Freedom of Choice for the Greater Good?

Illustration by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig

Illustration by
Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig

I think modeling the behavior I want to see in the world is a good way to spread the open ethos. But when other people don’t start modeling this behavior quickly, it can become frustrating.

I’ve been working openly as much as I can at Greenpeace for a few months now. I write about my thoughts, try to reach over the fence, try to put things in places where anyone can find them. I’ve run into a kind of technical problem, and I want to talk about it. In the open. With you. I’m hopeful that pulling my open source allies into this conversation will help me clarify what I should DO about it.

Greenpeace staff members are *not allowed* to use anything hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS). A great many of the tools people use for personal as well as collaborative workflows are hosted on AWS. Just off the top of my head – Evernote, Mailchimp, Prezi, Slack, Trello and Zoom are all using Amazon cloud services. While I was at Mozilla, we used AWS for Webmaker. There are many, many more everyday services using software running on Amazon servers.

I’ll be the first to admit that Amazon is a scary corporation. Its sheer size is intimidating. Reports from employees are damaging. Amazon’s record with trade unions and the slow death of an entire publishing industry are reasons for pause. Furthermore, Greenpeace has a renewable energy purchasing policy. Greenpeace, as much as possible, sources its global electricity needs from renewable sources. Amazon said they are committed to 100% renewable, but they haven’t put their money where their mouth is.

This isn’t the only argument for avoiding these services. Another is

“IT cannot support people when everyone is using different tools and services.”

Yep. I agree. However, there’s something about blanket forbidding services like these that makes me uncomfortable. I believe that the user should have choice.

That Amazon is evil isn’t up for debate. They are. The technology industry needs to step up and think about their environmental footprint. There are greener alternatives to Amazon, make the switch. In the meantime, I feel like we have a responsibility to the greater good, and forbidding everything built on this infrastructure is making it hard for people to do the work.

There are about 4000 staff members at Greenpeace. Based on my experience, I would say that the average degree of web literacy among the staff mirrors that of the general public. UX is insanely important. More so than in open source communities, where people tend to have greater degrees of technical competency. In short, the Greenpeace staff needs to use tools that they understand.

All 7 of the Greenpeace newsletters I’ve seen use Mailchimp instead of Engaging Networks. There are certain groups using Slack. I’ve seen a Trello board or two, and almost every person I’ve met uses Evernote for some reason. All of this is wildly discouraged (to the point of shaming people in emails), but I can’t understand why. Collaboration isn’t suffering. Most are choosing freely available services, so cost isn’t a factor. People are using technology that suits them.

There’s a disconnect here. I understand the IT Department’s need for command and control around technology. For people who aren’t as techie as I am, it kind of makes sense. The IT Department needs standards and limited software that they support. The thing is I’m not asking for support, I’m asking for choice.

Why should IT departments forbid users from using web services? Why shouldn’t they? How can IT Departments allow for agility and freedom among users while maintaining quality and control? Should we allow people to dictate our tech choices? Why?

I’d really love some thoughts, this one is frustrating me.


  15 comments for “Freedom of Choice for the Greater Good?

  1. Simon Grant (@asimong)
    February 4, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    Yes, this is a hard one — the purist v pragmatist. And it’s something the open source / commons / peer-to-peer / collaborative economy needs to tackle. A blanket ban makes me feel uncomfortable as well. It reminds me strongly of all these old campaigns that are *against* something without specifying what they are *for*.

    Is it worth a try asking Greenpeace, or any other organisation with similar policies, to put their money where their rules are, and actively join with other similar organisations to sponsor an open alternative, that is not riddled with similar environmental or other ethical issues? Greenpeace and others have a very large constituency of members / followers / readers. If some co-operative venture were set up that was good in Greenpeace’s eyes (and those of others) Greenpeace could join in a giant promotion campaign to get people to switch to the alternative.

    Until Greenpeace management can ensure a really ethical as well as effective alternative, and that certainly includes ease of use, they shouldn’t ban people from using something useful with lower environmental credentials.

