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Facebook chooses to prioritise its own interests, like making more money.

Posted on 4th October 2021

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This article on the BBC is about the Facebook whistleblower: Frances Haugen.

She has been leaking Facebook internal documents, initially anonymously, but now she has revealed her identity.

She has quite a lot to say about Facebook's business ethics, or lack thereof. In one statement on CBS's "60 Minutes" programme, she said "There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook". "Facebook over and over again chose to optimise for its own interests, like making more money."

Well Duh! As I have written before in this blog thread, the issue is with the laws and stock exchange regulations governing corporations, which constrains companies to maximise profit; company officers may be fired, fined and even barred from holding jobs as corporate officers, for choosing to prioritise other things like the environment, public decency, political stability, etc.

Many people are clamouring for companies to act more for the public good, but are shouting at the wrong target. If they want corporations to act more responsibly, the laws and regulations need to be changed to allow companies to prioritise things other than profit, and provide them with financial and legal incentives to do so.

The Right To Repair Is Coming.

Posted on 9th January 2019

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There is some good news about the right to repair goods that we buy. The BBC reports, here, that the EU are proposing to force manufacturers to make goods that last longer and are easier to mend. The European proposals refer to lighting, televisions and large home appliances.

This article on The Verge reports that 18 states in the USA are considering similar legislation.

I see this as a major step forward. In the last few years I have had to replace:

  • A washing machine, from Siemens, which became too expensive to repair, and could only be repaired by a technician from the manufacturer;
  • An automatic coffee maker (which cost about €650);
  • An electric fan, which no longer works, and which I am unable to repair;
  • A UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply - very expensive and too heavy for me to lift alone), which conked out immediately after the warranty expired;
  • Two network switches, which were damaged by thunder storms;
  • A network router, probably also damaged by a thunder storm.

In addition, I have:

  • A Siemens dishwasher, which has had to be repaired several times, and the last 3 times we were told that the technician wasn't sure whether the repair would hold;
  • A Siemens fridge/freezer, which needs constant attention to stop it icing up (repair is possible, but requires two people to remove it from the kitchen unit, to access the back of the machine, and the repair only works for about a month);

The lists above are probably not even complete.

I also replaced the hard disk in my laptop with an SSD (solid-state disk), and doubled the amount of RAM - I was able to do it myself, but it was extremely difficult (I had to open the laptop many times to get it properly re-assembled and working), and required special tools.

The Right To Repair.

Posted on 2nd October 2017

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The issues described in this article from The Economist are probably all too familiar to many readers. Things are being deliberately made more and more difficult to repair: either simply constructed to be hard to fix, or only repairable with specialist equipment.

This problem is becoming endemic in very many industries, affecting smart-phones, tractors, cars, computers, furniture, bathroom fittings office equipment, etc. It is not only in items which contain software, but also purely mechanical things. One notable exception is goods from IKEA, probably because their flat-pack furniture comes with tools for assembly, and they want to minimise the number of tools that they give away with the furniture, but other manufacturers are now frequently building their products with non-standard screws and bolts (just look at the vast array of different types of screw-heads here).

The other aspect of this problem is built-in obsolescence. Machines and even passive items like bathroom fittings and equipment are now designed to wear out, often annoyingly quickly. This might be good for the manufacturers, but it is not good for our bank balances, and also not for the environment: we are forced to throw things away after two or three years because they are worn out or broken, and cannot be repaired. As an example, the cistern on my toilet needs to be regularly serviced because of lime-scale build-up, otherwise it just runs all the time, but each time I remove the cover, another piece of plastic falls off, and as a result it will soon need to be replaced, adding another piece of plastic to be disposed of. Manufacturers, unfortunately, are getting much better at designed-in obsolescence: if they design something to have a service-life of 3 years, it is very unlikely to last for 4 years.

The Economist's story describes a movement to establish a legal right to be able to repair products, which would certainly help. Another trend is a library of 3D printer patterns, which you can download to print replacement parts at home (if you have a 3D printer at home, which most of us do not), but manufacturers have refused to supply their designs for use in creating these parts libraries, and have even sued third parties (under patent and copyright laws) who have created such libraries independently.

I rather like the French laws on this matter, where planned obsolescence (designing a product for a limited lifespan) is already an offence punishable by up to €300,000 ($354,000) or up to 5% of the maker’s average annual sales in France, whichever is higher, and manufacturers have to tell customers how long they can expect the goods to last. At last, at least in France, it is possible for consumers to make informed decisions on the total lifetime cost of ownership; this urgently needs to be added to the legislation in other countries.

Given the environmental imperative (so many of the items in our homes and workplaces are plastic, or contain toxic metals), we should not be forced to throw things away so often, with no option to repair. I might not always choose to repair something, but I would like to have the choice.

The other issue that The Economist raises is that of ownership. This is mainly a problem when a piece of equipment has a software component, but also applies to music and movies. If you have a smart-phone, as most of you do, you own the hardware, but not the software that makes it work, in the same way as Mr. Guy Mills and his John Deere tractor (he is allowed to repair the hardware, if he has the right tools, but not the right to repair or modify the software, which controls everything from the engine to the armrests, because he doesn't own it). If you own a Tesla self-driving car, you also don't own the software, and terms of use apply: you are not allowed to use the vehicle to make money with ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft (apparently because the firm plans soon to launch its own such service, called “Tesla Network”). If you use Microsoft's Office-360. you are probably already aware that you didn't buy it: you leased it.

I have been resisting the use of non-owned products as much as I can, for a while now, but they are so ubiquitous that it is impossible to avoid them completely: Smart-phones are the obvious example; I need to have one, for work, and there really are no options for owning the software components. I really think we need some enhancement of our legal right in this area.

More Ethics in Business.

Posted on 13th June 2014

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This story, from a few weeks ago, raises an interesting dilemma.

Mark Carney, the new governor of the Bank of England, says that bankers should be more ethical in the way that they do business. This is not a new idea: business leaders in all industries have been asked to be more ethical, more green, and generally more socially responsible many times in recent years.

Whilst I think that this is a very good idea, and a prerequisite for success in many recent drives to make the world a better place (less prone to financial crises and less polluted, and with less tax avoidance), we seem to be forgetting something rather important.

Business leaders are answerable to their shareholders, and to the regulatory arms of stock exchanges and similar bodies. Their answerability is very clear, and very simple: to maximise profit. If they make decisions which do otherwise, they can be fired, fined, and even barred from office.

If we want business leaders (bankers and other executives) to be more ethical, we therefore need to change the rules under which they operate. We need to not only take away the risk of punishment and censure for "doing the right thing", but also to forcefully incentivise being more ethical. Any system of incentives needs to be strong enough to outweigh the loss of income which results from decisions which reduce (or even just defer) profits, remembering that senior executives get very large bonuses based on performance (i.e. the profits and turnover of their companies).

So, Mr. Carney, please devote a little more attention to the changes needed to enable this more ethical approach to business. Without those changes, it is all just wishful thinking.