Divided We Code

Divided we code

56 sec

Silicon Valley's fault lines are exposed

By Laurie Segall

When I started covering technology, the questions seemed more simple: Where did the name Twitter come from? How will social media democratize information? Those were the days when Facebook made the news for connecting long lost relatives, when people marveled at Uber's innovation rather than the company's sexual harassment scandals.

Fast forward to 2017, and Silicon Valley’s fault lines are exposed. Between ongoing revelations about sexism in tech to Russian troll farms that sought to influence the election, the tech industry is under fire. In this series, Divided We Code, we dig into a culture of growing influence and power, of politics and fear, and of deeply entrenched sexism in one of the most influential industries in the world.

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Internet 2.0’s Tragedy of the Commons

The internet was supposed to be a place where freedom of expression would allow us to share our ideas – the good and the bad. In the utopian world coded by tech entrepreneurs, people would navigate the information flow and engage in quality conversations online. But that now seems idealistic and a little naive. Andrew McLaughlin, former director of public policy at Google, said the best metaphor for the current state of the internet is the so-called Tragedy of the Commons.

“If you have a common space, a park, and anybody can go and see it without any controls, the tragedy will be that that space gets trashed,” he said.

The internet is the digital town square

The internet is the digital town square

And as the metaphorical park takes a beating, so does Silicon Valley’s idealism.

Ev Williams, who cofounded Twitter and founded Medium, has always believed that if we could speak freely, the world would be a better place. But lately, he's realized it's not quite so simple.

“I still fundamentally believe that, but I also think we were naïve,” he said. “People won’t feel free if there are certain types of behaviors dominating a conversation or putting them down.”

You see this play out daily on Twitter, where harassment seems rampant and meaningful dialogue is drowned out by trolls.

“The racists can attach their racist, abusive speech to every single tweet, every single post,” McLaughlin said. “In the public square here, imagine if the racist could just basically build an infinite number of robots to overwhelm the people on the other side of the line -- that's what’s been allowed to happen on the internet.”

Updated Status: It’s complicated

Once arm’s length from anything editorial, tech CEOs are realizing they can no longer be neutral when it comes to content on their platforms. Where’s the line between a difference of opinion and straight-up lies -- and who should make those decisions?

“You get into an area where most companies would be like, ‘It’s not something that really fits our model or that we would even be good at,’” said Williams. But increasingly, there’s little choice.

Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince described the nuance when he made the decision to kick neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer off his platform, which helps protect websites from online attacks.

He put it flippantly in a memo to employees: He woke up one day and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. He worries about that power, and so should you.

In today's polarized climate, that power can be viewed as politically motivated, according to Prager University CEO Marissa Streit.

Prager University isn’t an actual academic institution. It was founded by divisive radio host and conservative commentator Dennis Prager and produces online videos for YouTube -- the segments tend to promote conservative ideology.

“Our topics are ideological in nature,” Streit said. “We do pro-America. We believe in economic freedom.”

This includes videos like "How to Raise Kids Who Are Smart About Money" and "Did FDR End the Great Depression?" -- but it also includes some more controversial content, like “Are 1 in 5 Women Raped at College?” and “Gender Identity -- Why All the Confusion?”

Behind the scenes at Prager U’s Los Angeles studios

Behind the scenes at Prager U’s Los Angeles studios

Streit noticed some of the content -- including the latter two videos -- was being categorized as “restricted” on YouTube, which is a setting for “potentially mature” content. This makes it more difficult to find the videos in a search.

The group has 250 videos -- around 30 of which have been restricted by YouTube. Streit said she was frustrated by the lack of transparency.

“We kept going back to them, [saying], ‘There's no pornography in our videos.’ We've always been very clear about our mission," she said. "We do know that we present a certain ideology that may or may not agree with everyone. The question is: Is Google the one who gets to decide what everybody gets to watch?”

When asked about PragerU, Google responded broadly in a statement: "Giving viewers the choice to opt in to a more restricted experience is not censorship. In fact, this is exactly the type of tool that Congress has encouraged online”

Prince saw the lack of transparency play out on the other side.

“We could have done it differently. We could have just said, ‘They violated section 13G of our terms of service…and swept it under the rug,’” Prince said, regarding his decision to kick off The Daily Stormer. “It would be BS if we did it, and it’s BS when any other technology company does it. That’s the point that is important: There are arbitrary decisions that get made.”

The New Establishment

Streit and Prince aren't alone in worrying that tech companies have too much power over what people see and who has a voice on their platforms.

In response, a number of alternative platforms have sprung up. Sites like Hatreon, PewTube and Gab cater to controversial, far-right figures, many of whom were kicked off more traditional sites like Patreon, YouTube and Twitter. These platforms are small and may have limited influence, but they're building communities for people who explicitly reject Silicon Valley's influence. The founders champion free speech, but their platforms give a voice to some of the ugliest ideologies.

“What we’re seeing with [social media] platforms is a monopolization of control over commerce on the Internet,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of the Open Markets Institutes. “When you have this much power in these few hands, then you're going to have problems. Not only might they take this information and manipulate the flow for their own political good, they're also just sloppy about it. They just don't do a good job of managing the process.”

“Right now, conservatives are the underdog in Silicon Valley.”