  2. February 4, 2016 at 3:49 pm

    I don’t think there’s an easy win here – you’ve got an Innovation Prevention Department *and* an ethical issue.

    Have you tried I think you may be pleasantly surprised about what kind of collaboration tools are available via a one-click installation that you could self-host. :)

  3. February 5, 2016 at 9:17 am

    (This Bell Rings For Me, Konstantinos)
    my personal points of view

    On using multiple (similar) tools for the same job:
    – Allow full choice of tools to use
    – But restrict the tools that can be officially supported. (So, if someone wants to use tools XYZ, they will have to support them fully, answer user questions, train the users, handle the handover to their successor when they leave if applicable etc).

    Regarding the usage of AWS
    – Discuss inside the organisation about changing the policy about AWS
    – But until the policy changes, follow the policy.

    The policies we (collectively in GP, after discussion and discussion and discussion, and oh by the holy chocolate, more discussion) have made together are the internal rules we are using to manage to operate. Agility is fine when you are working in a team of 10, but in a team of 4000 people, you do need some ground rules. I know (firsthand) that people can change a policy. Our policies are not written in stone. And the little that I know Laura, she strikes me as the person who can formulate an argument and push it. So do it.

    quote:** The thing is I’m not asking for support, I’m asking for choice.**
    The problem is that the rest of the users started asking support with the tools you chose, and you were not in a position (knowledge and resources wise) to give it to them. They did not even ask you. They asked IT. So, you are making a technology decision, without having the full picture (of the infrastructure that is needed to support it), and without having the resources to support it. You may not be asking for support, but you generate the need for support with the decisions you are making.

    We haven’t found any of the services that are hosted on AWS that do not have alternatives outside of AWS. We do tell the users what we suggest they use instead of their favourite AWS hosted service. Laura did mention that people go to mailchimp instead of the suggested engaging networks because of UI or because they are used to it. Most of the users do the work with the suggested tools, and there is no problem. Some (few) users stick to the tool they know and want to use something different. But we do offer alternatives. It just takes a little bit more effort to learn them and use them.

    • Laura Hilliger
      February 5, 2016 at 12:03 pm

      Oh, this is *very* interesting “They did not even ask you. They asked IT.” You’re right, the decision one needs to be making around their use of technology has to take other people into account. It’s not just about you, the user, but also participants, the IT Department, other staff and at some point volunteers and the public.

      It seems that if the technology decision is around two way communication the chances that someone will be asking for external support is greater than if I decided to use, say, MailChimp (1 way push communication). My personal workflow, using Evernote, should be fully irrelevant to the tech team. My use of Etherpad, maybe not – though I use these like I’m scribbling on napkins and then transfer to IT sanctioned apps.

      I will have to be aware of this and see if I can figure out other contingencies for freedom in choice of tech…

      • February 5, 2016 at 12:28 pm

        This is correct: From my side this only became an issue when a different tool was suggested for videoconferencing and support was requested in setting it up. Its not like IT goes around checking people’s browsers to see what they use.

        Still though (the hidden side of everything): even in one way communication there are problems. Take MailChimp for example (leave aside the AWS problem for a moment).
        Hidden factors are even there (the full picture we were talking about): If you want to use MailChimp to sent emails, and you want to use a email address as a sender, then MailChimp would have to be added to SPF records as an allowed greenpeace sender. So, then, you would require IT support. (Of course, if you were sending as you could bypass this). If everybody decided to use their own preferred mail system, then all those systems would have to be added to the SPF records. Apart from the (solvable but tricky) technical problems of having a huge SPF record, the bigger you make your SPF records, the more void the protection against having your domain associated with spam is. (So, overusing it, breaks it).
        So, again, it is not always as simple as
        “one way communication= I do what I want ,
        multiway communication = I need to use the shared service”.

        • Laura Hilliger
          February 5, 2016 at 12:33 pm

          Touché! Nothing is simple. <3 having discussions like this, by the way. I'm expanding my mental model on global tech issues (ahem learning!) Thanks for that.

