What Is Socially Just

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In 2018, amidst the high school walkouts taking place around the country, I called on my alma mater, Brandeis University, to join a slew of colleges and universities and put its money where its mouth is. I—and I’m sure many other alumni—challenged them to commit to honoring their ideals of free speech & social justice in the wake of high school administrations cracking down on such free expression.

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They rose to the occasion and released a public statement articulating their support for free expression and exercise of social justice—a core ideal on which our school was founded—and committed to honoring interview dates and acceptance packages based on students’ merits, and not swayed by fickle administrative politics. It even got picked up by Buzzfeed News and I made my social media debut—my Twitter handle at least—in a Buzzfeed listicle; I guess I can cross that off my bucket list. 

Now, two years later, I called on them again to rise to a similar, if not more daunting challenge. And again, I imagine I wasn’t the only one.

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As the Trump administration seeks to engage in thinly-veiled isolationist and racist policies—in the wake of a global pandemic no less—simple students have found themselves caught in the political crossfire. The administration’s “guidance” over not allowing foreign students to take online-only classes for the U.S. fall semester is yet another stain on a consistently tumultuous and erratic educational policy. It’s not only antithetical to everything that Brandeis stands for as an institution, but what we as a nation stand for. One would think that such a stark departure from core American ideals would be enough to dissuade the Trump administration from pursuing such a draconian agenda.

And yet here we are. 

On the heels of Trump’s announcement of the new policy, Harvard University and MIT—two other Boston-based schools with which Brandeis is good-naturedly competitive—filed a joint lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts against the Trump administration. In Harvard’s own words to CNN:

“The order came down without notice—its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness. It appears that it was designed purposefully to place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall, without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others[.]”

The lawsuit itself expands further on this line of thinking:

“…for many students, returning to their home countries to participate in online instruction is impossible, impractical, prohibitively expensive, and/or dangerous.”

Why does any of this even matter? Why did I even tweet about it?

Well if you’re reading this as someone with any connection to Brandeis at all, you should be able to answer those questions on your own.

For everyone else, here’s why:

Because Brandeis was founded on ideas of equality, diversity, right to a first-class education, and above all, social justice. Indeed the latter phrase emblazons most every free space around the university’s campus.

In the school’s own words:

“Brandeis University was founded in 1948 by the American Jewish community at a time when Jews and other ethnic and racial minorities, and women, faced discrimination in higher education.

Brandeis’ visionary founders established a nonsectarian university that welcomed talented faculty and students of all backgrounds and beliefs.”

There, in the first breath of our school identity and history, is the commitment to being different in the face of adversity and acting as a tether—the tether—to being a socially just port in the storm. It’s no surprise that Justice Brandeis—the school’s namesake—adorns the central space by the Student Campus Center—the “green building” as it’s affectionately known to students. The indelible mark that Brandeis made on modern jurisprudence is now playing out before our eyes.

And in this moment, we as Brandeis alumni and community members cannot be spectators; we must be leaders.

When I called on Brandeis to step up to the plate in this game, I didn’t have a specific goal in mind beyond urging my alma mater to lead in the game from the start. Whether joining Harvard and MIT or finding a place similar to Cornell University, which has joined the case as a friend of the court and had this to say:

“This was wholly unexpected, and it is a senseless and unfair policy that runs counter to all that we stand for as a global academic community[.]”

Because in the end, this is not a game.

This is about who we are and what our legacy will be. I spent years at Brandeis majoring in history—I studied masses of it. From East Asian and European Medieval to Roman and American Colonial, there’s always one thing that’s true about history:

There is always a right side of it. And a wrong side of it.

It seems that the Brandeis administration is of a similar mind.

As I continued to tweet about this whole snafu last week, I noticed the Brandeis account liking all of my tweets.

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Then I saw their comment pop up; a link to a tweet from the Brandeis account late last Wednesday evening—hours after I’d logged off for the day and busied myself with dinner and household chores—that detailed their full statement on the matter. The official post—appropriately titled “Supporting International Students”—basically boiled down to this:

“In the face of such callous [ICE] guidelines, Brandeis must act in support of our international students and those across the country. Today, we are joining with a number of other colleges and universities in supporting an effort by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to temporarily prohibit the enforcement of these guidelines…We are committed to finding solutions to redress the ICE guidelines.”

However Brandeis is named in the suit—either jointly with Harvard and MIT or similarly to Cornell and other universities—is more or less irrelevant. Semantics are just that—semantics.

The only relevant thing is that they—we—are in the arena, fighting for what we as students, donors, alumni, and socially just thinkers went there for. This is how Brandeis can (and will) continue to define itself as a leading university and community in the coming years; how it proves to the outside world that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the Ivy League schools and similar institutions like Emory, Stanford, and MIT.

The suit came before a federal judge this week and it took all of five minutes (seriously!) for ICE and the Trump administration to cave. But I have no illusions; I imagine there will be other repressive agendas that follow. And in those moments, we as Brandeisians must see and meet these challenges head-on.

Because ultimately this isn’t a meaningless issue. There is no gray area here.

There is only what is socially just.

Unrolling the Unroll.me Conundrum

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TL;DR: The Unroll.me scenario highlights the need for more discussion on legal and TOS

Blowup

A couple weeks ago, NYT journalist Mike Isaac wrote a piece on Uber CEO Travis Kalanick that inadvertently gave legs to another story: Unroll.me. I’m not going to restate the facts of the backlash—you can go to multiple sources to read those. I will, however, point out something that I think was missing from the overall conversation, which I think is important for the tech community to assess as much as anything else about the story.

