Anil Dash first encountered Facebook when the social network was in its infancy, the brainchild of a small group of Harvard University students, and open only to people enrolled in a select few colleges. Dash, who didn’t attend college, felt it was “a secretive, private, Ivy League club.”
The places and networks that we create, he said during a presentation at the recent Wharton Web Conference, have their own character. And the ethics of their creators set the standards for that character. He cited a statement made by Mark Zuckerberg, the chairman and chief executive of Facebook, regarding online privacy: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”
Dash took umbrage at that perspective. “As the son of immigrants,” he noted, “I was born with two identities. And so Mark’s position as a 20-something billionaire is that I have a lack of integrity by being who I am. I don’t agree with that. And I don’t agree with that as a principle on which to build a network. And I don’t agree with it as a public-space principle.”
“We’ve forgotten that technology has values. The greatest myth the tech industry perpetuates over and over and over is that it’s somehow neutral.”
A blogger and entrepreneur, Dash is fixated on how technology transforms media, culture, government and society. Dash, 38, was a pioneer of blogging — his site, Dashes.com, has run continuously since 1999 — and is a co-founder and chief executive of ThinkUp, a web application that aims to simplify users’ activity on social networks and make more efficient use of their time online. He also advises technology start-ups and founded Expert Labs, which encourages public engagement through social networks with lawmakers and the White House.
“We’ve forgotten that technology has values,” he said during his presentation, titled “What the Web Can Learn from Cities.” “The greatest myth the tech industry perpetuates over and over and over is that it’s somehow neutral.”
He cited as an example the “It’s complicated” option on Facebook’s drop-down menu for relationship status. Within the context of undergraduate Ivy League students, Dash said, that status option meant “you could have sex with a lot of different people and there are probably no social repercussions, to the [point] where you can advertise it as a status … on your social network, and nobody will judge you for it.”
He noted that his parents had an arranged marriage and said that in most of the world, “It’s complicated” wasn’t considered an appropriate choice for a person’s life. Its inclusion in the menu, according to Dash, said to users: “This software was made without even thinking about your context at all.”
“We have a fundamental disconnect between [technology and] what our values espouse — that technology should be great for journalism, should be great for self-expression [and] should be great for preserving our culture,” Dash noted.
That disconnect, he said, goes far beyond how Facebook defines relationships for its 1.15 billion monthly active users. It includes the death of the notion that content is sacrosanct, something that is evident to anyone who has lost access to data or files when an Internet-based company has folded. It includes the reach of Terms of Service agreements, which in social networks fill the role played in the physical world by Rules of Conduct notices or, ultimately, by the Bill of Rights, Dash pointed out.
The ephemerality that plagues websites and social networks — as examples, Dash cited photo-sharing sites that go defunct and choose to destroy countless stored images, the early social network Friendster and the once-dominant MySpace — extends to devices. What once was a concern about whether a person’s website would outlive him or her has grown into a concern about whether that website will outlive one’s smartphone, or, Dash added, “[Will] it outlive my contract for the next few years with AT&T?
“That’s a pretty small-scale thing to be worried about,” he noted. “We shouldn’t be worried about such trivia. When you think about artists who are appreciated after they’re dead, the Van Goghs of the world, for Van Gogh to have to say, ‘Well, I hope this outlives my phone,’ instead of, ‘I hope this outlives me,’ is a pretty sad state of affairs.”
“We have given over our public spaces to being controlled by Terms of Service. We did this first in our cities, 30, 40 and 50 years ago, and we’ve done it entirely online.”
The rapid growth of the market for smartphone apps has had its own effects: Customers, Dash said, have accepted the notion that they will have to incur the expense of extracting their own data and content from the software they’re using. “We started fixing their bugs on our dime,” Dash noted, pointing to the prevalence of websites that allow people to download bootleg software or offer instructions for how to jailbreak their smartphones to access files and data.
That mentality, he said, has been fueled by the fact that we have come to view the web as a product or products rather than a place or space in which to gather and share thoughts. Citing the example of Times Square in New York City, Dash noted that while it contains a number of stores and a proliferation of advertising, those qualities are not what have made it a public gathering space: Tax dollars funded its upkeep and evolution from a dangerous red-light district to one that is welcoming to a broad spectrum of people and pursuits. It is essential, he added, that the public reclaim the web as a gathering space in which the freedoms of the United States’ physical world apply.
Places, not Pages
In the physical world, he noted, privately owned public spaces come with a range of benefits and detriments. Such partnerships in New York City, where Dash lives with his wife and son, first became prevalent in the 1960s. The arrangements were seen as a way for private developers to circumvent zoning laws that restricted square-footage or a building’s height. So long as the private organization provided and maintained a space that was open to the public, it received a zoning waiver.
