Weeknotes 1

Hi. Inspired by Hera Hussain, I am going to try keeping Weeknotes for a little while. Part memory aid, part transparency tool, part excuse to stop and reflect; let’s see how we go.

My week:

I was home this week balancing rest, childcare and some work, having finally caught Covid. I was able to mostly stay away from work thanks to the brilliant Digital Action team, not least our new Head of Campaigns Alexandra, whose appointment we announced this week. This is the first time in the 3 years I have been building DA that we have a Head of Campaigns in place, and it feels like a real step change for us. More on this in future notes.

Questions on my mind:

Did anyone at tech companies plan for their products being used to recruit for irregular forces and militias?

A Facebook ad shown to my brother this week, trying to get him to enlist to fight with the International Legion in Ukraine, raised a lot of questions. The Irish Times, who noted that advertising for a foreign army is illegal, asked the Ukrainian embassy about it, who said they weren’t behind it. Mark Scott asked Facebook about it, who then took the page down for “impersonation”. This was picked up the Atlantic Council, who called it a “Suspicious Facebook Page” running ads in multiple countries, and found payments made in Ukrainian currency. No-one seems to know who was behind it.

We also do not know what, if any, policies Meta have on the use of their products by irregular forces and militias, or, indeed, if they have thought this through. Which brings me to the excellent points being made by both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch right now (see further down) — why haven’t companies learned from all the other conflicts they have been tied up in? And where is the evidence of systematic human rights audits?

Do we need to start treating Venture Capital the same way that we treat state aid?

This is a question I think about all the time. The problem with VC was nicely illustrated in a Planet Money episode I listened to this week on “Grocery Delivery Wars”. I have pulled out some quotes below; but the gist is that VC cash can massively subsidise businesses, allowing them to build *and then dominate* markets, haemorrhaging money to undercut and kill competition. (I’ve also ranted about this on Twitter). When Governments do this we call it state aid, so why do we let rich dudes do it? The whole thing feels toxic, incentivising the kind of dodgy data driven business models that deliver big returns in the medium term, but can wreak havoc in the long term. Here are a few excerpts from the podcast transcript:

{HOST} WAILIN WONG: Most of the ultra-fast delivery companies that are battling it out right now aren’t making money. For every order they send out the door, they’ve spent even more on advertising, rent, discount codes and the labor it takes to pick and deliver the orders.

{HOST} ERIKA BERAS: Is this profitable now?

{GROCERY DELIVERY CO REP} ADAM WACENSKE: No, because we are — you know, we’re still growing and still new to the market and ramping up.

BERAS: Adam, the head of operations, used to work for another startup you may have heard of, WeWork. So he’s used to the kind of upside-down logic of venture-backed companies.

WONG: For these new grocery startups, the whole name of the game is to change people’s habits, get them hooked on getting their groceries super quickly and easily……..

..WONG: All of the analysts and experts who are watching these new grocery delivery companies — they say they’ve seen this before. Venture capital investors get interested in a new kind of business, and they make huge gambles on it.

BERAS: What that usually means for customers is subsidies — think meal kit companies giving a week of free meals or Uber getting you all the way across town for $10. But then competition thins out. Some companies go under. Others get acquired. Maybe a couple go public.

WONG: And the startups left standing start behaving more like real businesses that have to turn a profit. So they start raising prices. Service times get longer. And other cracks in the system maybe start to appear.

Things I appreciated this week:

This excellent “Q&A” by Human Rights Watch on Russia, Ukraine, tech companies and human rights responsibilities. It feels like part of an important evolution taking place in tech accountability work, as groups with deep understanding of human rights processes start to take leadership roles.

This take down of the idea the Web3 is the answer to all of our problems by Maciej Baron. His framing of NFTs as “artificially scarce digital assets” sent me down a fun rabbit hole looking at the concept of “digital scarcity”. The idea has morphed from being about genuine lack of access to digital resources to what it is today: “limitations set on the access to data, in order to protect business models that depend on scarcity” (according to the glossary of the Internet Policy Review journal). Sticking with my theme of VCs being… problematic, Maciej highlights that “a lot of the Web3 projects are only branded as “decentralised”, with a lot of them using permissioned (or hybrid) blockchains, where only the company can add or remove tokens, but then the ownership of tokens can be traded independently.” And therefore:

Venture capitalists are having a blast — they can suddenly pretend they are radicals who intend to “disrupt centralized intermediaries” and create an Internet “that is owned by its builders, users, and creators”. They can pretend they are the voice of a rebellious generation, trying to take on “the big guys”. However, I’m not really presenting breaking news by pointing out that the only reason VCs invest in Web3 projects is to make a profit.

And my final thing I appreciated this week, was MEP Francis Fitzgerald coming out in the EP about the need for stronger action to protect our elections. More of this please!

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Exec Director of Digital Action, founder of Transparent Referendum Initiative.

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Liz Carolan

Liz Carolan

Exec Director of Digital Action, founder of Transparent Referendum Initiative.

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