product of building great things, not an aim in itself. I can’t see how this possibly matches up to that aspiration. Not even close.