with Aaron Schaffer

Basecamp is telling employees to keep chatter about politics or social issues out of work, amid growing limits on employee speech across the tech industry.  

Jason Fried, the CEO of the Chicago-based software company, wrote in a blog post that such conversations were a “major distraction” and “not healthy,” and he said the company was finished hosting them on internal workplace tools. 

“Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant,” he wrote. “You shouldn't have to wonder if staying out of it means you're complicit, or wading into it means you're a target.”

The move follows a similar announcement from cryptocurrency company Coinbase, which last fall sought to restrict political speech by employees. The moves have extended to larger tech companies as well. 

Facebook last year restricted spaces for internal political discussions after employees protested the company’s content moderation policies about hate speech targeting Black users. And Pinterest restricted internal Slack channels being used to question leadership about issues related to race and pay equity, as my colleague Nitasha Tiku reported last year. 

A national reckoning on race, the pandemic and the aftermath of a heated election have heightened tensions across corporate offices. 

Some -- including the prominent venture capitalist and Y Combinator founder Paul Graham -- predict such restrictions could become the norm across Silicon Valley. 

But the moves face broad backlash from tech workers, who say it’s impossible to check political and social issues at the door -- especially in 2021. Some criticized Basecamp executives for attempting to take the easy way out, rather than creating spaces for the tough conversations to happen. 

“This reads to me as a leader saying ‘I couldn't figure out how to do this perfectly, so we're not going to do it at all,’” tweeted Joelle Emerson, CEO of the firm Paradigm that consults with companies on diversity issues. “But, of course, not talking about problems doesn't make them go away.”

Emerson noted the announcement is coming at a time when more people say it's too hard to ignore what's happening in the world at work, and they want to be able to talk about it. She said pretending these issues don't exist may be “impossible” for people from underrepresented groups. 

Web developer Marco Rogers said talking about politics is not preventing companies from being successful, at a time when many businesses are posting record profits during the pandemic. He said it's no longer “convenient” for the executives to be seen as promoting social good. 

Liz Fong-Jones, a principal engineer at the company Honeycomb, said:

The Basecamp policy didn't spell out what the company considers political and social issues. From Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation: 

Basecamp responded to the reaction by saying workers can take conversations with other willing employees to alternate chat apps, such as Signal or WhatsApp. David Heinemeier Hansson, the company's CTO, received backlash for previous tweets, where he said it was OK for business leaders to be political on social media. He said he would continue to be political on his “personal spaces,” but not at work. 

“Bring all your political advocacy to whatever personal spaces you have,” he wrote on his blog. “Twitter, Facebook, your local advocacy group, all of it. Just don't bring it into the internal communication platforms we use for work, unless it directly relates to our business.”

It wasn't immediately clear what prompted the Basecamp policy change. Coinbase's limits on political speech followed employees protesting CEO Brian Armstrong's silence on the Black Lives Matter movement last year, after a year and a half of tension around diversity and equity. The Basecamp announcement was particularly notable because company executives are prominent authors of books about workplace culture, including the bestseller “Rework.” 

In addition to putting new limits on political speech, Basecamp announced it would end “paternalistic benefits," eliminating its fitness benefit, farmer's market share and continuing education allowance. Instead, it will pay employees the full cash value of the benefits this year. It also disbanded committees and ended the process of 360 reviews, where peers provide feedback to peers. 

Such policies are at odds with the long-standing missions of tech companies to transform society. 

It's ironic that tech companies are adopting such policies after major companies launched with mission statements to change the world and actively build products that change existing social and political institutions. Restrictions on political speech at work could prevent employees from speaking freely about the social implications of the products and tools they're building. 

As debate raged on Twitter about Basecamp's new rules, Dustin Moskovitz, the co-founder of Asana, said he's found success by taking the opposite approach and creating specific spaces for debates on social isues. Moskovitz says Asana has established employee resource groups, and that the company regularly creates Slack channels for people to discuss issues such as American politics, coronavirus and more. 

“People bring all their feelings to work, even if you don't let them show,” he tweeted. “Let them show."

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Roku accused YouTube of using its ‘monopoly position’ to seek unfair terms. 

The company told its customers by email that YouTube TV may go dark on Roku devices as a result, Variety’s Todd Spangler reports. Roku claims Google sought special search privileges for its YouTube app and access to data on Roku users. 

