Had a good conversation with an internet ethics informal working group (which is a bunch of industry, government, and media folks discussing topics under Chatham House rules). One of the topics was what were the ethics, personal and professional, about working for companies that don’t match your own ethics.

As a user

For me, I explained why I left Twitter as a user, because I can’t support a tire fire and I’m free to go. I did the same thing many years ago with Facebook as a user. I had to come back twice, once for law school (they scheduled all events through FB, not uni infra), and once for employment (see below).

I understand that folks use both for work, and they don’t have the freedom to leave due to those obligations. I can’t make any judgments about someone’s participation in general, as I don’t know the variables they’re weighing. I just know that as a user, I don’t mind incurring the penalty for not being part of those networks anymore.

Working for the entity

As for work, I had to make that ethical decision too. A few years I went to work for the Zuckerverse in policy post-Cambridge Analytica, knowing that their ethics were stinky, but because I was convinced by the policy folks who wanted to hire me that they wanted to change. I wasn’t naive, I knew there was a strong chance that they were full of it when I hired on. The TL;DR of that experience was that they wanted people to love them again; they had no intention to do the work it took to change.

I lasted there about 18 months. I worked in some of the ugliest parts of the company advising them on privacy policy (not “the” privacy policy, but rather as an internal advocate for government and civil society concerns). I got some wins that you’d be surprised about (e.g. supporting changing requirement to provide pronouns/gender during reg, trying to make PYMK safer for vulnerable folks, simplifying the excruciating deactivation/deletion workflow, making market research as transparent as possible, curtailing purchasing from data brokers).

It was tough work, because I had to convince people who had to make revenue goals for their bonuses to make decisions on the users’ behalf that made it harder to meet those targets. The fact that I had any success at all told you that I wasn’t working with monsters as my peers, but people who had to deal with massive conflicts who cared enough to dare to fail at personal cost. The perverse incentives are even more insidious when people have to weigh not just their own financial interests, but those of their entire team as well. Peer feedback is a great way to put the knife in on a colleague who jeopardized your bonus.

I realized it was time to go as a result of a personal red line that was crossed. I get tough business decisions. I get losing a battle between “doing the right thing” and massive profits if the case you made for your protective stance isn’t compelling enough. However, when my org’s leadership straight up lied to us about supporting a decision to tank an expected unfavorable report by a civil rights group on business practices–stuff you probably read about–instantly, I was done. The gobbling and backtracking that occurred when their lie was easily called out… The lie was bad enough, but the fact that they were so bad at it but expected really smart people not to figure it out was insulting. This wasn’t fixable.

It’s not hard for most people to grok: either tell folks that it was a tough decision but here’s why you went along with business leadership, or tell them you disagreed but were overruled if that was the case. Don’t say the latter when you actually did the former and hope somebody wouldn’t find out. Don’t lie and say company leadership made a decision without you if you were in the room and signed off. In short, lead.

So, what’s the point?

Long anecdote to circle back to the topic, which is whether you should work for a place whose ethics don’t match your own. It depends, and how long you stay depends. I don’t blame folks who stayed on, despite being disgusted with the lies. Some had a crushing mortgage, dependents or other obligations. The cratering stock price may ease the transition for them now, but I don’t know their specific situations and don’t make sweeping judgments about those either. I was able to quit immediately, so I did. I didn’t take a victory lap in the press like some did (having press people hit me up on my doorstep at home when I try to keep a super-low profile was very unnerving and unwelcome). For many folks, I don’t think that’s about helping the public as much as that’s helping your personal brand. Personally, I’m happy nobody cares who I am, and I’d like to keep it that way. To that end, I’m a semi-retired nobody years away from that job, so anything I know is dated. I knew I couldn’t be part of something that where my leadership was self-aware about the wrong path but chose it anyway.