Web Matters – an audiovisual introduction

Chris Taylor speaking about Web Matters at Hey! Stac
Chris Taylor speaking about Web Matters at Hey! Stac. Photo courtesy of Hey! Stac.

In February our dedicated webmaster and passionate word-writer Chris Taylor introduced Web Matters to a friendly audience at Hey! Stac in Leeds. His concise and entertaining talk tells the story of UK professional associations and industry bodies, from dentistry and policing through to leafy salads and master upholstery. For the meat of the talk, Chris asks, and then answers, one simple question – what about the web?

Luckily for you (and Web Matters), the whole thing was caught on camera for everyone to enjoy. Here’s the video, courtesy of the lovely people at Hey! Stac:

And here’s the slides:

Transcript

The content of this transcript varies slightly from what Chris said on the night (and does not include some of his excellent jokes), but broadly speaking all of the main content is covered.

You wouldn’t be a police officer without being a member of an association like the Police Federation. Or a dentist without having the backing of the British Dental Association. Even estate agents have their own national association. Not to mention those that work in the carpet industry.

In fact, if you can think of a subject there’s probably a society or association dedicated to it. As an aside, there are some tough logo design challenges here [see slide of logos]. These industry bodies have spokespeople who can provide informed commentary [e.g. Dieter Lloyd, British Leafy Salads Association].

But here’s my favourite: the Association of Master Upholsterers and Soft Furnishers. We’ll be hearing more about them in a few minutes. So, how many industry bodies are there in the UK? The best list I could find is the list of organisations for which you can claim tax back on subscription fees. There are 2870 of them on that list. And, of course, there are many more not on this list.

But what about the web? What organisations, societies and bodies can we as web professionals join? There are associations dedicated to design, development, testing, UX. Even a chartered institute for IT. Many of these provide similar services: certification; member directories; awards; training; networking. All of these activities are valuable, but in an environment where the fabric of our industry is being threatened we need more than this. We need….

The A-Team! Only kidding, we really need… consultative status. But you might be thinking, “Wait just a gosh darn minute. You made a bit of a wild claim there, Chris. What was it you said?”. Well, I said we need… The A-Team. “No, not that. Ah yes, I remember: you said we’re ‘in an environment where the fabric of our industry is being threatened’. Why? Sounds a bit hyperbolic! What do you mean by that?”. Here’s what I mean:

Some of the fundamental principles of the web such as data privacy, encryption and accessibility are being undermined, eroded or brushed aside by the machinations of politics. Huge legislative changes such as Brexit and GDPR will change how we do our jobs. That’s not just the systems we design and the code we write, but our entire approach to users and their data. And who are the people writing these laws?

Politicians and civil servants. Are they experts in technology? No. Do they grok the web like we do? No. In fact they say things like this:

Encryption isn’t necessary for “real people”, whoever they are. Also…

WordPress is aiding terrorism by providing a blogging platform. Or this, from October 2017:

Ignorance is fine when talking about changing one of the fundamental building blocks of modern commerce and communication. Is it any wonder we at Web Matters have a special term for when our beloved Home Secretary is going to make a statement on technology:

CODE RUDD

But it’s not just here in the UK that crucial freedoms are being attacked. Let’s look over the pond:

In the summer of 2017 the US government tried to get the details of visitors – not just the administrators, the visitors – for an anti-Trump website. The government lost a court case about it, and got only limited data with strict parameters on what they could do with it.

But they didn’t learn their lesson. As a few weeks later they tried again, this time with Facebook data. Check out that quote: “anti-administration activists … who are generally very critical of this administration’s policies”. This is all getting a bit too “Big Brother” for my liking. And where America leads, others often follow.

After all, the UK already has “the most sweeping surveillance powers in the western world” according to the Guardian. Or see what Edward Snowden, who knows a thing or two about government surveillance, says. These surveillance powers are so extreme, in fact, that the infamous “snoopers charter” was recently ruled illegal.

Of course we’re not saying that web companies don’t have a part to play in combatting terrorism, copyright infringement and a host of other issues that manifest themselves online. We’re just saying, “What are these legislative changes costing us, our users and our industry?” And crucially: “Who speaks for us to the people in the corridors of power?”.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking these things don’t apply to you. Remember the EU cookie law? It never went away, and it’s just a foretaste of things to come.

Or take VATMOSS. It was designed to ensure massive online retailers paid their fair share of tax. Thousands of small companies trading online were hugely affected by this legislation, and Amazon and their ilk still get away with taxation murder. By the way, there was a happy ending for the VATMOSS debacle – but only after sustained engagement with politicians by grass-roots activists.

