Why Coinbase will struggle to ban politics from the workplace

Programming note: There’s a presidential debate tonight! Here’s how to watch it online. And here’s Politico’s handy “pre-bunk” of 10 lies you’re likely to hear at the debate.

If there is a manager in your life, there is a good chance that they are miserable right now.

They are miserable for the reasons everyone is miserable: the pandemic; quarantine; the challenges of working from home while raising children; the steady erosion of American democracy. But unlike us working stiffs, managers are miserable for another reason: their employees are miserable, too — and worse, they expect the managers to do something about it.

In July I wrote about how a surge of employee activism inside tech companies was beginning to remake the relationship between managers and their workforces. The turbulent past four years have roiled once-harmonious businesses of all sorts, from venture-backed e-commerce companies to giants like Google. Increasingly, workers want their employers to take political stands, as I wrote about last week after listening to a summer’s worth of internal meetings at Facebook. And because these companies sell themselves as “mission-driven” to their idealistic employees, many managers feel pressure to live up to that by engaging with current affairs.

This is particularly true because the US government has become staggeringly unresponsive to its citizenry — unable to provide for their basic safety and economic security during a historic crisis. Meanwhile, corporations — particularly big US tech corporations — tend to be very responsive to their workforces, courting their feedback regularly and using it to improve the operations of the company. And so the worse that the government performs, the more that workers ask of their employers.

Other managers, though, are taking a look at all of these dynamics and saying the hell with it. Take it away, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong (emphasis his):

It has become common for Silicon Valley companies to engage in a wide variety of social activism, even those unrelated to what the company does, and there are certainly employees who really want this in the company they work for. So why have we decided to take a different approach?

The reason is that while I think these efforts are well intentioned, they have the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division. We’ve seen what internal strife at companies like Google and Facebook can do to productivity, and there are many smaller companies who have had their own challenges here. I believe most employees don’t want to work in these divisive environments. They want to work on a winning team that is united and making progress toward an important mission. They want to be respected at work, have a welcoming environment where they can contribute, and have growth opportunities. They want the workplace to be a refuge from the division that is increasingly present in the world.

As a result, Armstrong said, Coinbase would not take positions on broader societal issues, advocate for political causes or candidates, or commit more than a minimal amount of time or resources to nonprofit work. “We are an intense culture and we are an apolitical culture,” he wrote.

Armstrong’s post resonated with some prominent members of the managerial class, who showered it with more than 5,000 Medium claps. “Yet again, Brian Armstrong leads the way,” tweeted Y Combinator founder Paul Graham. “I predict most successful companies will follow Coinbase’s lead. If only because those who don’t are less likely to succeed.”

As more people read Armstrong’s post, my timelines began to light up with takes. The tweets, which more often come from rank-and-file workers, expressed skepticism that an organization whose mission is “to use cryptocurrency to bring economic freedom to people all over the world” could also manage to be apolitical. Meanwhile, my direct messages lit up with takes from managers, who argued that a less political company is the kind that most people want to work at. If you’re an underrepresented minority and find yourself regularly confronted with internal posts that you regard as hostile, you’ll probably want to work elsewhere.

And sure, a person who is regularly posting hostile or borderline-hostile messages internally might deserve to be fired. But certain beliefs are protected — you can’t be fired for your views on religion, for example. And so, like basically everything we cover here at The Interface, the question of what employees should be allowed to say — and what they should be allowed to demand from their employers — becomes a question of content moderation.

Given how difficult content moderation is, it’s no surprise that some companies are trying to limit discussion of these issues at all. Coinbase made headlines for it this week, but earlier this month it was Facebook in a similar spot. Here’s Salvador Rodriguez at CNBC:

Under the new set of principles, Zuckerberg said, Facebook will ensure all employees feel supported at work, especially the company’s Black community, by strengthening the company’s harassment policy with more protections for underrepresented employees.

