February 26, 2024

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Before visitors set foot in the offices of many technology companies, they have to sign a (digital) promise not to babble about what they hear or see there. Religious leaders in the United States have made legally binding agreements not to talk in detail about their online worship collaboration with Facebook. And Amazon demanded that testers of an insightful body-scanning technology not reveal anything about the experience.

Nondisclosure agreements like these have become an integral part of many influential people and institutions seeking to keep secrets, sometimes for understandable and sometimes horrific reasons. Nondisclosure agreements and similar legal agreements have been used to cover up sexual abuse, harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

NDAs are definitely not limited to the tech industry. But the power of big tech companies and the popularity of their products make their attempts at enforced secrecy particularly dangerous, as NDAs keep the public from fully understanding how these companies shape the world.

Using NDAs, even in trivial or routine circumstances such as visiting a technology office, is ironic in an industry that praises openness and transparency. Facebook says it values ​​free expression, but it might keep you from talking about the grapes you ate in the company canteen.

Yes, there are often good reasons for people and companies to require confidentiality or try to prevent competitors from learning their best ideas. And since many people, including journalists, like to be informed about potential technology products or projects, there may be a higher risk of material leaking from those companies.

But it’s also easy to criticize the willingness of many tech companies to toss NDAs like confetti around in silly and unsettling ways. Ifeoma Ozoma, the former Pinterest public policy manager, is among those pushing for a ban on NDAs, which prevent people who have experienced discrimination in the workplace from speaking publicly about their experiences. Some laws restrict NDAs for keeping sexual misconduct or dangerous products secret. (The individuals charged with abusive NDAs or other restrictive legal arrangements in the workplace are often women or black tech workers like Ozoma.)

Had tech workers in their companies not risked breaking nondisclosure agreements, the public might never have learned of the fraud at the Theranos blood testing company, the emotional and physical health risks faced by those who read Facebook posts with violence and sex, and Details on Russian Language Online propaganda reportedly causing voter chaos in the US.

“The large reach of these companies makes their use of exploitative agreements the biggest problem,” Ozoma told me in an email. “California-based companies are exporting overly restrictive, silencing agreements to every corner of the world. And they do all of this while claiming to care about speaking rights and freedom of expression. “

It could hurt other customers if Airbnb got customers to sign NDAs, if they encounter bed bugs in rented homes, or if privacy policies prevented customers from publicly complaining about their experience with aligners. And is it fair for Amazon and other companies to require elected officials to sign nondisclosure agreements on projects that use taxpayers’ money?

The requirement to sign NDAs before joining tech companies puzzled me when I first came across it. It feels like an unnecessary and trivial exercise of power. (One more question: are these agreements even enforceable?)

Many sensitive details are discussed in investment banks, law firms, news agencies and hospitals, and to my knowledge there are no nondisclosure agreements for anyone who comes through the door. Instead, employees tend to be careful not to share secrets where outsiders might hear them.

Here, too, NDAs don’t just apply to technology. The Trump White House used them. Some celebrities apparently require NDAs for friends or romantic partners. My colleagues reported last year that many companies require their employees to sign a nondisclosure agreement in order to receive severance payments.

Businesses and individuals have legitimate reasons to keep many of their secrets secret, but they could choose other legal means to do so, including confidentiality provisions that are more limited in scope. When powerful and forward-thinking tech companies use NDAs for anything and everything, it is often protecting them at the expense of the rest of us.

Tip of the week

Are your wireless headphones frustrating rather than magical? Brian X. Chen, the New York Times consumer tech columnist, is here to share your {SCREAMS} and let us know when to give up:

Wireless headphones are great. They can be moved around freely, are easier to store than wired earphones and have decent sound quality. However, recently I stopped doing one type of use on wireless earbuds: video calling on a computer.

For over a year of remote work, my Apple AirPods have been unreliable for video calling on my desktop. Occasionally, the AirPods would disappear from the list of available Bluetooth devices on my Mac, forcing me to reset my earbuds. In other cases, I was unable to select the wireless earbuds as a microphone or speaker when I started a new video call.

I’ve tried a number of troubleshooting steps unsuccessfully and found many others having similar headaches. Then I read an article on the subject by my colleague Lauren Dragan at Wirecutter, our sister publication that tests products. It turns out that Bluetooth headphones often encounter problems connecting to computers – this is so common that manufacturers insist that wireless earbuds are “optimized for mobile devices” and do not guarantee that they will work well with computers.

That makes sense to me: We tend to update smartphones more regularly than computers, so mobile devices have newer Bluetooth technology that will likely work better with newer earbuds.

After thinking about all of the video calls that went wrong for me, I bit the bullet and bought a relatively cheap, old-school wired headset from Logitech just for my virtual meetings. It costs $ 25 and works perfectly every time. Sometimes you need to know when to stop using unusual technology.

  • The not entirely invisible hand of Beijing: The company behind China’s hugely popular WeChat app has suspended new user registrations, which, according to my colleague Paul Mozur, raised concerns about new regulatory pressures. In recent months, Chinese authorities have undergone a technical review that has affected Uber-like Didi, grocery delivery services, and online tutoring startups.

  • Questioning a technology that is widely used in law enforcement: Vice’s motherboard publication reviewed court records suggesting that ShotSpotter, a technology that detects gunshots and alerts law enforcement agencies, sometimes changed data about the location and time of gunfire at the request of law enforcement agencies.

  • The online video that brought attention and danger: An Iraqi teenager recorded an online video listing his country’s problems and asking President Biden for help. The video went big and my colleague Jane Arraf reported that the teen has been flooded with thousands of negative social media comments and is afraid to leave the house.

Mom and son set out to make origami cranes to mark the passage of time and learn about perseverance during the pandemic. They took the final photos of all 465 cranes last month.