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Special report: The surveillance state inside luggage company Away

This newsletter was conceived as a way to explore the daily collisions between big tech platforms and
December 5 · Issue #425 · View online
The Interface
This newsletter was conceived as a way to explore the daily collisions between big tech platforms and our democracy. But over time it has also become a newsletter about governance — the way that states govern companies, and the way that companies govern their employees. Increasingly, both states and corporations are governing through surveillance: deploying tools that allow them to monitor and control the actions of citizens and employees in real time.
Last month we took a week off from writing the newsletter to wrap up a pair of special reports. Today, Zoe Schiffer — who joined The Interface in September and puts together the links you read here each day — published hers. It’s a meticulously reported investigation into working life at the fast-rising luggage company Away, where the leadership has banned email, private Slack channels, and most direct messages.
The founders present their unusual communications policies as a tool meant to promote “transparency” and “inclusion,” but as Zoe documents — in a series of revealing, leaked Slack logs — in practice they allowed the company’s CEO to stalk and bully junior and minority employees.
Away embraced Slack in more ways than one — its co-founder, Jen Rubio, is engaged to its CEO Stewart Butterfield — but it took things further than most startups. Employees were not allowed to email each other, and direct messages were supposed to be used rarely (never about work, and only for small requests, like asking if someone wanted to eat lunch). Private channels were also to be created sparingly and mainly for work-specific reasons, so making channels to, say, commiserate about a tough workday was not encouraged.
The rules had been implemented in the name of transparency, but employees say they created a culture of intimidation and constant surveillance. Once, when a suitcase was sent out with a customer’s incomplete initials stenciled onto the luggage tag, CEO Steph Korey said the person in charge must have been “brain dead” and threatened to take over the project. “Slack bullying is a thing,” explains a former member of the creative team we’ll call Erica*. “In my experience there, it’s extensive and relentless. It wasn’t just co-workers pinning things on other people — it came from the execs.”
The story goes on to document how one group of employees was fired for starting a Slack room for discussing LGBT issues without the permission of the CEO; how a group of a customer service workers were denied their previously approved holiday vacations and told by the CEO that it represented an exciting career development opportunity; and how an experienced manager was fired after defending his employees.
The story of Away’s toxic work culture lit up Twitter today. “Infuriating and worth your time,” said the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo. “Maddening,” said CNBC San Francisco bureau chief Sally Shin. “This company sounds like a panopticon nightmare,” said Business Insider’s Rob Price.
“In customer service jobs, it’s crucial have a good internal culture where employees feel the boss has their backs,” said BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulos, who formerly worked in e-commerce. “Because the rest of the job is getting screamed at by strangers. Away really blew it.”
Please read the piece and let us know what you think. And we’ll be back next week with another special report for you.

Bonus Links
Facebook is debating whether to label political ads to indicate they have not been fact-checked, rather than vetting what candidates say. It’s one of a series of proposals the company is floating to political operatives as it seeks to placate critics ahead of the 2020 election. (Tony Romm and Isaac Stanley-Becker / The Washington Post)
Facebook filed a lawsuit against a company for compromising people’s Facebook accounts and running deceptive ads. The firm, ILikeAd Media International, was hawking counterfeit goods and diet pills.
Facebook took down the right-wing Facebook page Rowdy Republican, after an investigation by Popular Information showed it was being used to push potentially dangerous misinformation about diabetes.
Two Muslim US congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, have been targeted by a massive international operation that uses far-right pages on Facebook to inflame Islamophobia sentiments for profit. (David Smith, Michael McGowan , Christopher Knaus and Nick Evershed / The Guardian)
WhatsApp accounts are deleted if they become inactive — and a large group of Kashmiris found that their accounts had disappeared this week, thanks to a four-month internet outage in the region. I assume Facebook will fix this, but yikes. (Pranav Dixit / Buzzfeed)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is pushing to strip out sweeping legal protections for online content in the new trade pact with Mexico and Canada. Tech companies lobbied hard to make sure the trade agreement included Section 230-like language that would give them similar protections in Mexico and Canada that they enjoy in the US. (John D. McKinnon and Brody Mullins / The Wall Street Journal)
US antitrust regulators have broadened their scrutiny of Amazon to include its massive cloud-computing business. The original probe was focused on its retail operations. (Dina Bass , David McLaughlin and Naomi Nix / Bloomberg)
TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, already reached a settlement with a group of parents who accused the company of collecting and exposing the data and personal information of minors, in violation of the children’s privacy law. The lawsuit was filed on Tuesday. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
TikTok is facing a growing backlash in India over privacy and data security, mirroring the situation in the US. The app also faces an added level of scrutiny in India due to “decency” concerns, however. Some people have been fired from their jobs after their videos unexpectedly went viral. (Saritha Rai / Bloomberg)
The man who helped grow Infowars into a full-blown conspiracy theory media empire has had a change of heart. This piece gives an inside look at how his former boss, Alex Jones, operates. (Josh Owens / The New York Times)
Free-speech advocates are suing the Trump administration over its policy that requires foreigners to list their social media accounts as part of their visa applications. They say the rule violates federal law and the Constitution. (Tony Romm and Drew Harwell / The Washington Post)
Following this week’s news that Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are stepping down from the company, here’s a detailed timeline of their journey from startup founders to billionaire retirees. (Nick Statt / The Verge)
Smartphones are changing how people follow elections, according to a new study. They’re getting much more news overall — and doing a lot more passive scrolling. (Jim Waterson / The Guardian)
And finally ...
How Artists on Twitter Tricked Spammy T-Shirt Stores Into Admitting Their Automated Art Theft
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