Harmeet Dhillon, James Damore’s attorney

Silicon Valley’s Divide

The irony isn’t lost: A place that promised to unite us, to connect the world, is suffering from its own massive divisions. In the current political climate, you could argue the tech built in Silicon Valley is pulling us into our own filter bubbles, with algorithms that only reinforce our beliefs. Meanwhile, behind closed doors, conservatives in tech are forming an underground community. I spoke to a number of entrepreneurs who identify as conservative but keep it a tightly held secret. Being conservative in tech, they say, is enough to threaten their jobs.

Aaron Ginn founded Lincoln Network, a community for conservatives and libertarians. He said if you’re conservative in Silicon Valley -- whether or not you voted for Trump -- you're often perceived as racist or homophobic.

"The fact is that if you have any center right view, you're automatically put in that camp now," he said.

Aaron Ginn founded Lincoln Network, a community for conservatives and libertarians in tech

Aaron Ginn founded Lincoln Network, a community for conservatives and libertarians in tech

And as Silicon Valley deals with scrutiny over a lack of gender and racial diversity, there’s a rather unexpected group that feels underrepresented: wealthy, white, conservative males. Former Google engineer James Damore wrote a controversial memo over the summer, criticizing Google's lack of ideological diversity and arguing that “biological” reasons hold back the number of women working in tech. He became a touchpoint in Silicon Valley's culture wars -- standing in for all the men who feel oppressed by tech's professed liberal values.

Damore hired Harmeet Dhillon, a civil rights attorney, who said she’s now representing those people. “I've always had a penchant for the underdog and right now, conservatives are the underdog in Silicon Valley.”

Sexual Harassment: 'That’s Just Life in Silicon Valley'

When you look at everything festering just below the surface, when you see how misogyny and sexist rhetoric have been exacerbated and amplified on sites like Twitter and Reddit, it's not hard to see how Silicon Valley itself has been hit by widespread allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination.

Susan Fowler's eye-opening account of sexual harassment at Uber was only the beginning. Reports in the New York Times, The Information and a CNN Special highlight the countless instances of bad behavior in the tech industry. While tech leaders are getting better at responding to overt harassment, deep-rooted issues of sexism are still all too present.

But what is changing is the movement of women starting to come forward. One of those women, Elizabeth Scott, filed a lawsuit against influential virtual reality startup UploadVR, alleging gender discrimination, harassment and a hostile work environment.

The suit paints a picture of a company rife with immaturity and sexism. While Scott settled and is unable to talk about the details of the lawsuit, another former employee, Daisy Berns, spoke to CNN Tech publicly for the first time. A former general manager at UploadVR, Berns recounts a party culture where the lines between employer and employee blurred, and women at the company were tasked with cleaning duties. For Berns, that meant picking up underwear left on the floor from “office” parties thrown by the founders.

UploadVR founders Will Mason and Taylor Freeman acknowledge that many of the cleaning duties fell to women -- but said it was a shared responsibility and was due to the functions of those women's jobs.

"When you run a space that has events and is a co-working space, you have to have people that are tasked with maintaining that space at all times," said Taylor Freeman, one of the cofounders. "Those two people, our events producer and our office manager, were both women. Ultimately, it's just unfortunate that our office manager at the time had to deal with finding some of these things."

Freeman acknowledged that the atmosphere in the company's early days lacked professionalism but chalked it up to their relative lack of experience -- he was 23 when he started Upload (his cofounder Will Mason was 24).

"We never intended to do anything wrong or to put women in a position where they felt out of power or like they weren't being heard," he said. "We really didn't have the experience to create a culture [and] the structure where they had a voice."

Freeman and Mason took responsibility for enabling the environment. They said the company has since built an HR structure, stopped its party culture and hired executives to help take the company forward.

But it hasn't been a smooth process. Anne Ward, one of the executives hired to help the company, stepped down after four months, citing an overarching lack of respect.

"The tone from the top needs to change," she said.

Scott, meanwhile, suffered ramifications for speaking out. After multiple interviews, another tech company informed her they couldn’t hire her --  she was a liability.

Many other women told me they couldn’t share their stories about UploadVR publicly for fear of retribution.

We protected the identity of conservatives in Silicon Valley who said their bottom line would be impacted if they were “outed,” but women in tech are wondering how they can speak out without their job prospects taking a hit.

It’s 2017, and sexual harassment in Silicon Valley is still running rampant. The question being asked in the internal message boards for women in tech -- now what?

Scott, who felt powerless, said the 20-page lawsuit is her voice.

“It makes it real to see it in writing,” she said. “There is power in speaking up, even if not everybody believes you.” ■

This story originally published on October 29, 2017.

Undercover conservatives

Undercover conservatives

11 min 24 sec

The new counterculture: Conservatives in Silicon Valley?

By Laurie Segall

When doing on-camera interviews in the past, I’ve been asked to hide identities of sources and subjects. There were victims of harassment, sex workers worried about repercussions, hackers who’d committed a crime, people worried about their safety. But a technology worker afraid of publicly outing himself as “conservative” in Silicon Valley? That was a new one for me.

In reporting this story, I made dozens of calls to conservative-leaning people in Silicon Valley. They told me there was too much at stake in a divisive climate and could only speak under the veil of anonymity.

Many say a crossroads came in August when Google engineer James Damore was fired after writing a controversial memo criticizing Google’s lack of ideological diversity. He argued there were fewer women in tech due to “biological” reasons. It brought loaded subjects to the surface -- gender, diversity and political correctness in the Trump era.

