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How can we make tech more accountable?

Fog Creek Software CEO Anil Dash offers a new way of thinking about things on Too Embarrassed to Ask.

Fog Creek Software CEO Anil Dash
Fog Creek Software CEO Anil Dash
Michael Brochstein / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

About 10 years ago, entrepreneur Anil Dash had an “eye-opening moment.”

”I was building social media tools, I was in San Francisco, I was in the heart of it and was thinking about, ‘Okay, if all of this works, what happens to the world?’” Dash said on the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. “I certainly didn’t foresee what has happened, but I was like, ‘There are things that we’re not going to be proud of.’”

But at that time, when Dash tried to talk about the potential for abuse and harassment on the internet, it was “perceived as heresy” — investors and other “industry players,” he said, warned him that if he talked about those issues, he would never get a startup funded.

Dash, now the CEO of Fog Creek Software, said they were wrong, and the tech industry is far more willing to talk about the dangers of its inventions than it used to be.

”Even the least-aware leaders are like, ‘We’re supposed to say this thing on diversity and inclusion. We’re supposed to say this thing on ethics,’” he said. “So they at least know the script. They may or may not be sincere, but that at least feels like progress.”

But there are still a lot of unsettling, unanswered questions about how, for example, Facebook was weaponized in Myanmar to fuel genocide. And the real sword of Damocles hanging over our heads is the possibility that companies like Facebook actually can’t rein in the excesses of their own platforms in their current forms.

“That sense, that not only are we, as consumers, we don’t know what’s happening, but that it is impossible to have accountability because nobody knows what’s happening, is fundamentally untenable. And we see the costs of that,” Dash said.

You can listen to Too Embarrassed to Ask on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

On the new podcast, Dash offered up a new way of thinking about how platforms should protect their users: They can ask themselves how they would react if it was their data in peril.

“If you get a bug report that your servers are not secure in Sri Lanka right now, [you say] ‘We’d better shut that down,’” he said. “‘We’ll pay a bug bounty, some money to the person that reported the security vulnerability. We’ll wait until it’s fixed, then we’ll bring it back up and we’ll do a full postmortem.’ That’s actually a great, healthy, mature practice as an industry.”

“If I say, ‘You have a social vulnerability and it is costing people’s lives’ — first of all, those active on the ground, raising that flag, they don’t even have a way to have that message come in,” Dash added. “Second of all, they’re certainly not going to get a check cut as a thank you for doing that. And third, there won’t be a, ‘Let’s shut it down until we know what’s happening.’ This is people’s lives! This isn’t ‘My server is leaking data.’ There’s a sense of culpability.”

And he said he had no sympathy for one of the commonest lines from techies hoping to shirk responsibility — “We’re good people and we’re trying our best” — a line that, incidentally, Dash himself had used as a younger entrepreneur when questioned about one of his products.

“So what?” he asked. “It’s not relevant! Let’s talk about the harm and who’s vulnerable.”

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