  4. Jamie Allen
    February 5, 2016 at 10:33 am

    Greenpeace’s latest ‘Clicking Clean: A Guide to Building the Green Internet ‘ report damns Amazon Web Services. Perhaps the greatest condemnation is reserved for AWS’s grade ‘F’ for data transparency on its energy sources. For Greenpeace to then sanction its use for employees sends out a hypocritical message from an environmental organisation with a reputation based in part on consistantly opposing dirty energy prolificacy. Not (to the greater) good.

    You mention observed average (by that I read medium-low) levels of web literacy within Greenpeace and I think you’re right to do so, as perhaps therein lies part of the problem. Agree with Doug’s suggestion that using/ promoting viable alternative platforms could be the way to go on this one as opposed to having a draining battle over principles.Would be happy to proved wrong but sorry to say, I don’t think you’ll win it.

    • Laura Hilliger
      February 5, 2016 at 10:44 am

      I agree – I would find it hypocritical for Greenpeace to have their tech team supporting these services. And with Konstantinos comment about my choices generating hardships for other staff, I’m building a more nuanced view of when exactly I should honor my free will and when I should suck it up and use the tools IT supports (hint: it has to do with learning curves ;)

      • February 5, 2016 at 11:17 am

        What Jamie says about winning the battle over principles is true: the IT dept. has the moral high ground. What you have to do is reframe the debate in such a way that everyone wins.

        What are the IT dept’s pain points? How can a new initiative/project meet your objectives while simultaneously solving some of their problems?

  5. Simon Grant (@asimong)
    February 5, 2016 at 1:13 pm

    I’m in with the “win-win” faction here, Doug!

    It looks in some ways similar to the perhaps much bigger challenge of Open Sourcing things. Sure, Open doesn’t immediately correlate with environmentally sound, but maybe there are parallels. I am so frequently disappointed by the resistance to moving away from proprietary software. But there surely is a solution, and it is cultural and social, not technical. Sure, there are many challenges, but we could in principle build a really effective support network to help people change over to using more ethically sound technology, and if done with imagination it could be fun and rewarding. So I see no reason why people shouldn’t do this with environmentally sound stuff as well.

    When people believe in something, and connect what they are doing with their beliefs, there’s a potential for extra personal energy and action. We need to devise ways of helping people feel good when they are doing good. And that’s, surely, what Laura was complaining about in the first place. She didn’t feel good about the policy.

    Maybe it is all connected, as well, with social division and individualisation.

    While more technically better solutions take analytic brain power, more socially effective solutions also need something else — whatever you call it. Give people social rewards for behaving well. Not very easy, but let’s try to do it!

    • Laura Hilliger
      February 5, 2016 at 1:45 pm

      @Simon – you just took this conversation full on philosophical, off the rails. I love it!

      The “open” thing is inherently social and cultural for me. It’s not about software or the tech industry, it’s about being wholehearted and honest about what you do in the world and to the world (and the people and beings in it).

      IMHO It IS all interconnected – technology activists are fighting for equality (hence net neutrality). Environmental activists are fighting for equality (a short “hence” wouldn’t suffice, but I’d urge you to look at how climate issues affect women’s rights and other social justice issues). Human rights activists are fighting (duh) for equality. Equality.

      Activist communities should be striving to tear down silos (ahem: We should be thinking about how our actions and decisions have impact. Technology Activists should care about what runs their data centers, and Environmental Activists should choose open source and support data privacy initiatives, net neutrality and the like.

      At least, that’s my opinion on the matter :)

  6. Stuart
    February 5, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    Hello Laura!

    Stuart from IT here! To ensure that we all get in trouble together if we end up getting copied and pasted across the internet. Anyway…

    IT actually hasn’t made the decision to ban everyone from using AWS services. This was made by the relevant campaigns teams. These kind of decisions have organisational consequences, and we listen to those best equipped with the current information, which isn’t us. Greenpeace has to walk-the-talk as well as being seen to walk-the-talk, and part of this is avoid AWS because of their very poor record. We also agree that it is problematic on a practical level because of the wide number of AWS services, but at the end of the day the user here is not individual staff but Greenpeace as an organisation.