The bottom line here is the time is over to think the web is a special case where meatspace laws don’t apply. They do, and without knowledgeable people getting involved in writing these laws the future of the web may well be something we never asked for and don’t want. We need to care. We need to organise.

Because sensible legislation won’t happen through petitions. That isn’t how the system works. We can’t bring a hackathon to a committee fight. Sensible legislation will only happen when we engage with the process of creating it. No, it won’t always work. But we need to try.

Earlier I told you was going to say more about the Association of Master Upholsterers and Soft Furnishers. Let me tell you a story…

The year is 1947. Following the Second World War strict rationing was still in place. That didn’t affect just food, but all manner of goods – including timber and material used in the furniture trade. You needed a permit to buy “utility” furniture (there was no buying of unnecessary items), and there was a points system in place for how much you could buy. You were given fixed number of “units” when setting up a home, and each item of furniture came out of that allowance.

There were also strict rules about what items you could and couldn’t buy. For example, you couldn’t buy a sofa bed unless you lived in a bedsit. Obviously the industry was in serious trouble and something needed to be done. Here’s a quote from the AMUSF website:

They felt the need for a group voice and mutual support to tackle the difficulties this [post-war austerity] caused and, in the highly regulated environment of the time, to ensure that they could influence local and national government in the framing and enforcement of laws which affected them.

Let me repeat that… [final sentence] There are clear parallels to the situation we as web professionals find ourselves in today. Maybe, just maybe, we need to influence the laws which affect us. There is this wonderful passage in a pamphlet written in 1967 taking a look at the first 20 years of the AMUSF:

For any enterprise to succeed, it must have enthusiasm, perseverance, adaptability and vision. […] This will always apply but particularly in this era in which Governments interfere with the activities of the ordinary citizen, possibly to a greater extent than ever before.

Back in 1947 upholsterers saw a growing problem, realised they had to engage with government to address it, and organised themselves into a professional body to do so. They had no clue what changes the Internet would bring, and how it would impact everybody’s lives. Today, we must do the same. What the AMUSF got, and what we need, is a body with consultative status.

That means whenever the government is considering legislation which affects the web, they listen to our input. Thankfully a lot of politicians and civil servants actually want input from representatives of the industries that laws affect. Governments deal with industry bodies, not individuals. As one of the Web Matters founders said: “Any individual can, of course, engage with the committee process, but that person’s word carries all the weight of an old man shaking his fist at a cloud.” So, we’ve started doing something.

A bunch of people are setting up Web Matters: the industry body for the web in the UK. This is a very new thing, started as a pub discussion in February 2017. By September 2017 we were officially formed and having our inaugural Annual General Meeting. This is happening, and we’re starting to gather support from web industry professionals across the country. I expect you have questions:

Firstly: who is it for? If you consider the work you do to be “on the web”, then this is for you. Designers, developers, UX people, project managers, testers, content strategists, database developers, server administrators. If your work affects or is affected by the web, however you define that, you can join. Web Matters is a very broad church.

Secondly, how much does it cost? £20 per year, enough for us to cover costs (no-one involved is getting paid). And membership is only open to individuals – not companies. So if you’re freelance or move jobs you keep your membership with you. We represent the individuals who make the web; we’re not a cosy golf club for CTOs.

Thirdly, you may be wondering what are we doing, and what do you get out of it? At the moment we’re working towards consultative status – this is an ongoing thing, but we’re making good progress. We’re a bona fide organisation and have a named committee, all we need now are members. How many members do we need? Well, there’s an association in Scotland with consultative status there; they have just 700 members.

We’re also starting a conversation about ethics in the web industry, much of which is prompted by GDPR – the General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into force for all EU citizens in 2018. This will affect the work many of us do – whatever happens with Brexit. Privacy, data protection, data mining, accessibility, security – all of these things can be grouped under ethics. We want the web industry to be known for doing the right thing.

And we’re starting regional chapters across the country, for meetups and support. Web Matters is a member-driven organisation, so these regional chapters are crucial for growing the organisation and giving it momentum. But we’re still at the very beginning, so tell us what you want from us. How can we help and advise you? What issues do you think we should tackle?

If this sounds interesting then getting involved is easy. We’ve got an active Slack team, and a registration form on MemberMojo where you can pay your subscription. To keep up with what’s happening you can also follow us on Twitter, or take a look at our blog.

Any questions?

Get involved with Web Matters

If you’d like to give this talk at a local event (or perhaps ask one of us to come and deliver it), drop us a line on Slack or Twitter and we’ll make it happen.

To find out more about Web Matters and how to join us, visit our Membership page.

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