No Ethical Consumption Under Technology

There’s a popular phrase you might have heard before: “no ethical consumption under capitalism.” It refers to the idea that everything produced under capitalist systems required taking advantage of someone, somewhere along the chain of production. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently, especially after a recent incident with a major tech company.

Content warning: Suicide, Hate Speech

The Cloudflare Incident

For the past few weeks, Cloudflare has been in the news because of its business relationship with Kiwi Farms, a 4chan-like forum that has organized many doxing and harassment campaigns, particularly against transgender people. Kiwi Farms was a customer of Cloudflare, paying for the same proxy services and distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS) protection that thousands of other high-profile websites utilize to prevent downtime. Cloudflare, especially though its CEO Matthew Prince, said that dropping sites like Kiwi Farms “make it more difficult to protect content that supports oppressed and marginalized voices against attacks.” Keep in mind Cloudflare dropped Switter as a customer in 2018, a Mastodon instance (social media platform) for sex workers, many of whom had been kicked from other platforms.

Cloudflare finally relented a few days after that, likely due to a combination of public pressure, IT staff at large companies looking for alternatives to Cloudflare’s services (which would cut into Cloudflare’s revenue), and the company’s stock price plunging below the NASDAQ average over the same period time. No apology was offered, nor condolences for the people who committed suicide as the result of harassment campaigns enabled by Cloudflare’s shield of protection. The company said in another blog post, “we are committed as a security provider to protecting our customers even when they run deeply afoul of popular opinion or even our own morals.”

Even though Cloudflare dropped Kiwi Farms, and Kiwi Farms is now struggling to stay online (contrary to Cloudflare’s claims that it would “most likely find other infrastructure”), the problem remains that a company controlling significant amounts of internet infrastructure had no qualms about propping up a website as abhorrent as Kiwi Farms. Cloudflare aligned itself with the worst of humanity, even when it didn’t make sense from a business perspective — Kiwi Farms was one customer out of hundreds of thousands. In its attempt to remain neutral and apolitical, it made a distinctly political choice.

No Ethical Consumption

I already shut down my own Cloudflare account and moved the few sites I was using with Cloudflare’s DNS to other services, but one of my projects is hosted on a platform with a Cloudflare-backed CDN. I can’t fix that without migrating it to another hosting platform, which might cost more money in the long term, and will definitely cost me time I would rather spend doing other things.

That’s a choice that many of us make multiple times a day, given the capitalist system most of the world operates under. Doing the right and ethical thing almost always takes more time, which is a finite currency, or money, which is an actual currency. Cloudflare’s DDoS protection is free, while many of its competitors are not (or have fewer features). I could also spend time and money moving my email to a paid host, but Gmail is free, because it uses my data for Google’s ad targeting.

Technology might be one of the best examples of “no ethical consumption.” You can’t organically grow a processor. I’m typing this blog post on my new MacBook Air, which was designed by one of the richest companies on Earth that also avoided paying U.S. taxes for years and is currently pushing its employees to return to offices with COVID still raging (even for teams where there’s no clear benefit). The car I drive most days is pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, because EVs are too price-prohibitive for me right now. Most electronics are made in factories with terrible working conditions, and much of the software that powers those electronics is made by software developers working under long hours and/or poor company environments. The video game industry is a subset of the software industry, and its workers have shared countless horror stories from major studios and publishers over the past few years.

There are alternatives to “big tech.” You can use Linux on your computers, Matrix and self-hosted email for communication, and so on. However, most of those alternatives are produced by people working in their spare time who are not adequately compensated. Maintaining an open-source software project can be a lot of work, with many of the same expectations of software made by a large company (no bugs, active support channels, etc.) but without the pay. Many of those people provide an invaluable service, but capitalism mostly only rewards products that generate direct profit.

Technology has played a critical role in my life. I write about tech for a living, I’ve made friends through collaborative projects, software development is one of my main hobbies, and so on. It’s getting harder to stay optimistic about tech, when even my hobby projects must go through Cloudflare, and many of the tech products I own were assembled in factories with nets to catch workers attempting suicide.

What Now?

I don’t have a solution for any of these problems, as much as I wish I did. I’m not an economist or a politician, and the harassment and doxing I’ve experienced over the years does not come close to the level of abuse that Kiwi Farm’s victims endured. I also don’t mean to shame anyone personally for using the products of exploitative and terrible companies, especially if there are no reasonable alternatives.

I’ll end this long-winded and frustrated rant with this: be kind to one another (unless the other person is a Nazi), try out Linux if you haven’t done so recently, and donate to your favorite software and hardware projects.

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