Silicon Valley pioneer claims that Google and Facebook are “choking” the internet
06/22/2020 // Franz Walker // Views

As the founder and CTO of a tech company, you'd hardly expect David Heinemeier Hansson to be one of Silicon Valley's biggest critics. But the co-founder of Basecamp and creator of the popular Ruby on Rails web application framework is far from your typical Silicon Valley executive.

On social media, Hansson regularly tweets about breaking Google up and holding Tesla accountable for the failures of its Autopilot. The company he founded is one of the few that has eschewed having a presence on Facebook. Actions like these have earned him over 400,000 followers on Twitter.

Now, Hansson is once again taking aim at Silicon Valley's biggest firms. He claims that their near-monopoly is stifling the internet, stating: “A handful of companies have colonized the web, and they’re choking it.”

More than just pointing out these issues, Hansson has put his money where his mouth is and actually tried to do something about it. Back in 2018, he and fellow Basecamp co-founder and CEO Jason Fried started what would become Hey. The paid, $99-per-year, email service launched on June 15 and is designed to protect users from the types of invasive surveillance that have become the norm. (Related: Google and Facebook are the new NSA.)

From innovator to crusader

For the most part, Hansson was mostly content with nurturing Basecamp, the project management software business he had co-founded with Fried. Things started to change after the 2016 election when it came to light just how much private information Facebook had been able to share to political consulting firms without users' consent.


In an interview with Fast Company, Hansson said that that moment was “Pandora’s box” and that it laid bare “the way the industry actually worked.”

Following that, Hansson started doing more research into online advertising technology and was horrified by what he found. By December of 2018, he was disgusted enough with a series of targetted ads his own company ran on Facebook that he announced that Basecamp was becoming a “Facebook-free” business -- no Facebook ads, no presence at all on the social media site.

This was just the start. Hansson's crusade against some of Silicon Valley's biggest companies would continue to grow. This past January, Hansson testified before Congress in a hearing on the market power of online platforms alongside other tech industry leaders.

“At first I was a little cynical, to be honest, that I was just going to show up and deliver my little speech,” Hansson said. “When you’re on Twitter a lot, you’re in the bubble of thinking that everyone is paying attention to the same things you know. Then you get into the real world. It felt like we were delivering new information to Congress.”

According to Hansson, his experience in Congress gave him a newfound sense of purpose. Since then, he began advocating for more stringent legislation to “break up the monopolies” and “give consumers better alternatives.” The latter has become a personal refrain, with him reflecting that any advocacy needs to “present compelling alternatives.”

Inspiring others to build alternatives to the current leaders

For Hansson and co-founder Fried, the question now is if Hey provides a compelling enough alternative to justify its $99-a-year pricepoint. The two are hoping that people will be willing to pay for some radical changes to the email experience. This includes the automatic screening of emails to filter out advertising junk while also stripping out any tracking tools found in the emails themselves.

According to Hansson, the changes in Hey are being done because of how companies like Google are controlling the feeds of their email services.

“Email is getting turned into the [Facebook] News Feed. It’s an editorialized inbox that the likes of Google have designed for you,” he says.

Earlier this year, a report by The Markup exposed the fact that Google was marking some political emails as spam while giving others prime inbox space.

“It’s the same power that Facebook sits on; it’s their moral prerogative whether to use it. I don’t think that’s good,” stated Hansson. “I think it’s completely dystopian.”

So far, Hansson and Fried's efforts seem to be working with Hey having over 40,000 people on its waiting list before it launched.

However, Hansson also acknowledges that this, and even the 200,000 users that they're aiming for, is just “a drop in the bucket.” The real goal for him is to create enough buzz and momentum to put real pressure on the current market leaders in both email and tech in general. The hope is that Hey will lead to the creation of similar products from outside Silicon Valley.

“We can’t rely on the people who created the problems to solve the problems,” he stated. “We have to look for solutions outside of Silicon Valley.”

Sources include:

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