The challenges facing ethical tech companies
Jon von Tetzchner is a pioneer in the browser world, having first created the web browser Opera in 1995, and is now founder and CEO of Vivaldi, a feature-rich privacy-focused browser. Whereby and Vivaldi share some of the same roots; headquartered in Norway, with both founders having spun their initial companies out of the Norwegian state-owned telco, Telenor.
Jon von Tetzchner is a pioneer in the browser world, having first created the web browser Opera in 1995, and is now founder and CEO of Vivaldi, a feature-rich privacy-focused browser. Whereby and Vivaldi share some of the same roots; started and headquartered in Norway, with both founders having spun their initial companies out of the Norwegian state-owned telco, Telenor.
I invited Jon to a chat about the role that technology plays in the current situation and to hear his reflections on why privacy is only increasing in importance, particularly with end-users becoming more and more conscious and concerned about how their personal data is being used.
Ingrid Ødegaard, Co-founder and Chief Product & Technology Officer at Whereby
Jon, this is the second independent browser company you’ve started. Why do you feel that it’s important to have competition within the browser market?
The web browser is a tool that people spend a lot of time with, and there was a time when we were actually quite close to only having one. If that had been the case, we would have been left with just Internet Explorer, which dominated the market fully for a long time. I don’t think anyone would have been happy with just one option, because even Microsoft themselves were not satisfied with Internet Explorer. It just shows the value of competition and how it drives the quality of software. Because of competition, we push each other! Browsers are very important because they are probably the most used pieces of software we have. So, having a choice and variety of browsers to choose from is crucial.
At Vivaldi, you work closely with your users, adapting the browser to their needs. How do you do that and what drives your priorities?
Instead of doing what people usually do when they develop software, which is looking at what others are doing, how people are using different software, and relying on aggregate data to make decisions, we prefer to listen to what people say.
We have a group of volunteers called "The Sopranos" within the Vivaldi community who help us test our browser. They spend a lot of time trying to help us to help others and we typically release builds to this group once a day or sometimes more often. We then release snapshots to the wider community once a week (or more) and that allows us to get continuous feedback on what we are doing. Our community connects in forums with almost 700.000 registered members, and they get free email and blogging services alongside the forum access.
We have a mixture of good and bad feedback which come from people who typically have very strong and constructive opinions. Regardless of the type of feedback, it is invaluable to us because it helps us build a better product.
In general, we try to build a product that gives people flexibility. We all have different ways of working. So with a tool that you use as much as a browser, being able to adapt it to your preferences is clearly important.
In this current crisis, a lot of people have been forced outside of their comfort zone and have had to explore new tools and different ways of working. How do you think this will affect the way companies and people collaborate in the long term?
A lot of people have had to work in a different way lately. But for us who work (literally) on the internet, this way of working isn’t new. Understandably, however, many are trying to find ways to replicate the feeling of being in the office.
When faced with a difficult situation, the natural reaction is to seek the comfort of being together with the people we trust and are used to working alongside. When everyone is sitting at home, we have to try and find ways to turn it into something positive rather than negative. As of now, it's my impression that a lot of people are learning that this can actually work really well! If some of the new ways of working stick, it may have accelerated a development that would have happened either way within the next three to five years.
In Vivaldi, when we have a new need or problem to solve, we try every tool available to find the best fit. That’s how we ended up using Whereby as our go-to video meeting tool across the company. Did you know that you can use tiled view in Vivaldi to open a video meeting next to whatever web page you're working on? We are seeing similar things from our new users, as other people start looking for alternative browsers. We are confident that we can be a better tool than other browsers out there. As soon as you spend more time online, you start organising data and organising what you’re doing - and you want a browser that helps you do this!
How do you think companies who were already working remotely pull ahead? They clearly have an advantage in today’s situation.
It depends on the type of company, but for us, it was quite normal to spend one day in the office and then the next at home. We didn’t skip a beat when COVID-19 struck and everyone just continued working as normal from their homes. We have had flexibility in the workplace for such a long time, and now we saw the kind of resilience that gave us. However some companies, quite understandably, were not ready and had to deal with a big disruption in their operations. We even saw this with Google (because we work with Chromium), who usually have scheduled releases but suddenly, they skipped one. They announced an upcoming release, but then they pulled it and issued a statement that said they didn’t know when they’d be back. You would think that a company like Google would be ready, but it just shows that there is real change and everyone is adapting.
