Apple, eBay, and the desolation of tech
By Mark Hurst • June 19, 2020

Our landscape is barren.

Many years ago in my youth, present at the very birth of the web, I thought we would build something good.

I named my company with this idea - Creative Good - and set out to spread the news: the internet can be a positive force. We can empower people. We can create new opportunities, new possibilities.

Then for 15 years I ran a conference - Gel, for Good Experience Live - inviting people on-stage to show how they were making the dream real. Opening new worlds, revealing hidden potentials, breaking through barriers.

It feels so long ago. Today the tech landscape feels desolate. And worse, it's starting to feel malevolent.

This week, Apple provided a stark example of what it's become.

Hey, look, a poison Apple

A few days ago I welcomed Jason Fried onto Techtonic, my radio show and podcast, to talk about the launch of Hey, his new email service. It was Hey's launch day.

I've known Jason, and his Basecamp cofounder David Heinemeier Hansson, for about 20 years now. My own work is referenced in their original 37signals manifesto (see 6, 18, and 29), and Jason spoke at Gel 2006 (watch video) about their user-friendly product development. Mostly I've admired them from afar, as Jason and David's Basecamp has succeeded while resolutely avoiding all the exploitation, manipulation, and dark patterns from Silicon Valley. Jason and David - along with Duck Duck Go's Gabriel Weinberg, and others - are living proof that it is possible to create good tech and do it profitably, over the long-term - while treating users with honesty and respect.

And then, this week.

As Jason said in our Techtonic interview, Hey provides an alternative to surveillance-fueled Big Tech email services like Gmail. In contrast, Hey takes steps to boost users' privacy, while charging $99 a year. A fair, straightforward business model. It also happens to compete with Apple's iCloud service.

The day after our Techtonic interview aired, Apple's App Store informed David that if Hey didn't hand over 30% of its iOS revenue to Apple, the Hey app might get kicked out of the App Store. A shakedown, in other words. "Nice app you got there, be a real shame if it disappeared."

This isn't new behavior. I've had my own run-in with Apple, with my Good Todo app (as I describe in this thread), and I'm not alone. Other developers last year launched a class action lawsuit against Apple due to the company's bullying, monopolistic behavior. (More details in this Verge article from June 2019.)

This time, though, is higher profile. Rep. David Cicilline, chair of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, has taken notice of Hey's complaint. As I posted here, DHH (Hey's David Heinemeier Hansson) testified to Congress in February about Apple's bullying, and now Apple has threatened a takedown of Hey during its launch week. This fantastic new Verge interview (June 18), featuring Cicilline and DHH, covers Apple's shakedown: in it, Rep. Cicilline calls Apple a "bully" committing "highway robbery." Bloomberg reports that Microsoft is chiming in, too, saying even they, the original Evil Empire, were never that bad. And for his part, DHH has written his own post on the Hey site.

What's gotten into Apple? My best guess is that leadership there sees the end of growth looming - they've sold all the phones, they've sold all the laptops - and now the company is about to plateau. They're desperate to increase revenue somewhere, and so leadership has decided to squeeze Apple's third-party developers for every last cent. (According to the Verge interview, dozens of other tech companies have quietly reported the same treatment. This is a concerted, intentional effort from Apple.) All in the service of Silicon Valley's cancerous value - "growth at any cost" - to wring out just a few more months of stock price growth.

Being squeezed this hard, developers stop innovating, stop trying new things. It's one reason our landscape is desolate.

With Apple's developer conference (WWDC) coming up next week, the timing of this PR crisis couldn't be worse for them. I'm not looking forward to hearing Tim Cook give his usual remarks about Apple's righteous, high-minded stance. Spare us, Tim. The antitrust regulators will be right over.

But as malevolent as Apple is, you know who might even be worse? eBay.

eBay's turn as a mafioso

First, to answer what might be your question: yes, eBay is still in business. The online-auction king of the 1990s is still around, and still apparently feeling as arrogant as any other Silicon Valley behemoth, given the news this week.

Because eBay not only threatened, Apple-style, someone who defied them - they actually acted on it.

You might have seen this covered in NPR, the Guardian, Wired, or the New York Times - but everyone should know this story, so here we go.

