More on Unfair Dismissal

My views as expressed in yesterday’s post appear to put me, unusually, at considerable odds with most of my readers. Perhaps I should start banning people? Or maybe change my views? Instead, I’ll do what I do best: waffle some more.

Firstly, I get that an employer needs to ensure the private actions of an employee don’t damage the company’s reputation or its bottom line. That is sensible enough: if an employee is actively speaking out against their company or protesting a company’s actions then this ought to be grounds for disciplinary action. But I suspect this clause was inserted into contracts in the days when people had some common sense, and that ship sailed so long ago its prow is now prodding us in the back. Being a reasonable chap, I would expect the onus is on the employer to demonstrate exactly how the company’s reputation is being damaged, citing specifics. By that, I mean if the words “could” and “if” appear two or three times in the same sentence, then they’re probably engaged in woolly speculation. If a genuine customer or client has complained, then they are on firm ground; if they’re a Danish company making farm machinery and they’ve received a thousand angry emails from hippy academics in Brooklyn and Berkeley, they’re not.

Anyway, let’s suppose companies should be permitted to fire people for expressing political views outside of working hours. Where do you think this will end up? Well, we already know. The most unusual thing about this latest story was that it was a demented lefty being fired over an anti-Trump gesture, but this goes against the grain. A few years back a rodeo clown was fired for wearing an Obama mask, and since then “doxing” – the practice of identifying people online and publishing their real name, address, and employer’s details – has become popular. In the past year there have been several instances of Twitter mobs forming, encouraging people to bombard the employer of some hapless individual who upset progressives. If companies are going to cave in at the first sign an employee might upset someone over a political view, it’s the centre-right who are going to be in for a rough ride. I’ve written before about service providers such as web and email hosts being pressured by mobs into ditching paying customers who don’t toe the progressive line, and this is simply a variation on a theme. So this latest case sets a dangerous precedent, and the ones who will take full advantage are the headcases in Antifa and BLM, not sensible people. If a person can be fired for flipping off Trump, can someone be fired for showing up at Charlottesville? What about a pro-Trump rally? Or wearing a MAGA hat? It will be rather easy for HR to cite a couple of hundred angry tweets and emails from unemployed headcases in response to a carefully edited video clip, and fire the person concerned. HR departments take the easy route every single time – unless the law prevents them.

Now perhaps there’s an argument that because this woman worked for a government contractor, she might cost them business. Well, who doesn’t work indirectly for the government these days? With the size and scope of the state growing steadily each year, and accounting for an ever-larger slice of economic activity, an awful lot of people fall under its umbrella. Taking things over to my side of the Atlantic, should someone working for an IT firm which is occasionally contracted by an arm of the NHS refrain from making any political gestures towards the British government? Bear in mind that in today’s climate, voting Tory means you are hell-bent on destroying the NHS in the eyes of many. And do we really think UKIP – or even Brexit – voters should be hounded from their jobs, because this will surely happen once the Twitter mobs get wind that companies consider it their business what employees say and do in their spare time.

I get where my readers are coming from. Employers and employees are free-agents contracting with one another and are at liberty to impose any conditions they like. But in practice, it doesn’t work quite like that. As I said earlier, in a time when proper, professional managers ran things rather than power-skirts in HR, and managers didn’t think they owned their employees’ souls 24/7, this wouldn’t be a problem. Then again, employees cowering in silence through sheer terror of what their manager might say or do appears to be the norm these days: that’s exactly what I wrote about here. I can’t help wondering if employees stood up for themselves a bit more and grew some balls, HR wouldn’t feel so empowered they can fire someone over a rude gesture on Facebook. But here we are.

The issue of anonymity always comes up in these discussions. In hindsight it may have been more sensible to write this blog anonymously, but the stubborn side of me never saw why I should. I always thought I ought to be able to defend anything I say on here, and if I need to hide behind a pseudonym perhaps I shouldn’t be saying those things in the first place. Secondly, anonymity doesn’t always work. There have been enough instances of bloggers being outed as it’s extremely difficult to cover your tracks all the time, and if you got tangled up in a major controversy someone would likely find out who you really were in short order. Even though writing under my real name might be more risky, I at least don’t have to worry about suddenly being outed, and I know I can stand by anything I’ve said on here (more or less).