One such space in Lower Manhattan became the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement in September 2011. Protesters camped in Zuccotti Park, which is owned by Brookfield Office Properties. The protesters did so in part because the space is not subject to the curfews imposed on public parks. The posted Rules of Conduct notice, in its entirety, reads: “No skateboarding, rollerblading, or bicycling allowed in the park.” The New York City Police Department nearly two months later cleared the park of occupants, and the park’s owner subsequently posted a far stricter Rules of Conduct notice. It specified that its intended use is “for passive recreation,” and it prohibited tents, camping, lying on the ground or on benches, tarps, sleeping bags and “storage or placement of personal property on the ground, benches, sitting areas or walkways.”
Dash, in describing the shifting Rules of Conduct, drew a comparison with the digital world’s ubiquitous Terms of Service agreements, which often are hefty chunks of small type beneath which users must click a box to confirm acceptance before being granted virtual entry.
“We have given over our public spaces to being controlled by Terms of Service,” he said. “We did this first in our cities, 30, 40 and 50 years ago, and we’ve done it entirely online. And the worst part is, the Terms of Service govern the things we can do in that space, including our speech. They are writing laws that control the ways we can act and share and talk to one another. This is a profound change. This is an important change. This has civic implications. And we don’t even notice it when we walk by the sign, and we don’t notice it when we click ‘I agree’ when we install some software.
“This trumps the Constitution for most of the important ways of organizing,” Dash added. “Think of the implications in a world where Mark Zuckerberg has poured $20 million into a personal political action committee [called FWD.us] to influence policy in Washington, D.C…. This is the guy whose Terms of Service controls how we interact with one another online.”
President Barack Obama has participated in digital town halls using Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Google+ hangouts. Every time citizens interact with their elected officials using such platforms, Dash said, they are subject to Terms of Service they likely haven’t read or don’t understand. “That’s today,” he pointed out. “That’s not dystopian, Matrix, future, Bladerunner nightmare. That’s today.”
Growing Public Engagement
Dash likes the attempts at interactivity that have been engineered by tech companies and others. He admires the public engagement that the Internet can facilitate. His concern, however, lies with the widespread reliance on private corporations to steer what many consider a public service.
Likewise, Dash sees a disconnect between the way companies often use Terms of Service agreements and the like to take control of consumers’ content and profit from it and the level of crackdown by entities such as YouTube on forms of copyright infringement Dash considers relatively benign — a teenager, for instance, might illegally post a copyrighted music video, not to make money but simply to share it with friends.
And he suggests that the continued proliferation of users sharing copyrighted content on the Internet and with each other — despite extensive efforts by firms and the government to curb the practice — is sending a message of its own. “What do we call it when hundreds of thousands, or millions, of Americans choose in public to violate federal law with their real identities attached to it?” Dash asked. “That’s civil disobedience. This is a Million User March. This is every day. If they all did this on the Mall in Washington, we would say this was an incredible demonstration. But instead, they do it online. They have been doing it for years every day, and we don’t notice it. We don’t even pay attention.
“This is a dramatic change,” Dash added. “The public has spoken unequivocally, saying, ‘Your laws do not match what our culture wants — in intellectual property law, in End User License Agreement, in Terms of Service, in every other legal underpinning for how we communicate online. Because your laws are predicated on the idea that what I’m creating here is for [profit], when my experience in this place as a person is that I am in … a physical space, where I meet with my friends and my family and those I care about. It does not match. The law and the dollars do not match what the spaces are.’”
When Instagram, which was recently been purchased for $1 billion by Facebook, altered its Terms of Service last December, many of the popular photo-sharing app’s 100 million users openly protested upon noticing the potential for the uncompensated commercial use of images they shared. Among the changes in the agreement’s language: “a business or other entity may pay [Instagram]” for use of a person’s images “without any compensation to you.”
The backlash, which vaulted #BoycottInstagram and #Instagram to the top of Twitter’s trending topics for much of the day, culminated with a blog post by Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom the next day. “The language we proposed … raised questions about whether your photos can be part of an advertisement,” he wrote. “We do not have plans for anything like this and, because of that, we’re going to remove the language that raised the question.”
The company’s rapid acquiescence to its users’ demands reinforced Dash’s appraisal of how the digital world can better reflect the ideals of the society in which it came to be. “There’s going to be a reckoning,” he said. “And the way it’s going to be addressed, the way it’s going to be fixed, is the same way every similar mismatch has been fixed in the history of this country — through coordinated, intelligent civil disobedience that is repeated and sustained until the law changes, until the economics change.
“This is the way we make the web we deserve,” Dash noted. “We can build a public web. We can treat the Internet and the web as the public space that they are.”