Hundred-thousand dollar Kickstarter cancelled amid threats and anger

Do we have to get used to the occasional failure?

A major Kickstarter campaign has fallen apart amid disputes between its founders, leading to accusations of fraud from its backers and renewing concerns over how the site deals with projects which fail to deliver what they promised.

Erik Chevalier, as part of a start-up board game company called The Forking Path, raised $122,874 to create The Doom That Came To Atlantic City, a inventive twist on Monopoly which sees players taking the role of Lovecraftian gods and destroying Atlantic City (the setting of the American version of Monopoly) in an effort to instigate hell on Earth.

The total raised was three-and-a-half times what the group had asked for, and let them promise increasingly intricate (and expensive) stretch goals, from new pieces in the game and rules additions to free stickers and artwork. In June last year they finished fundraising, and settled down to get the work done. The delivery of the game was estimated as November that year, and, although communication was fairly regular, that delivery date was missed. As late as June this year, the Chevalier confirmed that "the project is moving along" with a release this autumn. Then, this Wednesday, he announced the sudden cancellation of the whole thing:

After much deliberation I've had to make this decision. I've informed Keith and Lee and neither at all happy with this situation. Every possible mistake was made, some due to my inexperience in board game publishing, others due to ego conflicts, legal issues and technical complications. No matter the cause though these could all have been avoided by someone more experienced and I apparently was not that person.

The comments below the post contain a lot of angry people – which is unsurprising, given that amongst the backers are seven people who pledged at least $500, three who pledged $1000, and one backer who offered $2,500, in return for the designers hosting an afternoon of gaming and taking them out "to dinner at a fancy restaurant in Portland". Backers are trying to get the press involved, filing fraud complaints with the Oregon government, and demanding refunds – which Chevalier has promised to give, although the question of where the money to do so will come from remains unclear.

The designers of the game themselves have also weighed in. Keith Baker writes:

Lee and I don’t know exactly how the money was spent, why the backers were misled, what challenges were faced or what drove the decisions that led to the cancellation of the game. Not only did we not make any money from the game, we have actually lost money; as soon as we learned the true state of affairs, we engaged a lawyer to compel The Forking Path to come forward to the backers and to honor its pledge to issue refunds.

At this time, it's unclear how Forking Path is going to go ahead. Chevalier has issued a second statement, reiterating his intention to provide refunds, and Baker is preparing to provide a "print and play" version of the game – but someone is going to lose a lot of money whatever happens. Even if Forking Path hadn't spent a penny, 10 per cent of the funds received go straight to Kickstarter and Amazon; either the backers are out-of-pocket, or the company is.

This type of failure is going to get more and more common as Kickstarter grows, if only because the sheer numbers game means that there'll be more chances for catastrophe. In addition, there's an indeterminate amount of "zombie projects" at any one time – ones which aren't ever going to deliver what they've said, but haven't actually come clean to their backers about that. Given delays in delivery of up to a year are relatively common on the site, there could be a whole lot of people slowly realising that they aren't getting what they were promised.

It puts the company itself in an awkward place. Its success is built on customers' perception of it as a sort of Etsy-with-preorders, where you are buying concrete goods, just a little in advance. And the terms and services of the site back that up, with requirements for refunds in the event of non-delivery. But funding creative projects is an inherently risky thing. What can go wrong probably will, and if a creator hasn't budgeted for that, they're going to get burned.

That doesn't make it any nicer when something you feel you've "bought" never turns up; but it may be a fact we all have to get used to if Kickstarter is sticking around.

The Doom That Came to Atlantic City. Photograph: Kickstarter

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Mass surveillance doesn’t work – it’s time to go back to the drawing board

Lacking an answer to the problem of radicalisation, the government has confused tactics with strategy.

This week saw the release of not one but two parliamentary reports on the government’s proposed new spying law, the first from the Intelligence and Security Committee and the second from the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

Both reports suggested the government hasn’t fully made the case for some elements of mass surveillance put forward in the Bill. But neither went so far as to ask the most important question in this debate – does mass surveillance actually work?

The proposed law, known as the Investigatory Powers Bill, looks set to enshrine almost all the government’s mass surveillance powers and capabilities in a single law for the first time. It has been touted by the Prime Minister as a vital weapon in the UK’s fight against Islamic State.

Most of the noise about mass surveillance since the Snowden revelations has predictably come from civil liberties groups. But the privacy and safeguards debate skips over the highly dubious assumption underpinning the Investigatory Powers Bill – that mass surveillance will stop terrorists.

In fact, mass surveillance is not only ineffective but downright counter-productive.

A 2009 report by the US government found that only 1.2 per cent of tips provided to the FBI by mass surveillance techniques made a significant contribution to counter-terrorism efforts. Another recent study by the New America Foundation found that National Security Agency mass data collection played a role in, at most, 1.8 per cent of terrorism cases examined. By contrast, traditional investigative methods initiated 60 per cent of investigations. Suddenly mass surveillance doesn’t seem so vital.

This is because the technology is far from perfect. As computer scientist Ray Corrigan has written, “Even if your magic terrorist-catching machine has a false positive rate of 1 in 1,000—and no security technology comes anywhere near this—every time you asked it for suspects in the UK it would flag 60,000 innocent people.”

Perversely, this lack of precision means mass surveillance can actually frustrate counter-terrorism efforts. Michael Adebolajo, who brutally murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013, was so well known to the security services prior to the attack they had even tried to recruit him as an informant. Yet insufficient monitoring later on let him slip through the net. The same thing happened with the Hebdo killers. Mass surveillance means intelligence analysts are forced to spend their time fruitlessly sifting through endless reams of data rather than carrying out the targeted monitoring and detection that’s really needed.

Counter-radicalisation experts have meanwhile argued that mass surveillance may alienate Muslim communities, making them distrustful of the police and possibly even contributing to radicalisation. In 2014, Jonathan Russell from the counter-extremism group Quilliam wrote that the “introduction of a sweeping [mass surveillance] law…will be exploited by extremists to show that the government wants to spy on its own citizens [and] that all Muslims are suspected of being terrorists.” This will set alarm bells ringing for those who know the fight against terrorism will ultimately be won only by preventing radicalisation in the first place.

And therein lies the real problem with this Bill. It’s tactics, not strategy. If we stop for a second and think about what the problem is – namely that thousands of young Britons are at risk of radicalisation – we’d never prescribe mass surveillance as the answer. It would be nonsensical to propose something that risks making alienation worse.

The trouble is we don’t have a convincing answer to the actual problem. The government’s counter-radicalisation strategy is mired in controversy. So instead a different question is being posed. Not how do we stop people from signing up to join Islamic State, but how do we gather as much communications data as possible? GCHQ have an answer for that. It’s a classic case of confusing a tactic – and a highly unreliable one at that – with a strategy actually designed to tackle the root of the problem.

Never mind our privacy for a moment. For the sake of our security, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and think of something better.

 

Andrew Noakes is Senior Advocacy Officer at the Remote Control Project. He writes about covert and unconventional methods of warfare, counter-terrorism, and human rights.