    We ask organisations to make very ambitious shifts, such as to renewables, and we ourselves sometimes need to do inconvenient things. So far we’ve been able to find equally functional services on other platforms and most of our users seem happy, if maybe slightly inconvenienced and not quite as happy as could be. We must act collectively in a way that promotes the aims and ideals of the organisation (and also avoids as many claims of hypocrisy as possible). I would be much more uncomfortable with us being dependent on services provided on a platform with such a poor environmental record than us as an organisation saying we shouldn’t be using this for Greenpeace work.

    Best wishes,


    • Laura Hilliger
      February 5, 2016 at 3:27 pm

      First of all, open and constructive conversation shouldn’t be a reason for trouble. If it is…well, nevermind that I’ll deal with it when it happens (let me know if that happens!).

      You’re right, Greenpeace should not be dependent on platforms that destroy our planet. The collective “we” shouldn’t be dependent on them. However, I, personally, make the choice to use some of these platforms, and I refuse to feel bad about it. My house uses RE, I order my vegetables from a local farm, I buy 2nd hand, volunteer for several non-profits, work with non-profits, ride my bike everywhere and otherwise live a life that makes me proud. I do all kinds of inconvenient things for the good of the planet and my fellow humans. I’m in the minority (maybe not in activist communities but generally). I think that at the end of the day there’s the organization AND the individual. It’s important to understand the context around both entities and their decisions and strive to respect and understand them.

      Which is to say, I understand the organizational position on the matter and will be quite cognizant of that moving forward. I will also bang a drum from time to time to let people know that just because I work with Greenpeace doesn’t mean that my individual decision-making competencies have disappeared. :D

      • Stuart
        February 5, 2016 at 3:41 pm

        Whatever a person does for their own personal work is none of Greenpeace’s business, but what an employee does while on paid time for the organisation is different, as that must be to promote the aims of the organisation and that following organisational policies which may reflect badly on the organisation if they’re not. It’s not about feeling good or bad. Guilt is often a destructive mechanism, and I don’t really care if people feel good or bad about something, it’s actions that create change.

        In general Greenpeace is quite a permissive and liberal organisation IT wise, certainly on a global level we don’t mind if you use a work device or your own, if it’s Windows, Mac or Linux, for example. Individual offices own policies may be stricter. But most organisations and companies are far stricter than we are. We only have rules when it comes down to ensuring offices can work together on shared services, where we have campaign or environmental influenced policies (like this), or where there are security or privacy concerns.

  7. February 5, 2016 at 10:56 pm

    As a head of a tech department at an ethical org, I think having transparent questions/selection criteria for new tools (whether hardware or software) and having those questions available to the community helps in a few ways:
    1) It’s not a mystery why some tools are selected over others. There is set of standard criteria.
    2) Users can look at the questions themselves and investigate the likelihood of a tool fitting the mission of the org, both empowering them to be part of the process and making them more familiar with the concerns of the department.
    3) The questions highlight the very, very big umbrella of *ethical* technology and the complexity of IT decision-making. It’s not just about the environmental impact, or the human rights chain, support, the technical ability of the tool to integrate on an enterprise level….it’s also about the privacy of the data we’ve been entrusted with. Especially in a school, if you’re using a tool that hasn’t been vetted either directly with sensitive data or indirectly (you’ve given it full access to your enterprise email and storage account), that is a big red flag. Keeping donor information, HR records, health information, grades, etc. are a top priority and, in many cases, a legal requirement.

    I think shared investigation helps strike that balance between users and IT staff.

    This is a snippet of our questions, just as an example. These are layered on top of enterprise integration, support, accessibility, etc and vary depending upon type of service.


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