You recently launched new versions on both desktop and Android which both have in-built privacy tools. How have they been received? Was this something the community wanted?
Today we are seeing so much data being collected, but I believe that this something that has only started happening over the last few years. There is an argument that supports data collection because that’s partly how the internet is funded, but it operated well as a business model before it turned into a surveillance-type capitalist entity. This is something I feel needs to be changed and we have been advocating the need for this to be regulated.
We delayed the initial Android release because we wanted to add a reliable tracker radar and ad blocker. We decided to work with DuckDuckGo because we believe that their Tracker Radar is one of the best and most effective as it allows us to stop a lot of that tracking that many people don’t like. Many of our community members wanted this feature added into both versions, so we had to switch our thinking from just browser-based, to Android, too. Working on the Android version was more challenging because we ran into issues when using Chromium, so ended up using a native UI. We wanted to make sure we did it right and that it would work really well.
I believe we have done this successfully because we have done it with the user in mind; each user gets to decide what they want to see, how much tracking they want to allow, and how many ads they want.
Personally, I am in the camp where I would like to see the free internet remain, but on the other hand, I don’t like tracking. I believe that regulation is needed, however, I do not think users should have the option to choose whether they are tracked because we know that this method doesn’t work. The way that users acknowledge and allow cookies without necessarily checking what data they are collecting, is proof enough.
There’s a saying “when you don’t pay, you are the product”. At Whereby, we find that a lot of people are interested in understanding how we make money and what our ownership is, which is great, because our revenues do not come from ads or selling user data. We, and many startups like us, rely on a small proportion of users to pay for a better version of the product. But that’s also a hard model to sustain especially when the big tech giants, offer the same thing for free.
This is a model that we see a lot of and is often used by big companies. Take Google as an example. Google Maps is a wonderful service, but it actually has a dark side. In the beginning, Google offered its Maps API for free and then, after a while, started charging. It’s an effective method of luring people in and, despite Google having some serious competitors in the maps market, by offering their product for free it becomes very difficult for any competitors to gain traction. Ultimately, competition is gone. If you only have one player in the market, things start to stagnate. The more competition there is, the more innovation you’ll have and that’s ultimately what we want to see.
Nowadays, people also focus on privacy when looking to use a new product. Big companies in the United States undertake practices that hinder privacy and, in reality, should be illegal. The EU has been more willing to take on this fight with big companies and it’s a really good thing because we need the competition, but we also need to have regulations on the data that is collected on people. Specifically, we need to ensure that building a profile on a user and then sharing that data is banned.
There has been a lot of talk of the issues with targeted ads in the run-up to the last US presidential election, and now there is another one coming up. I don't think people who are not working in or with technology, really understand it at a deep level and may not understand why privacy is important. What do you think is needed in order to build that understanding?
I think some countries are certainly more advanced than others when it comes to realising the value of privacy and, as such, are already dealing with the situation far better. A lot of people, when considering privacy, only think about their personal privacy and often conclude that they have nothing to hide or that they simply don’t care who knows what about them, but the issue, of course, goes far deeper than this. As such, the more society can be educated on the use of personal data and privacy the better.
In my mind, the collection of personal information en masse by the likes of Facebook and Google needs to be far more heavily regulated, and power needs to be returned to the individual, who must be fully informed in order to be empowered. Experience shows that if people understand how and why their data is being collected they are far more willing to comply, particularly if it is being used in a way that is ultimately beneficial to them.
What do you think will happen if this is not regulated in the long-term?
We are beginning to see the consequences of the huge amount of tracking that is happening, particularly on how profiles are being built and how those profiles are being used to target ads towards us. Many people don’t see this as an issue, but it’s actually quite frightening and dangerous, knowing that we are being profiled for political purposes to get us thinking in a certain way. This can quickly turn into a battlefield and in some ways, we are already seeing that. For example, we have seen this happen in regards to the elections.
