What can small/medium-sized companies do to be more humane?

Humane Tech is a very megacorp-focused campaign: the focus seems to be on the Facebooks, Netflix’s, and Twitters of the world, and understandably so.

However, how can we encourage small and medium sized companies and startups to change? Are they also culprits? How so? What can those companies be doing better? How would those decisions impact your willingness to use their product or service?

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I will never trust any company, and particularly a small company, who promises me free services. This business model is long gone. If you can demonstrate you use the most sophisticated tools there are to protect my privacy and security, I might consider using your services. You will have to show an impressive rooster of prominent scholars or industry experts on board to make an impression. Case in point: Protonmail, developed by CERN and MIT scientists. I would trust those guys with my emails.

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Small businesses are a mixed group ranging from scammers to the best. Sometimes they can offer free services since they have lower cost structures than big companies (and lower salaries) but beware because their services are unknown and untested.

When small companies offer free services, they must rely on larger companies to provide advertising and so on. In a sense the services of small companies are paid for by large advertisers, and include similar kinds of tracking which we find on Google, Baidu and so on. That isn’t too bad, after all you’re getting a free product and in the case of the browser you’re are free to block ads and trackers. However beware of any and all apps from small companies, they’re not well known and anything you install on your device can exploit you.

Larger companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google are much more sinister as they track you even when you’re blocking trackers, whenever you’re logged in, and though their endless web services which are hidden inside almost every small, medium and large company service and app you use or just have installed on your phone but don’t even use. Large companies are almost much more effective at tricking us with sneaky terms and psychological sleight of hand. Large companies are more likely to point machine learning at our brains to try to get to know us better than we know ourselves in order to manipulate us. Large companies are more likely to have a machine rather than a human making ethical decisions about what we see.

Hi @jaesmail,

It is a good topic you started! It is a misconception that Humane Tech is megacorp-focused. It applies equally well to small and medium-sized businesses (SMB’s). But because big tech is all across the board, they tick the most boxes with regards to tech harms, especially for those products/services that have ad-based business models.

Where it starts for SMB’s - like @Free mentions - is the awareness that they are oftentimes the enablers for Big Tech in their data collection schemes, and pushers of their ad-tech. In this way they are exposing their customers to their practices.

While @Free mentions SMB’s offerering free services, the issue goes much further than that. Out of convenience and cost considerations SMB’s of all kind - often unwittingly - expose both customers and employees, and even the company itself, to unprecedented levels of data collections. Examples:

  • You want to know who’s on your website? In a few clicks you have Google Analytics up and running
  • You want nice looking web UI? Add Google Fonts in a blink
  • Don’t want to have your servers in-house? Amazon AWS to the rescue
  • Email? Just use Gmail for all your B2B communication
  • Forms, Docs, Spreadsheets, Design? Use Google, Microsoft, Adobe, etc. online office services

This way you give away absolutely everything that there is to know about your SMB, your employees and your customers away ‘for free’.

Most of these things can be easily avoided without adding too much cost and overhead. It requires a change of mindset first, followed by a prolonged strategy and operational policies.

I think most SMB’s do not realize the dangers of how they use tech this way. Is Amazon a potential future competitor in your branch of business? Better not expose your internals to them, then. Same with Google. They collect the data for countless purposes, starting with advertisers, but not limited to them. Your competitor can also buy insights on the market and Big Tech can anticipate your interesting moves.

Besides this there are much more aspects of Humane Tech that apply to SMB’s equally well:

  • How transparent is (the way you conduct) your business?
  • How good and easy to understand is your privacy policy?
  • Are you honest in the UI’s your customers use, or do you trick them (e.g. dark patterns)?
  • What’s your policy regarding Inclusiveness and Diversity?
  • What are the opportunities you offer to your employees, are your contracts fair?
  • etcetera.