The company will also be more specific about which parts of Workplace can be used to discuss social and political issues. This change will be so that employees do not have to confront social issues during their day-to-day work.

If the past year has seen a surge of employee activism in the workplace, it seems, the next will see managers attempt to swing the pendulum back in the other direction. In addition to the moves announced this week, for example, Coinbase also removed two Slack channels that employees were once able to use to ask questions. (Like Facebook, the company now asks employees to submit questions in advance, with Armstrong and other executives answering only the questions with the most votes.)

Talking with current and former Coinbase employees over the past day, I found mixed reviews of Armstrong’s post. (The company itself declined to comment when I asked.)

“Most people disagree with the stance and don’t see a clear-cut separation of the company’s mission and societal issues,” one employee told me. “Others may agree with the spirit of what Brian’s suggesting, knowing how he personally thinks about mainstream issues, but don’t agree with the tone or the approach.”

Whatever you think about Armstrong’s move, I suspect that on some level we will ultimately look back on it as an act of wishful thinking. Armstrong is not alone in wishing that the polarized politics of 2020 would recede into the background long enough to let us concentrate on work. But nothing now unfolding in the world around us suggests that anything of the sort is about to happen. On the contrary, the next several weeks promise to inject politics into everyday life in frequent and possibly unsettling new ways.

It may be that your friendly neighborhood cryptocurrency exchange has nothing of consequence to add to these events. But it seems more than a little odd to declare that to be so in advance, and by fiat. Politics are not vampires — they do not need to be invited in to enter your home.

One last point: it was reported last night on Twitter by Erica Joy, and confirmed by my own sources, that Coinbase engineers walked out on the job in June after Armstrong declined to issue a public statement affirming that Black lives matter. (He later did so in a Twitter thread.) Inside the company, it is widely believed that Armstrong’s post this week is his response to the walkout — an effort to remind employees who is in charge.

And if that’s the case, it’s worth saying that much of what we have been discussing this summer has not been “politics” so much it has been human rights. Breonna Taylor was shot dead by police in the middle of the night; Armstrong’s post referred to the killing only as “recent events regarding Breonna Taylor,” before the coldness of the language was mocked on Twitter and he deleted any reference to her.

There are many issues on which I can easily accept that a cryptocurrency exchange, or really any company, has no opinions. But during an election year in which democracy itself is at stake, and state-backed violence against protesters continues unchecked, racial justice can’t be one of them. By lashing out at employees who dared to challenge him, the CEO’s worldview became crystal clear. Coinbase won’t be apolitical so much as it will be as political as he wants it to be, and those politics will be whatever Brian Armstrong says they are.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

Trending up: Facebook estimates that 100,000 new poll workers have signed up in response to the company’s election efforts. In North Carolina alone, 11,000 people signed up from Saturday to Monday morning, with 60,000 people clicking the link on Facebook. (Facebook)

Trending up: TikTok launched an in-app guide to the 2020 US election as part of its ongoing efforts to protect the platform from misinformation. It’s meant to help users register to vote and get information about federal, state, and local candidates. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)

Trending down: Amazon has deceived the public about rising injury rates among its warehouse workers, according to internal documents. The crisis is especially acute at robotic facilities and during Prime week and the holiday peak. (Will Evans / Reveal)

Governing

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) is stepping up its scrutiny of Chinese investments in US tech start-ups. The committee has been sending a flurry of inquiries about past deals, making startups more cautious about accepting foreign investments. Here’s Jeanne Whalen at The Washington Post:

Michael Borrus, the founding general partner of XSeed Capital, said CFIUS scrutiny is causing investors and companies to think twice about deals.

“We’ve had Chinese VCs or Chinese families who have been interested in putting money in” to some companies where XSeed Capital is a shareholder, Borrus said. “In the current environment, we’ve decided it’s too complicated.” […]

CFIUS is particularly focused on companies and apps that collect sensitive personal information on users, such as location or financial data, and on companies involved in technology seen as critical for national security, such as certain types of battery technology and biotechnology, lawyers said, requesting anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. The committee is mostly inquiring about Chinese investment, but on a few occasions has asked about Russian investors.