“Google is attempting to use its YouTube monopoly position to force Roku into accepting predatory, anticompetitive and discriminatory terms that will directly harm Roku and our users,” Roku said in a statement Monday. “Given antitrust suits against Google, investigations by competition authorities of anti-competitive behavior and congressional hearings into Google’s practices, it should come as no surprise that Google is now demanding unfair and anticompetitive terms that harm Roku’s users.”

But YouTube parent Google denies it pressured the streaming device company, describing Roku as attempting to “make baseless claims while we continue our ongoing negotiations” in good faith. Google argues that Roku often resorts to tactics like this in negotiations. 

“All of our work with them has been focused on ensuring a high-quality and consistent experience for our viewers,” Google told Variety in a statement. “We have made no requests to access user data or interfere with search results. We hope we can resolve this for the sake of our mutual users.”

Apple said it would boost its U.S. investment as it faces scrutiny by the federal and state governments.

The company says it will boost its U.S. investments by $80 billion, hire for an additional 20,000 jobs and build a new campus in North Carolina, Rachel Lerman reports. The investment could give Apple more influence outside of Silicon Valley as states increasingly weigh regulations on issues ranging from app store payments to privacy. 

Apple also plans to continue hiring in California, as well as in Colorado, Washington, Massachusetts, Texas and other states. Apple’s new North Carolina campus will be near the headquarters of Epic Games, which is leading the charge against Apple’s App Store. It sued Apple for anticompetitive practices last year, and the case is set to go to trial next week.

Apple released an iOS update yesterday that it says will give users more control over what location data that apps on their phones can vacuum up

The change is a move against apps that have been exploiting user data for financial gain, Apple says.

“Some apps have more trackers embedded in them than they need,” Apple said in a video posted to YouTube alongside the announcement. “They collect thousands of pieces of information about you to create a digital profile that they sell to others. 

But experts say that much of the feature's success will depend on apps honoring the new policy and how strictly Apple enforces it.

"One big question is: Will it work?” Gennie Gebhart, a director at the digital rights nonprofit the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The New York Times

The feature will rely on trackers honoring the rules, Casey Oppenheim, chief executive of privacy company Disconnect, told Tonya Riley. Disconnect provides an app that blocks app tracking.

 “As usual, Apple's privacy marketing has far outpaced its actual practices, which gives users a false sense of privacy,” Oppenheim says.

Rant and rave

The Apple software update also included a long-awaited change to how the syringe emoji is displayed on Apple devices. Houston Public Media senior producer Paul DeBenedetto:

Jason Gallagher, a clinical professor at the Temple University School of Pharmacy:

Privacy monitor

Data brokers have location data on U.S. soldiers and special operations forces.

The Wall Street Journal’s Byron Tau obtained location data for a secret U.S. military staging area from a commercial data broker, raising concerns about the extent and ubiquity of location data. The report came just weeks after Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a bill to ban the sale of such data to “unfriendly” foreign companies and governments.

The Pentagon “is aware of the risks posed by geolocation tracking capabilities, including via commercial data, and issued policy on the use of geolocation-capable devices and applications in the summer of 2018,” Pentagon spokeswoman Candice Tresch said. “This policy, and its implementing risk guidance, protects DoD personnel and operations while still allowing flexibility to benefit from geolocation capabilities in certain low-risk situations.”

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Daybook

  • Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) discusses a bill aiming to boost U.S. technological competition against China at a Washington Post Live event on Tuesday at 9:15 a.m.
  • Facebook, Twitter and YouTube executives testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee hearing on social media amplification and algorithms on Tuesday at 10 a.m.
  • Daniel Kaufman, the acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, testifies at a Senate Commerce Committee panel’s hearing on coronavirus-related scams and identity theft on Tuesday at 10 a.m.
  • A Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee panel holds a hearing on federal IT management on Tuesday at 10 a.m.
  • Federal Trade Commissioner Christine Wilson discusses digital markets at a NetChoice event on Tuesday at 1 p.m.
  • Google parent Alphabet and Microsoft hold earnings calls at 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
  • The Senate Commerce Committee holds a nomination hearing for Eric Lander, President Biden’s pick to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, on Thursday at 10 a.m.
  • Shira Perlmutter, the Register of Copyrights and Director of the U.S. Copyright Office, discusses the implications of a recent software-related Supreme Court decision at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event on Thursday at 12:30 p.m.
  • Amazon and Twitter hold earnings calls at 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Thursday.

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