In Defense of Ian Linkletter

By dwhly | 2 December, 2020

Hypothesis is announcing today that it has contributed the remainder of the funds necessary from our non-profit to get Ian Linkletter’s defense fund to his goal of $50,000. Though we are not flush with cash, we stand ready to both further support Ian and put the bat signal out to our other peers in edtech for further backing should more funds be needed.

Though I’ve been aware of the criticisms of proctoring software for some time, it’s only been in the last few days that I’ve caught wind of the SLAPP lawsuit brought against Ian Linkletter. In short, an edtech company, Proctorio, is suing Ian Linkletter — a learning technology specialist at University of British Columbia — personally for supposedly publishing confidential company materials in his critique of their approach to proctoring — a critique which has been ongoing for some time now by many before Mr Linkletter. While the lawsuit seems specious, it (more importantly) runs counter to the spirit of open critique and criticism that we should all aspire to. It’s been written about here, here, and elsewhere.

This is not about proctoring, which I take no stand on — it’s about debate. Debate should be embraced, it’s that simple. It improves outcomes for all, helping shape technology to better serve us.

Indeed, annotation technology (our area of specialization) has been the subject of criticism as well. The notion that anyone using a plugin or bookmarklet might make an annotation on a blog post even when comment systems have been specifically removed by the author raises questions. We understand these questions, and our response has been to invite public discussion about them (here, here, and here), not to pursue our critics with threats, intimidation, and civil suits. As a result of these debates and conversations, we’ve made changes to our policies and product.

Many areas of technology raise questions — let’s investigate those together. We’ll be stronger as a result.

I, and the team at Hypothesis, find this wielding of legal power by a technology company abhorrent and below the decency we should expect, especially around the practice and institutions of education. Technology companies don’t alone know what’s best for students and instructors. We need to listen to practitioners like Ian if we want to best serve teachers and students.

There are at least four awful things about this lawsuit:

  1. It is asymmetric economic warfare, pitting the much larger resources of a corporation against those of an individual (notice that Proctorio didn’t go after UBC).
  2. It is an attack through the legal system, which is upsetting, time consuming, and cumbersome to respond to.
  3. It is legally dubious (IANAL), but more importantly it is ethically wrong.
  4. Its purpose (indeed the very nature of SLAPP lawsuits) is to create a chilling effect that disincents others to perform the same kind of public service.

A close read of the lawsuit says that Proctorio is suing Ian for posting about their own Youtube video content, help center documentation, course material info, and hyperlinks (yes, HYPERLINKS!) to any of the above, as well as screenshots of their product.

Are you kidding me?!

What self-respecting edtech company pursues a copyright claim on their own help materials to dissuade critical analysis of their tool? And more pointedly, what self-respecting law firm (I’m looking at you Cassels, Brock, and Blackwell) supports these baseless claims by wielding the blunt force instrument of the law toward their ends?

At Hypothesis, we take the completely opposite view: We think educational technologies should be more open, and that debate should be welcomed. As a further action today, we will be releasing our knowledge base (i.e., help center) to the public domain through a Creative Commons CC0 dedication just to be clear how we feel (our entire codebase is already open source).

Please steal our documentation! And help us to be better in the process.

To Mike Olsen, your team, and also in particular, Tim Pinos and the attorneys at Cassels: Those of us at Hypothesis, and the many thousands of others out there who care about this, call on you to abandon your lawsuit against Ian Linkletter, and instead embrace the proper scrutiny of and intellectual debate around all educational tools. Proctoring tech isn’t going away anytime soon. By taking the opposite strategy, you’re more likely to win the hearts and minds of your users and customers and create distance from competitors.

We want to put a shout-out to all those who have supported Ian so far, and particularly those who organized the teach-in against surveillance that raised awareness of this to the point that it came to my attention, and who contributed over $7,000 from their efforts over the last few days.

In closing, I want to echo the words of Shea Swauger, an author of a paper critical of proctoring (“Our Bodies Encoded“) that was similarly (but unsuccessfully, thanks to Jesse Stommel) targeted by Olsen:

“The process by which we talk about ed tech companies is upside down. Generally, when a new technology is introduced into education, companies and evangelists release marketing campaigns, go on tour at education conferences and expos, and if they’re lucky, get mentioned in the Horizon Report. If there are critics of the technology who challenge it based on equity or efficacy, the burden of proof is on the critics to unquestionably demonstrate it, otherwise they are usually ignored. This is in part due to technological solutionism, a common belief that technology is objective, benevolent, and can eventually solve most problems. It’s also a myth. […] the burden should be on tech companies to prove to us how their technology isn’t oppressive, not on their critics to prove that they are.”

We agree — and one way we can support the burden of proof as tech companies is to invite debate.

Those of us in edtech should be here to serve. It is our privilege to be in the position of providing these kinds of solutions to students in the classroom, not our right — enforced by spending money on lawyers to pursue frivolous lawsuits.

As we all know, a proper legal defense is expensive. Please join us in contributing to the defense fund for Ian Linkletter.

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