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While Google CEO Sundar Pichai said Damore was fired for his controversial statements regarding women, many conservatives retorted that his firing made it harder to be open about their political ideology at liberal-leaning tech companies.

We spoke with two “undercover conservatives” in Silicon Valley who asked us to conceal their identities. We’ll call them Jack and John. “John” is a founder who’s worked at several large tech companies. “Jack” is currently at an early stage startup funded by influential investors. Both entrepreneurs have extensive backgrounds in tech.

Below are excerpts from our conversations with them, as well as one with Harmeet Dhillon, a lawyer who represents Damore. The interviews occurred separately, but have been edited together by topic.

THE COST OF BEING CONSERVATIVE

Jack and John -- in addition to other entrepreneurs we spoke to --  are committed to hiding their political leanings. They say the cost of disclosure is greater than an awkward conversation or a red-faced debate. We asked them what would happen if they revealed their names.

Jack: Let's say you and I met at a conservative event. Then, if we were at a broader event, and I wanted to introduce you to a liberal who I thought might be able to give you good career advice or something, we probably would lie about how we met. Or we wouldn't tell the whole story. We'd say we met at a dinner or something, but we wouldn't provide much context.

In one sense, it can be a little bit depressing when pretty much everyone you interact with is liberal. On the other hand, it's actually quite invigorating being part of a small group of people sort of battling what many see as the status quo or a herd mentality.

John: If I walked into work with a "Make America Great Again" hat, there would be repercussions. Quite a few people would take it as a personal affront, and I would expect to be out of the company within weeks, if not a month.

Jack: The main reason why it can be tough to be conservative is actually because of business reasons. There's such a lack of skilled workers, even in Silicon Valley, so you already are in a recruiting war. If you come out and say you're conservative, you may not be able to attract this top talent that's so critical to build a multi-billion-dollar business.

Pretty much anything that seems remotely right wing could really hurt your business. You can lose your job and your livelihood, all because of a political belief that you feel is shared by half the country.

Talking with ‘Jack’ who feels he needs to stay hidden as a conservative in Silicon Valley

Talking with ‘Jack’ who feels he needs to stay hidden as a conservative in Silicon Valley

ON PERSONAL POLITICS

Politics isn't black and white (as much as it can feel that way). There’s always been a libertarian streak in Silicon Valley -- a laissez-faire attitude toward business and culture. Even in 2017, that rubs off on Jack and John.

Jack: I'd describe myself as a blend of conservative and libertarian. On fiscal issues, I'm pretty conservative. On some social issues, I'm liberal. [On some], I tend to be moderate. On immigration, I'm moderate to conservative. On foreign policy, I'd say I'm a moderate hawk.

John: Fiscally, I consider myself to be very conservative. On social issues, I consider myself to be much more libertarian. But unfortunately, in today's political discourse, those things would probably make me a conservative in a lot of people's minds. And especially in the state of California right now, that makes me a conservative.

ON TRUMP

Donald Trump got less than 20% of the vote in the Bay Area. But Aaron Ginn, an open conservative in tech, thinks the number could have been as high as 25% in the tech community. He says Trump’s election was a “strong slap in the face to elite cities like San Francisco.” Jack and John both believe the 2016 election and Trump's victory exacerbated the polarization.

Jack: Since President Trump took office, a lot of people are saying, "Oh, I won't go work for a conservative company or for someone who seems to be associated with conservative people." Those passions are much higher. President Trump, I do think, definitely threw fuel on the fire here.

John: The hysterical nature of the political climate [has] turned into fear, where people are afraid of ideas that challenge their own and they think people who hold those ideas are not only wrong … but in some ways they're evil. It’s unfortunate. And it leads to people saying and doing things that normally they wouldn't feel comfortable doing.

ON JAMES DAMORE’S FIRING

While Jack and John both agreed with some of the points that Damore made in his memo, they still believe his firing was justified.

Jack: Some parts of it I agreed with, some parts I didn't. But from a conservative perspective, Google not only had the right to fire him, but I think it was the right move.

At Google and at any company, there's a lot of positivity to having a culture that isn't extremely diverse from an ideological perspective. There are certain things that should be open for debate in a company, but you need everyone to have a degree of sameness where they'll get close to each other, they'll form common bonds and they'll actually work harder. Google has picked to adopt this very, sort of, progressive-leaning culture, and if James Damore was doing things antithetical to that, which upset a majority of the employees, then you have to maintain the productive culture, and get rid of them.

John: I don't feel like any time I've been working for a company, I would feel comfortable posting something like that at work. The right place for that is Quora, which has historically been a place to have these kinds of debates on subjects like politics, religion and diversity.

On the phone with ‘John’

On the phone with ‘John’

ON COMBINING WORK AND POLITICS

Tech CEOs increasingly are taking stances on political issues like immigration. Jack and John see that as another example of the “hyperpartisan” nature of today’s culture.

John: It's become popular to be hyperpartisan, and it's blurred it into these companies, maybe partially because they're newer and the people running them don't have the experience of why it's good to separate non-business activities from political activities. If the CEO has a stated position on something, generally everyone falls in line whether or not you agree with it.

Jack: If I say I want more border security, are people going to complain to HR about that? Am I going to get fired for saying that?

John: The arrogance to think that we have somehow figured stuff out better than everyone else just because there's a lot more money and a lot more jobs in this area is extremely annoying.