So, to summarise: this woman was an idiot, but if we’re heading into an era where employers can fire people for political gestures made in their spare time with such decisions made by HR and not operational management, sensible people on the centre-right are going to come off worst. And if an employee’s best defence is to shun social media and avoid any political subject at a time when everything is political, and cower in silence or anonymity in order to pay the bills, we might as well give up all delusions of individual liberty now.

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Twitter Troubles

Thanks to this, Twitter is in full-on damage control:

US President Donald Trump’s Twitter account briefly vanished on Thursday but has since been restored, the social media company said.

An employee deactivated the @realdonaldtrump account, it said, clarifying that it had been their last day in the job.

The account was down for 11 minutes and Twitter is now investigating.

Now part of this is quite amusing, and I confess had someone done it to Obama I’d be chuckling away. But it’s actually quite serious:

Firstly, the employee is an idiot. Sure, he might gain some street cred with his lefty mates and have liberals fawning over him for a day or two, but Twitter could (and probably should) clobber him for this. “But it’s my last day!” doesn’t provide immunity from sabotage or malicious acts; sure, you can bare your arse on the way out the door but if you were to start interfering with a customer’s account in any other business you’d be in deep shit. Of course, there is also a reasonable argument that perhaps Trump shouldn’t be on Twitter at 3am shooting his mouth off and all presidential communications ought to go through proper, secured channels – but this is Trump, and I can understand why he wants to bypass the mainstream media that openly colluded with his opponent during the election.

But despite all this, and despite Twitter on some measures being little more than a giant playground, it is still a large and influential public company and this latest incident says a lot about how it’s run. One would have thought that anyone with admin rights over accounts – particularly those belonging to people like Trump – would be put on gardening leave the moment they submit their resignation. At the very least, they should have their admin rights pulled. There’s also the question over who is given these admin rights; it appears Twitter doesn’t distinguish between the accounts of high-profile and ordinary people, and a lowly administrator can make changes on everyone’s accounts. I bank with NatWest, but I’d hazard a guess the person who picks up the phone to unblock my card or help me set up a direct debit wouldn’t be able to access the accounts of any celebrities or billionaires who banked with them; they’d have their own account administrators, who would be vetted more thoroughly.

Unfortunately for the Twitter management, this isn’t the only time they’ve been accused of running the company like a students’ union rather than a blue-chip tech corporation. Last week they made the decision to pull all adverts from accounts owned by Russia Today, thus endorsing the rather wild view that such adverts may have swung the election for Donald Trump. Not only is this ludicrous political posturing – Twitter is full of adverts from dodgy regimes, the latest I am seeing is from Saudi Arabia attacking Qatar over Yemen – but RT has responded by saying they were approached by Twitter in the run-up to the election:

RT was thereby forced to reveal some details of the 2016 negotiations during which Twitter representatives made an exclusive multi-million dollar advertising proposal to spend big during the US presidential election, which was turned down.

Do I believe RT unconditionally? Hell no. Do I think it plausible, even likely, that Twitter approached RT at that time in order to secure millions in advertising funds? Yes I do. Do I think the Twitter management would cynically ban RT a year later in order to pander to Democrat politicians? Yes, I do. Even if the Russians are making this up, it doesn’t make Twitter look good.

This has not come out of a clear blue sky, of course. During the election campaign Twitter stood accused, with good reason, of shadow-banning conservative or pro-Trump accounts, i.e. hiding them from people’s news feeds without telling them. Many people believe, again with good reason, that Twitter’s enthusiasm for banning people tends to be directed mainly at those whose views don’t align with prevailing progressive orthodoxy, and liberals are free to hurl abuse with gay abandon in a manner which would get a conservative suspended. As ZMan pointed out in one of his podcasts, Twitter and other social media sites actually brag about how many people they’ve silenced, how many accounts they’ve shut down, and how they are committed to protecting people from the wrong sort of opinions. This sounds very unlike a business interested in making money and a lot more like a bunch of people with an aim to control narratives for political and social purposes.