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines lashed out at Facebook for taking down fake accounts that supported his policies. The president, who rose to power in part by harnessing Facebook’s platform to get his messages to millions, is now making vague threats to shut it down in the Philippines. This is why Facebook was not excited about India banning TikTok, incidentally. (Jason Gutierrez and Paul Mozur / The New York Times)

QAnon leaders are asking followers to drop the “QAnon” label from their conspiracy theories and simply refer to their fight against a fictitious cabal of powerful baby-eating politicians. The move comes as tech companies crack down on QAnon content. (Ben Collins / NBC)

Baseless rumors about Joe Biden planning to use a hidden earpiece during tonight’s debate are spreading among right-wing influencers on Facebook and Twitter. “If Joe Biden isn’t hiding anything, why won’t he consent to a third party checking for an earpiece before tonight’s debate?” asked conservative activist Charlie Kirk. These lies have a history in US presidential debates dating back at least 20 years. (Kevin Roose / The New York Times)

Project Veritas, an organization run by right-wing activist James O’Keefe, has a new investigation on “ballot harvesting” that’s going viral on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. The video contains significant misinformation. (Popular Information)

There have been at least 10 major foreign interference claims related to the 2020 election in the month of September. The Digital Forensic Research Lab launched a tracker to assess the credibility and impact of each claim. (Digital Forensic Research Lab)

President Trump’s assault against Twitter may represent the most egregious violation of the First Amendment by a president since Nixon went to war against the Washington Post almost half a century ago, say these authors. The president has repeatedly accused the platform of censorship. (Lee C. Bollinger and Donald E. Graham / The Washington Post)

Google is set to win EU antitrust approval for its $2.1 billion purchase of Fitbit. The news comes after the search giant said it would restrict the use of Fitbit data for Google ads and would also tighten the monitoring of that process. (Foo Yun Chee / Reuters)

Industry

Amazon unveiled a new biometric technology called Amazon One that allows shoppers to pay at stores by placing their palm over a scanning device. To register to use the technology, a customer will scan their palm and insert their payment card at a terminal. After that, they can just pay with their hand. Jason Del Rey at Recode has the story:

The technology will be available at the entrance of two of the company’s Amazon Go cashierless convenience stores in Seattle, Washington, starting Tuesday, and will roll out to the rest of the chain’s 20-plus stores in the future, Amazon Vice President Dilip Kumar told Recode in an interview Monday. Recode reported in December that Amazon had filed a patent application for such a hand-payment technology.

The technology could also show up in Whole Foods stores, with Amazon hinting in a press release that it will introduce palm payments in the coming months at its other stores beyond its Amazon Go locations. Kumar wouldn’t comment on a potential Whole Foods implementation, though the New York Post reported a year ago that such a plan was in the works.

Facebook is promoting Alex Schultz, one of its longest-tenured product and growth executives, to take over as chief marketing officer. Schultz is taking over the CMO job from Antonio Luciom who departed last month. (Kurt Wagner and Sarah Frier / Bloomberg)

Zynga is shutting down its original FarmVille web game on Facebook at the end of the year. In July, Facebook said it would no longer support Flash games as of December 31st. (Kim Lyons / The Verge)

Media companies have largely backed off their attempts to compete with Facebook and Google’s digital advertising dominance. In 2017, many invested in pricey ad tech deals to lure advertisers away from the tech giants. (Sara Fischer / Axios)

Colleges are hiring students as COVID-19 safety influencers. They’re tasked with sharing coronavirus content written by the university on their personal accounts. (Ezra Marcus / The New York Times)

Emma Chamberlain has mastered the art of being relatable on YouTube, despite her increasing wealth and fame. She also just launched a new line of fair-trade coffee. (Rebecca Jennings / Vox)

And finally…

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