Jack: I think it's a big deal as these tech companies get more and more control over the things we see. Easy content distribution, coupled with fewer gatekeepers, means the people in these companies are going to have far more power. It's a sad state where conservatives feel they might lose their jobs and can't speak out about some of the editorial decisions.

LEGAL BACKUP

After James Damore was fired, he hired Harmeet Dhillon, a civil rights attorney and a California representative for the Republican National Convention. I spoke with her about what she claims are the repercussions for conservatives at tech companies.

Dhillon: It’s being disciplined for innocent remarks. It's being not considered for job opportunities and internal promotions. It's being abruptly terminated for manufactured reasons that frankly, are not supported by the law and the facts.

Segall: You could literally take that exact thing you just said and apply that to some of the women's cases at these tech companies. Just like I'm sure you got a lot of calls from conservatives, I got a lot of calls from women in tech saying, "I feel demeaned by a lot of the rhetoric [in Silicon Valley]."

Dhillon: I've suffered sexual harassment as a woman as well. The fact that that exists does not take away from the fact that political and viewpoint discrimination exists in Silicon Valley. Both can exist. ■

Jordan Malter contributed to this report.

This story published on October 29, 2017

Free speech

Free speech

11 min 06 sec

Where the battle over free speech is being waged online

By Justine Quart

The delicate balance between supporting open expression and shutting down abusive content has become a flashpoint for the tech industry.

You don't need to look any further than Twitter's recent decision to suspend Rose McGowan's account after she tweeted a phone number in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Decisions are politicized. Transparency is questioned. And tensions are rising.

“Are we like the phone company where it's creepy for us to listen in?” asked one prominent tech CEO, Matthew Prince. “Or are we like a newspaper that should have an editorial decision?”

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These questions have thrust companies into the crosshairs of an evolving discussion on how to monitor content. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have argued they're tech platforms -- not media companies. In the early days of the internet, the idea of an open web, free from censorship, was key to its success. But that hands-off approach is becoming less defensible, as we see Russian troll farms buying political ads on Facebook, disgruntled exes posting revenge porn and ISIS recruits being radicalized online.

For Prince, that tension culminated one morning this summer. His company, Cloudflare, is a large but mostly invisible web infrastructure company that helps websites run quicker and provides protection from attacks. 10% of all internet requests pass through its network, without which sites could be left vulnerable to cyberattacks. But when one of his customers said Prince wouldn’t kick him off because Cloudflare’s senior leadership was itself full of white supremacists (it's not), Prince took decisive action.

He terminated service for neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer, saying it was a one-time decision not meant to serve as a precedent.

“I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the internet,” Prince wrote in a memo to employees in August, “No one should have that power.” The son of a journalist, Prince told CNN Tech that he takes issues of free speech “very, very seriously,” but he also has the right “not to do business with jerks.”

Matthew Prince is the CEO of Cloudflare

Matthew Prince is the CEO of Cloudflare

The Cloudflare CEO sat down with CNN Tech to describe what's happened since that one controversial decision. Most notably, he said Cloudflare has received requests to terminate  more than 3,500 different customers -- including from governments, people trying to enforce copyright law, and others who simply find particular content problematic.

“And the amazing thing is that it's not just neo-Nazis," Prince said. "It's far right, far left, middle people, things that people just think are disgusting, things that people might disagree with because they don't like one point of view or another.”

He said part of the reason Cloudflare has been able to deflect these types of requests in the past is that the company has never taken a political position -- it has treated all content equally. Now, he worries it will be much harder to use that defense. He's concerned, for instance, that because he kicked off one site, he will no longer be able to fend off foreign governments’ requests to censor LGBT organizations in countries where they're persecuted.

As tech companies grow in their ability to shape culture and communication, the question of who should have the power to make these weighty decisions becomes even harder to answer.  Meanwhile, social networks are starting to accept responsibility for writing algorithms that better detect hate speech and online abuse, according to Andrew McLaughlin, a former policy director at Google and former deputy chief technology officer for President Obama.

“I think the obvious trigger for it is the Trump election and the spread of fake news. And that has caused of lot of these companies to do some soul-searching where they say, 'Alright, we now have to accept that we can't be neutral,'” McLaughlin said. “We're making choices that are incredibly consequential for what speech gets aired and seen by ordinary people.”

Tech companies are also attempting to roll out stopgap measures to combat harassment. Last month, Instagram introduced a tool that allows users to filter comments. Users say it’s a step in the right direction, but there's still a lot to be done to root out the trolls on social media.

And earlier this month, Twitter outlined policy changes, including one that addresses how the site plans to treat hateful imagery. The content in question will be blurred and users will need to manually opt in to view. But what exactly Twitter defines as a hate symbol wasn't clearly spelled out.

Some tech executives, including Prince, argue that the responsibility falls on political institutions to set clearer guidelines. While he said he’s not arguing for more regulation, Prince said tech CEOs don't have the same accountability as elected officials. Others, like McLaughlin, are less trustful of the government becoming the gatekeeper of online speech.

“I'm not a big fan of governments getting directly involved in the management of tech companies,” said McLaughlin. "History shows that that power tends to be abused pretty easily.”

It's not just issues of online abuse and harassment that have cropped up in recent years. The 2016 election thrust the issue of fake news onto center stage.

“There's a line between abuse and misinformation, and most of these companies for a while, and including Twitter, were more focused on abuse,” said Ev Williams, cofounder of Twitter and CEO of Medium. “I think the misinformation thing is something that's come up really in the last year much more dramatically.”