We want our democracy to work in a different way rather than just getting spammed with opinions and being manipulated into having opinions we otherwise might not have. Being placed into “boxes” based on who we are and what we think is - I think - a serious problem and it’s there because of the issue surrounding the collection of data. I also believe that this system of targeted ads is having a consequence for publishers, too. But the real problem we are facing is a consequence of what some of the larger companies are doing; collecting data. We all need to start taking our users seriously because we want to support them, the media, and free internet content. I think regulation is the solution to this and I believe that would actually help the smaller, high-quality publishers and journalism in general on the internet. I really think that needs to be dealt with.
The EU’s approach with the privacy law GDPR has gone pretty far and has even forced some global companies, who want to target or serve the EU audience, to abide by their rules. However, it seems to only be forcing companies to be transparent about what they collect and give some control back to the user in what they consent to, but it doesn’t really stop tracking.
GDPR doesn’t stop tracking and I think that this is the core. I am aware that they have some rules relating to this which may prove helpful over time, but at the moment, users are getting prompted to accept data collection or cookies, and are given very little choice in the matter. I am, however, starting to get the impression that everyone is collecting and sharing data in the same way which is, in fact, not the case. I believe there is a huge difference between someone that owns a website and collects information about those people visiting the site, versus other websites which will share information on everyone and everything, but this can sometimes be hard to tell apart because most websites use the same dialogue to show they are collecting user data. This is wrong. In fact, I believe that if a site is collecting basic website analytics, there should be no need to show or prompt the user that they are doing this, but I feel strongly that if a company or website is collecting information on a deeper level and at scale to share with other parties, this should be made more apparent.
I think, particularly the big service providers like Google, which has access to a high level of information, should notify the user that they are collecting more than just basic information, but ultimately, should not be authorised to collect this level of data. I don’t think people realise that even banks, at least in the USA, share information on what you purchase. Your location is also being tracked inside buildings and that information is then being used for ad targeting later. There are a lot of ideas surrounding ads in those types of settings and I think it’s a massive problem.
Further to this, I believe that the big problem is that people look at it as a personal problem instead of a societal issue. The majority of the general public won’t be bothered by the fact that a company has information on them, but the real problem is how the data is used and by whom. When this data is then being used to target people at scale, it’s really powerful and can be used to manipulate people’s opinions.
Different countries currently have different privacy laws and there is obviously a big difference between the US and Europe. Some countries may have even stricter regulations, even within Europe. Here in Norway, we have been quite far ahead and the value of transparency is within our culture and society. Do you think it could become an advantage for a technology company to be based in a country where the culture and regulation/laws around privacy are strict?
On one hand, I think people will be looking to have access to software from companies that build ethically. On the other hand, I can see the reason as to why companies are collecting and selling data; it’s lucrative. Data is being sold and utilised in ways that can drive a lot of revenue but, but at the same time, the revenue return per user is very small, so selling all of our information for a relatively small amount of money doesn’t seem to be worthwhile for a small company, but big companies are clearly making a lot of money out of this.
So, when you, as a company, decide to do things more ethically, in some ways, you don’t have a benefit. However, I think that a lot of users want ethical companies because when people start seeing the difference between how their data is used (something that companies should be very careful with and not misuse) versus companies which take that data and build profiles, they will start to see a very big difference. I think more and more people are realising that this is a problem, and are now starting to select the companies that are doing the right thing.
So on to another topic, you’ve built two great companies (Opera and Vivaldi) from scratch and both with a very strong community and also very diverse teams with lots of international people. Can you talk about the principles that you have founded these companies on?
At the core, it’s about seeing the individuals. My teams have always been founded on the principles of Norwegian work culture that includes a flat structure, informal communication, and a strong sense of working together. At the same time, I have always built international teams. I know that people who come from various countries, sometimes struggle with these principles such as “Yes, you can talk to the boss”, “Yes, you can even tell the boss your own opinion or tell them you are not happy with their decision” and not get fired. We applaud having discussions which are a really good thing. We’ve taken this very far, and a lot of it is about realising that the employees are the most important part of the organisation.
When I started to build Vivaldi, we decided that we didn’t want investors. I was lucky enough to come out of Opera with some cash, and that allows me to fund Vivaldi. With Opera, I didn’t have that choice and it went in the wrong direction. I think this was due to the fact that we had to get other investors and unfortunately got unlucky with the choice of investors.
