Facts are stubborn things

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

I do a lot of public speaking to open source project contributors about the cultural differences within ecosystems and teams. I do that not to drive people apart, but to help them recognise those differences, and to inspire them to overcome them for the good of their projects and end users. (Apparently I’m not too bad at it.)

Most of my talking is around the concept of privacy, but everything I discuss on stage is equally applicable to accessibility. There are reasons for that. You see, you might think that privacy and accessibility are universally respected concepts and values. Truths we hold to be self-evident. They are not.

Within tech and digital, there is a mindset which views both concepts with negative hostility. Privacy and accessibility, after all, are the two aspects of web development most strictly defined and required by legislation. And that alone, in the strange world of the filter bubbles of the tech elite, is used to twist those values into an insult to everything they believe.

The mindset in question is what’s known down the pub as the Silicon Valley libertarian mentality – the one which, at this point in our industry’s history, holds all the money and power. What you have to understand is that this mindset neither respects privacy and accessibility nor honours those who expect it. Cultural values which may seem obvious to many of us, instead, set off three very deep triggers for those who uphold that mentality.

First, privacy and accessibility requirements trigger the perception of government interference in the form of legislation.

Second, privacy triggers offense to the sense of entitlement to and over others’ data without consent.

And third, privacy and accessibility requirements trigger the belief that compliance threatens the right to innovate without requiring inclusion.

Now throw in the fact that many of the compliance requirements in their way come from Europe and you might as well have slapped them in the face.

For balance, I follow several US libertarian/right leaning tech groups, and the contempt they spit for privacy and accessibility would knock you out of your chair. They do not see the values of privacy and accessibility, the benefits to users, or the positive results for their own businesses. They only see government infringing on their freedoms. End users, and any sense of duty of care over them, aren’t even in the picture. Tech has a reputation of being very left-leaning, and that is generally true of those on the proverbial agency floor. But tech leadership, in its heart of hearts, is moving hard to the right.

These cultural differences aren’t just present in the largest projects, social networks, and tech businesses. They are in every project. They are in yours.

My tech community is currently living through the real-time manifestation of this cultural divide. A new and innovative product has been created, and a new and innovative product must be shipped. In its current state, it will not achieve the accessibility compliance requirements that its end users need. The fact that those accessibility requirements are grounded in law does not help its supporters’ cause: it makes it worse. The law is getting in the way of innovation, so both the law and the value it requires have been disrespected in a way that has damaged the entire project’s reputation. No matter. The innovation must be allowed to proceed, and the legal concerns are, officially, FUD. End of story, now stop talking the project down and get behind it, saboteurs.

Thing is, those end users are still standing at the finish line, waiting for us to support them.

For those of us whose privacy work has already been on the receiving end of the disrespect which characterises this cultural divide, we have little more to offer our accessibility friends other than knowing sighs. What we’d really like to offer, though, are some shipped tickets and completed roadmap goals. Our privacy tickets, you see, got punted along with theirs; they were standing in the way of innovation too. The mindset we are up against doesn’t do happy middle ground.

What that mindset does do, though, is talk a lot about opportunity. On that we can agree. There are opportunities to learn from these mistakes, and to bridge these cultural divides, for the good of all projects. One way to bring some good out of bad would be for projects to create clear advocacy statements and declarations of values which include privacy and accessibility as foundational elements outside legal requirements. Integrating privacy and accessibility as project foundations is, in a crafty way, calling the Valley mentality’s bluff: if these values have their negative legal connotations and threats stripped away, project leaders are left with the obligation to explain how they will honour the users who expect them, and to do so in a transparent and accountable manner.

(I even started a GitHub repo to define what project privacy means outside legal requirements, and you’re welcome to join in.)

Fighting that battle, though, is a matter for the time and consciences of project leadership. For those of you who have always viewed privacy and accessibility as powerful tools for user protection and empowerment, and have continued to support your teams through all the attacks and humiliations, it is up to you to continue demonstrating that quiet leadership in everything you do.

And right now, let me tell you: you’re doing great.

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.