“That's part of the evolution that we're going through...we're no longer as blind.”

Ev Williams, Twitter cofounder & Medium CEO

Williams has long believed in the internet's role in the free exchange of information. But, lately, he said, identifying trustworthy sources is “something that we really need to work on building into these systems more.”

“Silicon Valley is a place of optimism, [but] it can be blind optimism,” Williams said. “That's part of the evolution that we're going through -- we're no longer as blind.”

Controlling and labeling misinformation is one of the biggest challenges facing tech companies today. Facebook, Twitter and Google increasingly must determine the difference between diverse political viewpoints and things that are just plain inaccurate, Williams said.

“That's when some people are calling for editorial guidelines," he said. "And you get into an area where most tech companies would be like, ‘It's not something that really fits in our model or that we would even be good at.'"

But whether they like it or not, tech platforms are being called on to take a more active role in identifying abuse, harassment and fake news.

“There's a principle that evil festers in darkness. One of the things you don't want to do is basically suppress racist speech in a world where they can just go elsewhere, and do their evil in darkness,” McLaughlin said. “The product balance being struck here is when we find ways to elevate and suppress without censoring, and I actually think that is possible.” ■

This story published on October 29, 2017

Alt-tech

Alt-tech

12 min 14 sec

Alt-tech platforms: A haven for fringe views online

By Jordan Malter

As the power of information becomes concentrated in the hands of a few major tech companies, new platforms are popping up to challenge their dominance.

These aren't just alternatives to Google, Facebook and Twitter. They're also communities that cater to people with fringe views who have been kicked off mainstream sites.

One of the more recent startups is Hatreon, a crowdfunding site for people creating controversial content.

“Even if we find ideas objectionable, they have to be there for us," said Cody Wilson, the 29-year-old founder of Hatreon. "We have to support them, and not because they're easy, only because they're controversial.”

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Who’s being funded on Hatreon? Right now, it’s a who’s-who of the alt-right -- people like prominent white supremacist Richard Spencer and Andrew Anglin, founder of neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer. Hatreon "patrons" support these men, and many other provocative figures, on a monthly basis. Anglin collects the most money, getting $7,800 a month from more than 200 patrons.

The people on Hatreon have been widely condemned as racists, misogynists, anti-Semites and white supremacists who may inspire violence with their rhetoric. But Wilson tries to reframe their vitriol.

“These people are, at worst, trolls, performance artists, provocateurs, vulgarians," he said. "At best, they represent elements of a political speech that should not be censored."

While he doesn't align himself with all their worldviews, Wilson is enabling the “political speech” of these characters. He's taking a cut too: He gets 5% of every dollar raised on Hatreon.

Cody Wilson is the founder of Hatreon

Cody Wilson is the founder of Hatreon

The site is a direct response to the escalating debate over content policies on the internet. Tech companies are increasingly forced to find a balance between removing propaganda and harassment while still embracing free speech. A growing number of people like Wilson are accusing the companies of politically motivated enforcement.

Hatreon sprung up this summer after two high-profile users were kicked off Patreon, a more mainstream crowdfunding site for artists and creators.

“Why do we approve of Facebook's decision on what is and isn't acceptable speech?" asked Wilson. "Why would we approve anyone deciding what is and isn't acceptable for us to read? And who would we give that job to even if we had to?”

Hatreon isn't the first controversial project from the Arkansas native, now living in Austin. Several years ago, Wilson posted directions online for how to 3D print a gun, leading Wired to call him one of the most dangerous people on the internet. (The State Department forced him to take the blueprints down, but he's fighting to put them back up.)

“I think I'm known, at least in the underbelly of the internet, as one of the more radical free-speech activists,” he said.

“It's a scary moment right now for the internet and free speech.”

Anthony Mayfield, PewTube founder

AN OPPORTUNITY

PewTube is another "alt-tech" platform launched earlier this year. It was started as an alternative to YouTube after the Google-owned site started being more aggressive about removing content.

“I think we’re reaching a point where these sites are becoming monolithic,” said PewTube founder Anthony Mayfield. “When there is a need for [new] technology because of a clampdown, a lot of really smart minds say, 'OK. Here is a problem,’ and they think about how to address it. It's going to spur a huge backlash and digital innovation.”

PewTube is still small -- it just passed 400,000 total video streams. And the content is mostly amateur postings, much of it extremely disturbing -- including videos that glorify mass murderer Dylann Roof, those that equate black protesters with primates from “Planet of the Apes,” and one that puts Holocaust atrocities to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence.”

Screening an anti-Semitic video on PewTube

Screening an anti-Semitic video on PewTube

But Mayfield is less concerned about what’s being said, and more concerned that these content creators not be censored.

“It's a scary moment right now for the internet and free speech,” he said. “We run a really dangerous risk saying people who we find distasteful aren't able to use these services.”

Mayfield said he was inspired to start the site when a professor and free speech advocate he admired, Jordan Peterson, was temporarily locked out of his YouTube and Gmail accounts earlier this year. While Peterson told the Toronto Sun he expected "political reasons,” the details as to why he was locked out aren't clear. He did not respond to CNN Tech’s request for clarity. Google said it would not comment on individual user's accounts but said, “YouTube never took down or suspended his account, and his videos have remained accessible.”

Gab, an alternative to Twitter, launched just before the 2016 election and is probably the most notable of the "alt-tech" sites right now, claiming more than 200,000 users.