Another important aspect is that Vivaldi is employee-owned. This is our company and we are building it together. We are trying to create a good company culture. We are a distributed company. We have an HR manager in each of our three offices. Even though we are a small startup with just over 50 employees, we still have five people that are dedicated to taking care of all the employees. I don’t think there are many companies that have that kind of ratio, but we have really, really good people working on our employees’ wellbeing.
Anne Christiansen, one of the co-founders of Vivaldi, has worked with me at Opera. We realized that taking care of the employees and making sure they’re happy, is an extremely important task. There are a lot of different details that you’ll see that go into making people happy. It’s about things like food, flexibility and more. For example, we have a little playroom in our office for our people to bring their kids to work if there are issues with their kindergarten or school. Although we want people to work from the office, there's also flexibility to choose to work even from home whenever necessary.
We also have regular gatherings every summer at our Innovation House in the US. The house has 30 bedrooms. This encourages as many people as possible to join us with their families. So this is definitely not very typical where the company goes to someplace to have a big party for a weekend, and people come back with headaches. In our case, it is more of a family thing and a totally different experience. We also have smaller team gatherings in Iceland and Norway where we meet, work and go out to the countryside in nature. The gatherings are really important because we are not only staying together during work time, but are also doing things together that result in strong bonds.
We treat our users the same way. Our users are our expanded family that includes our testers called Sopranos, translators, and our community members. We treat them as our friends. Our working slogan is based on a simple thought; “We are building a browser for our friends”. The basic principle is that you do not spy on your friends because it’s just not nice. We listen to our friends and take their advice, comments and questions, and even criticisms because we think criticism amongst friends is fine.
Coming back to the topic of ownership, do you think more companies should have a model where employees have ownership?
Yes. I really believe in making sure that everyone is part of the team. My thinking has always been long-term and I think this is very Scandinavian in some ways, we have contracts with people that are not here for only 2 weeks or at will. We work together with an intention to make things work for the long-term and look for people who believe in it. That’s the basis for our relationship. I believe more companies should do that!
I think after having taken a company public and going through the motions of raising cash, when it comes down to it, the ownership of the company is quite often controlled by the owners. Sometimes you are unlucky with the investors, and then you end up with the company going nowhere. We’ve seen this happen to so many companies in Norway and across the world; companies build to a certain level and then they sell out.
In our case, we’ve been very clear – that’s not what we want to do and that’s not where we’re going. We don’t want to go public. We have a different mindset. We want to build a great company. We want to build great pieces of software. But I do understand why that's hard to do for most startups. That was the difficulty I had with Opera; we needed the money and we didn’t have any other way to get the money. So I really don’t see how we could have done things differently. As a result, we ended up getting some investors that weren’t the best.
I read on your blog that you are sponsoring a local football team in your local community and building communities seem to have been a theme throughout your career. Vivaldi started as a community and this situation where everyone is now working remotely and collaborating globally, what role do you see for the community? Could it maybe even be strengthened?
One of the things we see with Whereby is how it’s changing the lives of several of our employees and users. The ability to work remotely has allowed them to move to a small village where their families are or that are close to nature, with more affordable housing, increasing their overall quality of life in many ways.
Communities are very important. And like you said, in my case it’s about building communities and supporting the community around me. That includes the company and the people around us. In my local community in Iceland, where I come from, we’ve decided to support the local football club. It’s a small community of 4,000 people with 400 kids in the club that includes more or less all the kids. The club plays a vital role in their lives, and gives them a sense of belonging. Supporting something like this is worthwhile. And it’s something I would like to continue doing.
In the same way, I’ve been trying to support startups. I am supporting the StartupLab through the Founders Fund in Oslo. I have also set up the Innovation house in Iceland that offers space for startups with no strings attached. Basically, they pay a little rent but we don’t make them stay with us by asking for a piece of their company. It’s actually the opposite and we’d like to support them in the best possible way to give them space to grow. It’s not about ownership. It’s about giving back.
It doesn’t have to be about return on investment, we can all just support each other. I think in this kind of society and with the issues we are having now on a global scale, what we are seeing on a local level is fantastic; people are going to great lengths to help each other. I believe in leadership which allows you to work together.
Follow Jon on Twitter
If you aren't doing it already; try Vivaldi!