Finally, you have the farce which is the blue check-mark. Originally it was a good idea, used to verify that an account appearing to belong to someone famous was actually administered by that person. Anyone can sign up to Twitter claiming to be Ryan Giggs, but by verifying accounts with a blue tick users would know which one was officially his. But somehow this morphed into a system whereby even obscure people whose views align with Twitter staff get a blue check mark while world-famous people they don’t like are denied. Julian Assange, for example, has not been verified even though it is clearly him (he puts a blue diamond after his name to highlight this). Now you might not like Assange or agree with him, but he’s definitely someone whose account ought to be verified as belonging to him. Contrast this with a chap called Ben Spielberg who I picked at random: he has less than 10k followers (Assange has over 500k) and seems to be known mainly for running a blog focussing on civil rights and occasionally writing for the Huffington Post.

Equally controversially, Milo Yiannopoulos was unverified by Twitter, i.e. they removed his blue check-mark for reasons unknown back in January, before he got booted off altogether. If the verification was genuinely an indicator of an account-holder’s identity as Twitter claimed, they would not threaten to withdraw it as punishment for expressing forbidden views. I suppose if you inhabit an ultra-liberal Silicon Valley bubble then all of this might seem perfectly acceptable and give you a sense of smug satisfaction you’re improving the world. But when all this is added up, it is clear Twitter is not run by adults nor managed in the vein of a serious, multinational corporation. Their increasingly opaque policies, particularly those to do with breaches of code of conduct and suspension of accounts, are more akin to those of an off-topic message board on a gaming forum or a personal blog than a tech giant with the ear of governments.

What Twitter’s investors make of this is anyone’s guess but I’m with ZMan on this: the smart money got out of there a long time ago. How long Twitter can keep this up will be interesting to watch.

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Germany’s Suppression of Free Speech Online

I don’t know how accurate this article on Angela Merkel’s clamping down on digital free speech is – perhaps Bloke in Germany could comment? – but it’s an interesting follow-up to my earlier post:

Absent of an easy route to get at the netizens themselves, what the government really needed was a quick way to force social media firms to make their platforms inhospitable environments for critical, dissident expression; But taking action against social media networks did not turn out to be all that easy.

But coercively targetting social media companies remained an attractive option for the German government. Outsourcing censorship to privately-owned social media firms presents a neat way to circumvene the high bar of constitutional scrutiny that would apply to the state if it tried to enact such censorship directly.

As Germany has economically boomed under Merkel‘s leadership, social compassion and honesty in the public sphere has reached a record low. Corrupt property developers, ruthless drug dealers, and organised crime are being allowed to take over economically deprived parts of Berlin, Frankfurt, Bremen and Colonoge with impunity, while police simply watch. As Berlin‘s political-corporate elite shops in an ever-growing number of luxury all-organic supermarkets, they cheer on the financial rape of Greece and other Southern European countries by the German-led EU‘s austerity programs; Brutal regimes of cuts and privatisations have left some ordinary, hard-working people in those countries unable to afford even basic essentials such as food and medical care. The supposedly anti-racist, pro-equality mainstream media in Germany outdoes itself day-on-day in finding new, politically-useful ways to implicitly suggest to their readers that ‘lazy‘, ‘heat-dazed‘ Greeks deserve all the degrading austerity they get.

Unsurpringly, Vladimir Putin‘s authoritarian United Russia party has already moved to replicate the Network Enforcement Act. In July, it presented an extremely similar draft social media bill in the Russian parliament, the Duma, that even goes as far as explicitly referring to the German law as its inspiration. Proving that imitation is the sincerest flattery, Russian legislators even copied the exact, expedited content deletion timeframe of 24 hours directly from the German government‘s law.

They’re all at it, aren’t they?

