GitLab backtracks on tracking users

GitLab, a company that positions itself as the open version of GitHub, struck a nerve this week when it announced it would start tracking users, both in its self-hosted and cloud products—a change that frustrated users so much it was backtracked in a matter of hours.

The changes, under the moniker of an update to 'Telemetry Services' (which sounds less scary than tracking but means the same thing), saw GitLab planning to add both third and first-party tracking to its tools, which largely didn't exist before. 

If you're a paying customer, this is the kind of thing that would probably trigger a security audit, but Gitlab hadn't thought of it as a big deal. Retroactively adding Javascript snippets (both open and closed-source) to people's software is kind of a dick move in any industry, but developers are particularly sensitive to this kind of thing.

This is a tough one, because as a product person, telemetry is critical to understanding how users actually interact with a product and influences how roadmaps are prioritized. But, usually the telemetry is added much earlier on, and it's opt-in rather than on by default, like GitLab planned to do. The way it communicated the change didn’t help, in this climate, nor did it seem to understand the implications of flipping it on for those larger customers.

After Cambridge Analytica and all the other data breaches we've seen in the last few years, people are more sensitive to being monitored, and telemetry is the whipping boy for those concerns. It's one thing to say "we need telemetry to get better data" but Gitlab failed to explain why and users are rightfully frustrated.

This is a fascinating case of getting the messaging and timing wrong, solving an internal need without really understanding how it could be perceived by users, particularly in the sensitive open source community. Telemetry is often a necessary evil, but as Firefox found out in the past, it isn’t really a feature your users actually want.

Twitter finds its backbone

In a surprising turn of events, it turns out Twitter’s executive team has a backbone. Today, Jack Dorsey announced that the company will not accept political advertising, like, at all:

We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.

This is a surprising stance from a CEO that has historically been silent on a plethora of issues, including y’know, allowing nazis to roam free on its platform. But, it stands in stark contrast to the stance of Facebook, which takes money from politicians, has an entire division dedicated to getting more ad dollars from them, and will even tolerate misinformation in those ads.

Twitter’s stance is simple: “While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions.” That’s huge, and says a lot about the challenges in actually moderating those ads to begin with.

Dorsey continued:

For instance, it‘s not credible for us to say: “We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad…well...they can say whatever they want!

Does this feel like a sub-tweet to you? Because it certainly is accurate to Facebook’s stance on this whole topic, which is shaky to begin with. Just overnight, a San Francisco man announced he’d run for governor in California specifically for the purpose of running Facebook advertising. How’d that pan out? Facebook banned him, for violating... some sort of made-up rule.

All of this stands in stark contrast to the news that Facebook had a record quarter, despite facing its toughest opposition to date from the government. Twitter making this decision will pile on the pressure, and put the light back on Facebook: can it really stick with this terrible, bullshit stance? Knowing Mark Zuckerberg, probably.

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