Ina Steiner and her husband, based in the Boston area, have for years written a blog and email newsletter covering the eBay seller experience. Last summer, Steiner published posts that were critical of eBay - and which elicited comments from readers that were also negative. eBay leadership, rather than addressing the issues that Steiner brought up, decided instead to sorta-kinda threaten to murder her and her husband.

And when I say "eBay leadership" here, I should be specific. The CEO of eBay last summer, Devin Wenig, sent the following text to his Chief Communications Officer, Steve Wymer:

If we are ever going to take her is the time

In response, eBay's CCO Steve Wymer, in a series of texts and emails, pledged that "We are going to crush this lady" and "ANYTHING we can do to solve it should be explored . . . Whatever. It. Takes."

So. Following the explicit direction of the CEO to "take her down," and the explicitly stated intentions of the CCO to "crush this lady," eBay executives planned and carried out a campaign of intimidation against Ina Steiner and her husband. Disgusting and threatening items started showing up on the Steiners' doorstep: fly larvae, live spiders, a bloody pig mask (pictured below), a funeral wreath, and a book on surviving the death of a spouse. Get it? Not too different from Apple. "Nice life you have there - be a shame if eBay murdered one of you."

Soon after, three eBay executives and a contractor flew to Boston and drove out to the Natick suburbs, parking outside the Steiners' house. I'm not making this up. Sitting in the rental car were eBay's senior director of safety and security, and eBay's director of global resiliency, according to NBC News:

Prosecutors said that Baugh, Harville, Zea, and Popp drove to the victims' home in Natick several times and had planned on breaking into the victims' garage to install a GPS tracking device on their car.

Here eBay truly shows Silicon Valley's commitment to surveillance. We have several executives, with C-suite direction, flying from Silicon Valley to Boston, about to break into a suburban garage to install a spy device on the victims' car. (Fortunately, Natick police foiled the attempt.)

To add one more layer of outrageous insult, the eBay team separately got in touch with the victims to claim that they - the eBay executives - were there to help, pretending that it was someone else harassing them. (Wired reports that - no doubt drawing on the all-too-common practice of creating fake personas - the eBay team fabricated a Samoan (why Samoa?!) to stand in for the bad guy.)

Lies, upon lies, upon lies. Inevitably, it all came crashing down last September, when law enforcement put the case together and got in touch. eBay immediately fired everyone involved - with one exception.

The CEO, Devin Wenig, didn't get charged. Instead, by an extremely interesting coincidence, he left eBay at the same moment that the other perpetrators were fired, in September 2019. Oh, and Wenig walked away with $57 million. Asked this week about his role in the scheme, Wenig is shocked, SHOCKED, reports Vox, that anyone would have understood his order to "take her down" as an order to actually, you know, take down Ina Steiner. "I was speaking off the cuff," Wenig explains.

My thoughts

Apple and eBay show the state of moral leadership in Silicon Valley. Absent. Or perhaps present, but actively malicious. I could give other examples - I've written about how Google, Facebook, and Amazon all operate to their shame.

But I know I have a special sensitivity to the Apple and eBay stories: first, because as an iOS developer I've experienced the Apple shakedown myself; and second, because - like Ina Steiner - I write a blog and email newsletter critical of Big Tech companies. Will eBay come after me for this criticism? Will Apple disappear my app? What would Google or Facebook do if they wanted to shut me down? What about Amazon, owned by the richest man in the world?

The Steiners of Natick, MA show that there's a cost to telling the truth, especially now that the lords of the tech industry have evolved toward the criminal behavior that comes with unchecked power.

Yes, we'll see the PR engines activated once again, much like they spun the fake apologies I wrote about last week. Only yesterday Facebook took down a couple of hateful posts from our Current Occupant, and next week we're likely to see some PR sop from Apple during WWDC. But none of this addresses the malevolent heart of Silicon Valley, the growth-at-any-cost business model and the algorithms that power it.

The real change we need is structural, and that's going to require congressional action - which, thanks to Rep. Cicilline, is on its way. We need severe anti-trust action, breaking up Big Tech companies into tiny component parts, and then we must salt the giants' fields so that they can't regrow into terrible companies again. These companies will be kicking and screaming the entire way. Until that happens, all we'll get are PR distractions, and more criminal behavior.

- Mark Hurst
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