Gab says “all are welcome” -- a nod to the First Amendment. But, really, it gained popularity by attracting contrarians who got sick of Twitter's terms of service. In August, the company tweeted that it crowdfunded more than $1 million to keep the site going.

FIGHTING THE BEHEMOTHS

This is all happening as tech companies not only find themselves part of the broader culture wars, but as they come under greater scrutiny for their sheer size and power. And it’s not only people with extreme political views who are sounding the alarm.

“What we’re seeing with these platforms is a monopolization of control over commerce on the Internet,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of the Open Markets Institute, a left-leaning nonprofit that had its own run-in with Google.

“When you have this much power in these few hands...not only might they take this information and manipulate the flow for their own political good, they're also just sloppy about it.”

The debate inevitably comes down to what the government's role should be in regulating these behemoths. Lynn, for his part, believes anti-monopoly laws have to be part of the solution.

Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt, unsurprisingly, advocated that tech companies have an important role in “ranking” content on the internet. “Would you rather have us make this decision, or the government make this decision?” he asked in an interview earlier this month.

Hatreon’s Wilson doesn’t want either group to have that power. That’s why he created his peer-to-peer funding platform.

“Google is an advertising company. It has no role in policing American discourse. It sells f***ing ads on the internet, right? Facebook is a social media company that just steals your data from you because you voluntarily gave it up. They have no role of authority in American living.”

Currently, Facebook, Youtube and Twitter monitor hate speech on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation and have content policies that prohibit violent threats. But the perception of uneven or arbitrary enforcement has plagued the platforms.

In some ways, the big tech companies have acknowledged the shortcomings of their policies, or at least their inconsistent enforcement. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey have addressed the issue in the last year under public pressure.

But even consistently defining hate speech has proved difficult for these platforms.

“It doesn't mean anything, it distracts you. It uses a moral justification to silence and to censor,” Wilson said. “Any book is, in the right hands, like a grenade. This can't be controlled and we shouldn't try to control it.”

THERE’S STILL A LINE

Of course, even these more radical sites have their own content restrictions.

PewTube says it doesn't allow copyrighted material or pornography. “We don’t want to have to deal with obscenity and stuff like that,” said Mayfield.

Wilson said he legally can't let people crowdfund who have been convicted of money laundering, fraud or those who are on the State Department's terror list. While Hatreon’s community guidelines say the “site stands for free speech absolutism,” Wilson reserves the right to kick people off if there are violent threats or illegal activity.

“A lot of these questions are already handled legally," said Wilson. "If I'm abusing you, if I'm harassing you, then there are laws [to prevent] abuse, harassment, intimidation. ... These are not free speech acts."

But revenge porn, the distribution of sexually explicit material without the subject’s consent, is a gray area. Hatreon’s terms of service are broad: “If you do harmful things we may cancel your account.” Wilson admits that revenge porn is a "wrong and a direct harm," but since it's not illegal in all jurisdictions, it’s not explicitly addressed and won't necessarily get you kicked off Hatreon.

As for his motivations, Wilson has a few.

“I'm making this stand because I have to carry on the tradition of the English civil liberties and free speech if no one else will,” he said.

“The closest my politics comes to any traditional school is anarchism," he said. "I don’t like the imposition of state controls over human creativity, freedom, individuality. The way to oppose these things is to undermine the powers of traditional liberal institutions.” ■

This story published on October 29, 2017

Red Pill

Red Pill

11 min 53 sec

Popping the Red Pill: Inside a digital alternate reality

By Abigail Brooks

Red Pill.

The phrase comes from a scene in the 1999 film "The Matrix.” Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) offers Neo (Keanu Reeves) a choice: Take the blue pill and stay in the safe but fake world you’ve always known, or take the Red Pill and tumble down the “rabbit hole” of the harsh real world.

Today, people (mostly men) who adhere to the "Red Pill" philosophy essentially believe that everything they've been told about gender, race and politics is a lie -- that their version of reality is the true one.

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“These communities see themselves as opting out of a system that they think is fundamentally corrupt. That's how they see their radicalization,” said Rebecca Lewis, a research analyst at Data & Society Research Institute who’s been following these groups since 2015.

Swallowing the Red Pill can mean different things to different people, but it often starts with the idea that feminism is toxic, men are oppressed and emasculation is ruining society.

“That was essentially my gateway drug into the manosphere” said Josh, a 36-year-old former Red Piller. “The whole concept that feminism was my enemy.” (Josh isn’t his real name -- he asked to remain anonymous because he's embarrassed of his former behavior and thinks it could cost him his job.)

“It was a sense of community, a sense of brotherhood,” he said.

There are scores of forums and websites that host this school of thought. One notable space is the Reddit forum r/TheRedPill. The subreddit, which has more than 200,000 subscribers, bills itself as a place for “the discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men.”

These forums have posts that offer tips for picking up women, conversations about eating healthier and threads with fitness advice.

But below the surface of what sounds like a positive digital space for men, there’s a deep undercurrent of misogyny. It's really a place where men can commiserate on how they're oppressed by women.

Examples of Red Pill-related posts found on Reddit forums r/TheRedPill and r/Incels, voat.co/v/Incels and 4chan

Examples of Red Pill-related posts found on Reddit forums r/TheRedPill and r/Incels, voat.co/v/Incels and 4chan

“The underlying idea of that community is that the modern day is getting to be a more and more difficult time for men,” said Lewis. “They think that any increase in women's sexual agency is a threat to their dominance in the dating scene.”