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Outsourcing Censorship

There’s been some noise on social media over the last few days about Gab, the alternative to Twitter where anything goes, having its domain name rescinded:

This letter came a few days after Gab announced it was going to sue Google for some reason, and skeptics are saying it may well all be a publicity stunt by the Gab founder, who I understand is notorious for attention-seeking.

Whatever the case may be, the letter supports something The ZMan has been banging on about for a while now. He argues that in order to get around laws guaranteeing free speech, governments have taken to leaning on social network providers – Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. – to enforce “community guidelines” which purport to outlaw hate speech to protect people, but in practice are used to silence any subscriber who is saying things they don’t like. The government can then hold their hands up in all innocence and say “nothing to do with us, these are the decisions of private companies”. On the evidence I’ve seen, I find ZMan’s argument convincing.

When Twitter started banning people for having unwelcome opinions, the founders of Gab saw a gap in the market and started their own version. Both Apple and Google have refused to approve a Gab app until they can ensure nothing which constitutes discriminatory language will be posted, which defeats the whole purpose. Now it appears someone has gone after Gab’s domain registration, probably having seen other right-wing sites get their registrations pulled in the aftermath of Charlottesville.

So far it’s an effective tactic. If the tech giants and domain registrars are the gateway to 99% of communication, denying somebody access is the equivalent of banning them from speaking. I don’t buy the argument that this is purely a private matter between companies and their customers: corporations which enjoy monopoly positions and dominant market share are forever being hauled into courts on anti-trust charges, all in the name of consumer protection (and filling the coffers of cash-strapped governments). And I’d be more convinced governments were concerned about the situation were they not rubbing their hands with glee, Theresa May being the main culprit:

Technology companies must go “further and faster” in removing extremist content, Theresa May is to tell the United Nations general assembly.

The prime minister will also host a meeting with other world leaders and Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter.

She will challenge social networks and search engines to find fixes to take down terrorist material in two hours.

This meddling, useless former head-girl never passes up an opportunity to push for restrictions to the internet or powers to snoop on people’s electronic communications. She’s obsessed with it, and the sooner she’s booted from office the better. Of course, the effect of May’s lecturing is that tech companies will double-up what they’re already doing: pulling down posts and articles willy-nilly if they contain a single word which might upset this year’s designated victim class, yet the stuff calling for shooting cops, punching Nazis, and the destruction of Israel and the west stays up. And if a load of right-wing writers, bloggers, and commentators get caught up in the sweep? Well, that’s a feature, not a bug.

My guess is people will slowly start shifting their domain registrations to countries where companies can’t be leaned on so easily, namely Russia. Not that Russia is a bastion of free speech but they have the advantage of being beyond the west’s reach and quite happy to see people bashing them from its territory. They also couldn’t care less about discrimination on the basis of race, religion, etc. I don’t know what it takes to set up a .ru domain, but I’m sure enterprising Russians will spot a gap in the market if dozens of popular sites are being thrown off the internet by their domain registrars.

If you drive people away, they’ll seek shelter wherever they can find it. They will then start defending those who provide it, and refrain from criticism. Anyone who has seen their website disappear from the internet after receiving a weaselly-worded letter like the one above and sets up in Russia isn’t going to spend much time complaining about the Russian government. I know I wouldn’t. Frankly, if I got booted off here and a Russian outfit was able to host me solely because Russia was beyond the reach of what is effectively western government censorship, I wouldn’t give two hoots who they were flogging advanced weaponry to, or whose elections they supposedly rigged. If you’re silenced in your own country, you’re not going to be too fussy who you make friends with. Freedom of expression is something people take very, very personally.

Of course, should unapproved opinions start popping up on websites hosted in countries like Russia, the next step for western governments would be to force ISPs to restrict access to them. You can imagine authoritarian harridans like May rubbing her hands with glee at the prospect of that. I expect we’d then see calls to regulate ISPs like utilities, but the way we’re going we’re more likely to see people having their gas and electricity cut off for having the wrong opinions than the government allowing them to say what they like on the internet.

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