I am often surprised when I see new product launches, where I cannot discern how the company is earning their money, what data is collected, or even who is behind the product. In the US you encounter this most. “Hey, install our cool app, it does this and that”. And many people do that, even though literally zero info is known about what’s behind it. Could be created by a hackers collective that’ll crack open your entire system, for all we know.

Bringing the discussion back to this community - because we’ve had similar discussions many times before: The discussions and info in this forum is a raw body of work. It is not very useful if we keep it unprocessed, as old topics tend to be forgotten over time.

We are going to collect and improve all this information and offer it on clean website sections, so the checklists and best-practices we compiled can be processed easily by SMB’s that want to improve. And we will point out the unique selling points that will come with them. It is not just a cost drain, but there is real benefit in being Humane Tech oriented.

You can read our plans in Who we are, What we do, And how YOU ❤ can help Humane Technology too ! and of course we invite you dearly to become an activist and help with all of this.

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To try to answer the question for most typical online businesses who are not necessarily in the humane tech area but who aspire to make profit ethically as all businesses should.

  1. Delete all your company social media accounts. Social media is mental health poison and a wasteland of wasted time. So many marketeers will tell you your business dead if you’re not on social media, but actually you’d be better off staying away and using your time more productively or just relaxing for your own health. Keep a blog and forums if you like.

  2. Remove all links to social media and “sharing” buttons. That is precious website / app space, you should not be giving this to these shady internet companies for free and annoying your users in the process. You can make much better use of this space, leave it blank or even a high quality promotion is better than promoting the pit of despair that is social media.

  3. Make sure that you run high quality ads, unobtrusive ads, native ads, pleasing ads, and limit the number of ads you run. If you’re small, only run ads from Google or Amazon. Almost any other networks will have too many scam advertisers, run too many and obtrusive ads, and scam you too by the way. Adtech is like a monster, and header bidding and small ad networks open your users up to more dangerous advertisers. All ad companies are going to attack your users’ privacy, your choice is to choose the ones which are not going to scam your users too much and not going to install viruses on your users’ devices. Try to block dangerous ad categories, especially software downloads as that is a way for advertisers to exploit people’s devices. The best thing you can do is set a CPM price floor of say USD $1 (or ad balance fill rate at 30-50% in AdSense) because this will not only greatly reduce the number of ads at little cost to you, but it will also filter out most bad advertisers since they typically bid low. Allow your users to freely block ads.

  4. Try to generate revenue in a way which doesn’t include the big tech companies or big advertisers. However live with the reality that as a small business this may not be practical and that you must compromise.

  5. People are willing to give up their privacy for free services, because it just doesn’t make financial sense for 99.9% of the population to pay 5 Euros a month for an ethical internet service. If you’re going to charge for an ethical service, great but consider keeping your costs low and pricing it for users used to free services, no more than 1 Euro a month. That may not sound like much, but at 1 Euro per month with just 10 thousand users you’d take in 120,000 Euros a year, and with one million users you’d have 12 million Euros a year.

  6. Try to keep information about your users private and secure. The best thing you can do is not to keep any information about your users at all. Always permanently delete all information about a user or generated by a user upon request, this should be easy to do from your user interface.

  7. Use and contribute to open source and open data. If it’s not a risk to your business model, open source your service too. Users like open.

  8. As mentioned by @aschrijver, try not to use third party services such as Gmail, Google Analytics, Google Fonts as these can be spying on you and your users. Especially don’t use services developed in authoritarian regimes such as Russian Federation or China.

  9. Don’t waste your users’ time. Keep things direct and to the point. Time well spent starts with you, the app designer, media creator, you are the supreme architect of what is being force fed to the world. Let’s hope it’s a lean and healthy diet.

  10. Don’t promote excessive consumerism. Only sell genuinely useful products or services, make sure your users are getting the best deals and making the most informed decisions, and that you’re creating value for your users. Otherwise you’re just fishing for money out of your users’ pockets for your own good and not contributing to humanity.