That anxiety is expressed through posts that advocate the manipulation and dominance of women, or, in some cases, the abandonment of romantic relationships altogether. Some posts even go as far as to say that women want to be raped, calling rejection “token resistance.”

“It can be really vicious,” said Lewis. “In their mind, it really shifts the idea of rape and erases it.”

Reddit updated its content policy last week saying it would “take action against any content that encourages, glorifies, incites or calls for violence or physical harm against an individual or a group of people.” In a message to moderators, it acknowledged that enforcement “may often require subjective judgment.” The company would not comment specifically on the Red Pill groups.

Some point to the Red Pill community as a gateway to the alt-right and a breeding ground for toxic views tied to racism and anti-Semitism. According to Lewis, once someone believes that men as a group are oppressed by feminism, those feelings of animosity can widen to include other groups as well.

“If these people have already given them advice that they trust on dating and on women, then they're going to be more willing to listen to them on issues of race and sexuality,” she said. “They often have experienced other social challenges, whether that's bullying or unemployment or romantic rejection, and so they may get drawn into these online spaces where they're being told that actually it's women and feminists and immigrants who are the problem. Once you start from that basis, it's really easy for it to snowball.”

Josh said he experienced this firsthand.

“The alt-right and a lot of the men's rights activists, they [don’t] calm that fear [of emasculation], they kind of stoke that fire."

He said he spent nearly 13 years down the Red Pill rabbit hole.

“It is a very long time to spend angry,” he said. “I commented. I read. And for anyone who I thought really wasn't carrying the torch properly, I would call them all sorts of horrible names.”

A former Red Piller talks with CNN Tech’s Laurie Segall. He did not want his identity revealed.

A former Red Piller talks with CNN Tech’s Laurie Segall. He did not want his identity revealed.

Josh bounced from movement to movement until he finally saw a post that pushed him to spit out the Red Pill.

“As soon as I started realizing that they weren't just limiting their vitriol just to women, as soon as they started targeting people of color,” he said. “There was this very small voice in the back of my head saying, ‘Hey, idiot, wake up, they're talking about you.’”

Josh is black -- and he said when he was Red Pilled, he turned against his own race, becoming sympathetic to white nationalist causes.

According to Josh, what finally broke him was the reaction of this community to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Freddie Gray.

He said forums that allow commenters to remain unidentified are making it easier for the white nationalist movement to spread.

“It just made it where people can actually still retain that anonymity without having to put on a white hood,” he said.

Lewis noted these communities use mainstays of internet culture -- humorous memes and language -- as a recruiting tool online.

“They draw people in with irreverence and irony,” explained Lewis. “A lot of people will start being ironically racist before they start being really racist.”

“People can actually still retain that anonymity without having to put on a white hood.”

‘Josh’ a former Red Piller, prefered to remain anonymous.

Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist who studies internet addiction at Stanford University, said the more time people spend online, the more susceptible some are to internet radicalization.

“We don’t go online to become more moderate,” said Dr. Aboujaoude. “There isn't communication across groups. There isn't anyone that you're willing to have a rational conversation with who can pull you to the center and away from these more extreme positions.”

When you think internet radicalization, terrorist groups like ISIS come to mind. But according to Dr. Aboujaoude, this polarization is happening to all of us -- and the more time we spend looking at our screens, the more our digital identities and physical selves merge.

“There is something rewarding about acting disinhibited online, because you feel like you're getting away with something that, in the moment, can feel good,” he said. “So, you do it once, you're more likely to do it twice, and then maybe ten times online, and then after the 10th time, it's become so normalized that it's easier for it to be transposed offline.”

While these groups are scattered across the internet, they found a cause to rally around in 2016.

“Trump was a way that [the Red Pill community] could all come together and unite around a common goal,” said Lewis. “As they're getting radicalized, they are trusting establishment media less and less, they're trusting education less and less. They really liked that he represented this anti-establishment movement."

Red Pillers saw candidate Donald Trump as a champion of their own views: He blasted political correctness, made comments that many viewed as sexist and lobbed accusations of "fake news" at the mainstream media. Some even went so far as to call him the “Red Pill candidate.”

Now that Trump is in office, Red Pillers think they have an opportunity to bring their views into the mainstream and are attempting to convert the public, otherwise known as “normies,” to their version of reality, according to Lewis.

“They're trying to spread misinformation to social networks, to amplify their messages using Twitter hashtags, to try to get Trump to retweet something,” said Lewis. “I think we need to be very on guard about the ways that their extremist ideas are going to start slipping into our culture more and more.” ■

This story published on October 29, 2017

Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment

11 min 24 sec

'I had to clean up underwear': Can startup ‘bro culture’ be reformed?

By Laurie Segall

Months after a sexual harassment lawsuit plagued virtual reality startup UploadVR, there are lingering questions about the company's leadership.

What happened at UploadVR has left the virtual reality community divided. The founders told CNN Tech they’ve made changes, brought in new executives and established an HR structure. But women who used to work at the startup say the company hasn't gone far enough in creating a positive environment for women.

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UploadVR’s founding story set the stage for a perfect storm: young founders, millions in funding and a lack of corporate structure. The startup launched in 2014 as a hub for other virtual reality startups. It was a coworking and event space for VR companies, and had a digital publication that kept close tabs on everything happening in the virtual space. The idea was to make virtual reality “cool” and accessible beyond a tech-centric crowd. For founders in their early 20s, that meant throwing parties.

