You take out one contentious tech company board member, another pops up somewhere else. Dropbox, the cloud storage service, announced on 9 April that Condoleezza Rice would be joining its board of directors, enraging some users and making many more simply uncomfortable.
This comes not long after the successful campaign to unseat Brendan Eich as CEO of the Mozilla Corporation over his support of an anti-gay marriage referendum campaign in California. That backlash was predicated on the obvious contradiction between Eich’s political beliefs and the wider political mission of Mozilla, which works for an open, emancipatory internet for everyone. (As its manifesto says, the internet “must enrich the lives of individual human beings”.)
Condoleezza Rice has, arguably, done much worse stuff during her career than donating $1,000 to an odious political campaign. As the Drop Dropbox site explains, there are four reasons she should step down from the board:
- As a member of the Bush administration, she was one of the chief architects of the Iraq War.
- Also, as part of the same administration, she was one of those who justified the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (that is, waterboarding, sleep deprivation, enforced nudity and other forms of torture) while US national security advisor.
- She also authorised the NSA to spy on UN Security Council members, and has argued in favour of the Bush administration’s mass warrantless wiretapping programme.
- Before joining the Bush administration she was a board member of oil company Chevron.
It’s not an auspicious list, and the third point has particularly rankled Dropbox users seeing as we now know about what the NSA has been doing to the internet. Its undermines confidence that Dropbox will keep its users' data secure, and fight to keep it that way.
There was no awareness of any of on the Dropbox blog when the announcement was made:
[W]e’re proud to welcome Dr. Condoleezza Rice to our Board of Directors. When looking to grow our board, we sought out a leader who could help us expand our global footprint. Dr. Rice has had an illustrious career as Provost of Stanford University, board member of companies like Hewlett Packard and Charles Schwab, and former United States Secretary of State. We’re honored to be adding someone as brilliant and accomplished as Dr. Rice to our team.”
In a pure business sense, it's reasonable for Dropbox to get somebody like Rice on board - she has tech industry experience from her time at Hewlett Packard, and her contacts book must be amazing (as you’d expect from a woman who has held prestigious roles in academia, politics and business). She’s not only a respected intellectual and political scientist, but a talented musician. Anyone with her qualifications and experience would normally be a boon to a company like Dropbox, especially as the widely-held belief in Silicon Valley is that the company is preparing for a billion dollar-plus IPO next year.
And yet, a search for the #dropdropbox hashtag on Twitter reveals a response to the news that is anything but positive:
— Georgie (@GeorgieBC) April 10, 2014
Dropbox, and its founder and CEO Drew Houston, couldn't possibly ignore this backlash - it’s coming from the very people who it needs to win, or keep, as customers. Houston's response, published on the Dropbox blog on Friday, points to the company's repeated public statements opposing intrusive government surveillance, but also does nothing to address Rice's record:
There’s nothing more important to us than keeping your stuff safe and secure. It’s why we’ve been fighting for transparency and government surveillance reform, and why we’ve been vocal and public with our principles and values.
We should have been clearer that none of this is going to change with Dr. Rice’s appointment to our Board. Our commitment to your rights and your privacy is at the heart of every decision we make, and this will continue.
We’re honored to have Dr. Rice join our board - she brings an incredible amount of experience and insight into international markets and the dynamics that define them. As we continue to expand into new countries, we need that type of insight to help us reach new users and defend their rights. Dr. Rice understands our stance on these issues and fully supports our commitments to our users.
In a way, it's strange that this keeps happening in the Valley. While other companies - like Nestlé - might face vociferous boycotts for their actions, they tend not to impact on the received wisdom that the greatest social responsibility is towards the shareholders. Radical tech startups, by virtue of offering products that could undermine traditional markets or consumer rights or product categories or whatever, end up working with products that often have a moral dimension as a key feature. And then there's also the way early adopters can set the tone of coverage about a business by how they talk about it on social media, and those people are the type to be concerned about ethical questions like, say, digital privacy.