The exact implications of the backlash notwithstanding, it brings up two main points, both of which are connected, and one of which I’ve only seen any real discussion. In short, here’s why Unroll.me CEO Jojo Hedaya’s apology doesn’t solve the underlying problem:

  1. It placed all of the culpability on the Unroll.me team, and
  2. It presented “lack of TOS transparency” as the main problem, while the bigger problem as I see it is a lack of discussion and knowledge of TOS in general.

The first was a misstep because it painted Unroll.me as the villain in the narrative. It’s true: Unroll.me could have been much more transparent about their TOS practices, as plenty of people have already pointed out. In particular, Hunter Walk and Steve Sinofsky presented valid points on this in our tweet conversation. As Hunter pointed out, the company’s suggestion that users simply “Read the TOS” was at best insufficient and at worst callous. Steve also tweeted that trying to write an explanatory text of a contract (TOS) in plain English may well not hold up the same legally. Both are correct. But I also see something deeper.

The Precarious Balance

However, the full, unequivocal admission of guilt left Unroll.me holding the whole bag, while only a portion of any perceivable guilt actually lay with them. The cold reality of the entire situation is that the Terms of Service are there for a reason, and that reason isn’t just to take up space or peeve users when downloading a new app. It’s to protect and indemnify the company against any possible legal action; to assert that the company is in the right, and that some responsibility has to rest with the user.

Is the company always right? No. Is it always clear of indiscretions? Of course not (just look at Uber). But the point is that the TOS exists for a reason. And contrary to what many users might want to believe, that reason is not to please them or give them warm feelings inside. It’s to make sure that the company is legally protected.

But what about transparency? Is that not equally important?

The answer, more and more, is “yes,” it is important. But it’s also important that users don’t conflate transparency—of TOS, for example—with a lack of responsibility on their part.

Legal knowledge shouldn’t be seen as a dark art, and—companies’ TOS should be sufficiently clear so users understand and accept the terms outlined therein. It needn’t be a good/bad scenario—just one where all parties are clearly informed. In the context, the legal concept of “good faith” applies almost without question.

The Real Point

All of this leads up to the real point which should be central to everyone’s perspective: that the tech press and blogosphere should cover legal matters, especially those related to TOS, far more than they already do. I read countless articles and posts, and listen to numerous podcasts on fundraising, user-acquisition and retention, hiring, firing, going public, etc. But for all of that, I see only a handful of posts or podcasts where legal knowledge is discussed with as much vigor and depth as new funding rounds are. Sure, those posts and podcasts exist, but they don’t get tweeted nearly as much in the tech mainstream as others on the aforementioned topics.

Why? Well, frankly, because legal stuff is perceived as boring. It’s not “move fast and break stuff”—it’s “move slowly, and make sure you read every word.” That’s not fun, but it is necessary. The larger lesson one should take away from the Unroll.me incident is that founders, VC’s, accelerators, and tech journalists should all turn around and discuss the Terms of Service as much as any other metrics. After all it’s the legal footing upon which the financial relationship between companies and customers ultimately rests. Well-done TOS should be emphasized just as much as raising a Series C round. After all, many companies won’t even get to Series C, but they for damn sure won’t get to Series A without a rock solid TOS.

Firsthand Experience

I learned this firsthand when I was starting my first company, a music-tech startup. What’s the first thing anyone thinks about when they hear “music company?” Getting sued. And I knew that.

So I read every TOS and license I could relating to music—I read Spotify’s, Apple’s, YouTube’s, SoundCloud’s, and even Rdio’s before they went under. I read every single word, and took notes on where each license and TOS assumed too much responsibility—some of which was unrealistic. And then I made sure that our own license and Terms of Service didn’t invite unwanted legal exposure—I wrote it that way. I knew everything in our TOS, and could run it over, forwards and backwards, in my sleep, to artists, founders, VC’s, or anyone else who asked.    

Of course not every person is equipped for feels prepared to write their own TOS. I did, but then again, I can’t code, so we all have our strengths and weaknesses. However, because I spent so much time researching, reading, and refining our license and TOS, I was intimately familiar with everything it said. You don’t need to be a lawyer to prioritize knowing your TOS. This is a massive advantage.

You Should Know Your TOS Forward and Backward, Inside and Out

Knowing what your company does and doesn’t do—what you’re allowed to do as written in your TOS—is an advantage because it’s something you can then share with your users. This gives you power. When you are well-versed in the legal aspects of your company as well as the financial or technical ones, you are able to paint a full picture for your customers and control the narrative that is told. It’s not about being deceptive—I would never advocate for that.

But people feel a whole lot less deceived when they’re able to have a real conversation about what they’re signing. Fear and doubt tend to dissipate when questions are welcomed, and people feel respected as customers and users.

This is what the takeaway should be, and where we focus future discussions. Yes, Unroll.me made some mistakes, and companies should try to learn from them and be open and honest with their TOS and other licensing agreements before anything questionable comes out. But we as an industry should similarly prioritize legal knowledge and versatility the way we do engineering prowess and marketing brilliance. In the end, it’s all required to make and run an amazing company.

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Thanks to Jason Rowley, Nick Abouzeid, Alex Marshall, and Eric Willis for reading drafts of this.

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!