Daisy Berns, a former employee, painted a picture of a culture where the lines between employer and employee blurred.

“I thought, 'These guys are young like me, and we’re active and we’re go-getters.' But it led into something that was more than just that,” she said.

Daisy Berns, a former UploadVR employee, was in charge of cleaning and doing the dishes.

Daisy Berns, a former UploadVR employee, was in charge of cleaning and doing the dishes.

In May 2017, Elizabeth Scott filed a lawsuit against UploadVR, alleging gender discrimination, harassment and a hostile work environment. According to the lawsuit, a space called “the kink room,” which had been set up as a demo for an adult virtual reality company, was also used by male employees to engage in sexual activities.

“I would every once in awhile find underwear in that room, and we would make jokes about it and have to clean it up....that was a part of it. Startup life, I guess,” said Berns, who's speaking out separately.

Screenshots obtained by CNN show internal chat boards where pictures of underwear were posted and “random sex sessions” were joked about.

CNN Tech obtained some of UploadVR’s internal Slack channel discussions

CNN Tech obtained some of UploadVR’s internal Slack channel discussions

According to the lawsuit, women were expected to behave as “mommies" and were tasked with “womanly” jobs like cleaning up after parties -- including disposing of leftover condoms.

Berns said people pitched in occasionally, but she said it was known that as the general manager, she was in charge of cleaning and doing the dishes.

“We had a male general manager before and he did not do that,” she recalled.

UploadVR founders Will Mason and Taylor Freeman acknowledge that many of the cleaning duties fell to women -- but said it was a shared responsibility and was due to the functions of those women's jobs.

“When you run a space that has events and is a coworking space, you have to have people that are tasked with maintaining that space at all times,” Freeman said. “Those two people, our events producer and our office manager, were both women. And so, yeah, it was just a very clear part of their responsibility to clean up after events."

An UploadVR party shown on its Youtube channel

An UploadVR party shown on its Youtube channel

The lawsuit also alleges more subtle instances of sexism. Male employees “separated and excluded” themselves from the women, according to the lawsuit, which alleged that Scott wouldn't be invited to lunch with male employees where work was discussed. When she asked to join, according to the suit, she was ignored. It also alleged that she was left off emails or excluded from important meetings.

The lawsuit also alleged that founders made inappropriate comments about the female employees.

“Freeman would comment about how the plaintiff was not the ideal size he likes in a woman that he is going to have sexual relations with,” it read.

Scott settled the lawsuit with Freeman and Mason, and all of them are prohibited from speaking directly about the suit.

Berns said she and a handful of employees sent a letter asking the founders to step down after Scott filed the lawsuit in May 2017. When they refused, she quit, along with three others. The following week, another handful of employees quit, according to Berns.

“[The founders] are completely oblivious to any sexist behavior that they have ever done," Berns said. "And have completely denied -- internally and to themselves -- that they ever acted that way.”

With many women outraged, and others worried about retaliation for speaking out, Freeman and Mason are now saying they’ve made changes.

“There were things that we were doing that we didn't realize the impact they were having,” Freeman told CNN Tech. “We never intended to to put women in a position where they felt out of power or like they weren't being heard. We realize there's a lot of unconscious bias that exists in the entire industry and I'm sure that we were perpetuating without realizing it. We really didn't have the experience to create a culture where they had a voice.”

Freeman admits that the company's early events veered toward a party culture, with open bars, late nights and “inappropriate behavior in the office.”

"Unfortunately, it just wasn't the type of atmosphere that we wanted to breed," Mason said. "As a company, we've completely shifted over the last year, our focus and the style of events that we throw.”

"Unfortunately, it just wasn't the type of atmosphere that we wanted to breed."

Will Mason, Co-Founder and President of ‎UploadVR

One of the executives they hired in June 2017 was Anne Ward, who has 20 years of experience at tech companies was viewed as the female executive hired to clean up a toxic culture. But she left the company after just four months.

“I saw the opportunity to help a lot of people, to save jobs, give the investors their money back. And so, I felt I had no choice [but to take the job],” she said.

Ward believes the founders should step down.

“What it came down to for me was respect,” she said. “If I was a founder, and if there was something I could do that would make the team feel better, help the community heal, I would do it without hesitation, I would've stepped down. But that's not what happened.”

Silicon Valley's virtual reality community is close-knit. Many women have stories of blatant sexism or have experienced Upload's bro culture at the company's events, but they worry about speaking publicly for fear they’ll be being shut out of a niche industry.

Scott says speaking out meant losing job opportunities.

“I was completely blackballed in the community.”

Elizabeth Scott alleged retaliation in her lawsuit against UploadVR

“I was completely blackballed in the community,” she said. “No one wanted to cross them. This one company [was] just like, ‘Well, we still want them to write stories about us. We can't touch you.’"

Both Berns and Scott landed at jobs they say have respectful environments, but say the experiences at Upload were incredibly difficult and alienating. As the #MeToo movement spreads online and stories of workplace sexual harassment are exploding, people across industries are asking the question: Now what?

For Scott, the 20-page lawsuit has given her back power she felt she lost at the company.

“I kind of feel like this is my voice. It's right there,” she says, pointing at a printed copy of the suit. “I would absolutely do it again. If it's helped one person, then I know I did the right thing.” ■

This story originally published on November 9, 2017.

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