David Heinemeier Hansson

March 3, 2021

Thinking about HEY World's potential for abuse

The internet can be a pretty grim place, and if you're building software here, you better think about how it can be abused, because odds are that it will.

We thought a lot about that with HEY itself. It was one of the key motivating factors behind the screener. Which, immediately after launch, both Jason and I learned is a life-saver if you're the target of a mail-bombing campaign. We both got hammered with hundreds of thousands of attack emails because someone just had it in for us after HEY launched.

That experience also led us to create the shield team, which offers concierge defense services for people who are suffering from mail-bombing or other concerted attacks against their HEY account. This is an emergency hotline that even offers a two-hour response promise. Free of charge for any HEY customers.

The combination of those two features provide a depth of protection that I'm really proud of, and that I haven't seen any other service come close to replicating. Most people hopefully won't ever need something like this, but if they do, we're there. And due to the design of HEY, with the screener serving as a filter before your imbox, victims can even keep using HEY, and correspond with our shield team or authorities or others, while the attack is going on. It doesn't knock them out.

But what about the other way around? What if users of HEY are abusing others? We put a lot of thought into that as well. Our use restrictions policy outline in detail how we refuse to be a conduit for a wide array of abusive behavior. We've thankfully very rarely had to invoke this policy. Perhaps in part because HEY is a paid product, and nobody gets to use it beyond the two-week trial unless they put a credit card on file that includes their billing address. That puts a natural damper on the usefulness of HEY as a conduit for abuse, and to my knowledge, we've only ever had to enforce the policy against anonymous trial accounts, never paid customers.

So that brings us to HEY World, which we'll be making available to all HEY for You paid customers shortly. Like HEY, there's potential for abuse in both directions, and we've thought extensively about how to deal with either side. First, every single HEY World post includes links at the bottom to our use restriction policy and a direct link to report abuse. This goes even for Jason and I, or anyone else at Basecamp. Second, all subscriptions are double opt-in. You can't just add someone to a list. They have to confirm that they own that email address. So what you say and who you get to say it to is limited.

But perhaps more importantly, HEY World is not a "platform". It's not curating, amplifying, or even highlighting the work of anyone who chooses to use this tool to write. We've been thinking about HEY World as a typewriter as opposed to a newspaper. It's not a perfect analogy, but it illustrates the idea that what we're offering here is a tool, not a stage. Or to draw the parallel closer to the internet realm, we're more like a web hosting service than a social network.

Of course, someone could still point to things they write on HEY World from a social medium (I do that all the time from Twitter), but that's the same as pointing to your website or your podcast or any other outlet that lives on your turf. Still have to abide by the use restrictions, but there's a categorical difference in the potential harm that HEY World could amplify or accelerate within its own space.

These are some of the protections and considerations we have in place to ensure that HEY World isn't used by HEY customers for abuse. But we've also thought a lot about the other direction: HEY World writers getting abuse from, well, the world!

First, HEY World writers get all the protections I mentioned above that regular HEY customers get. There's the screener and the shield team, which makes a huge difference if someone writes something on their HEY World newsletter, which generates abusive emails in return.

But this is still a newsletter. You're sending an email to the world. That email is sent from a known address, and if people reply to that address, the reply ends up in your screener. You could perhaps imagine a different service where it doesn't work like this. Where the newsletter is sent out anonymously, and that you can't reply to the email to reach the author. Same with the blog posts that are generated by these emails to the world.

And it's possible to imagine that because HEY World works like this – that it's an email sent from you to the world, and you're listed as the sender – we might deter someone from using the service. That even with all the above-and-beyond protections we offer in HEY, they still might still chance seeing something nasty in their screener. That's completely fair!

The internet already has a lot of places where you can post anonymously, or at least without a return address. You could start a traditional blog, and leave out any contact information. There are definitely options.

HEY World isn't that. It's an email from you to the world, and that email is sent from your address. I think the depth of protections we're offering with HEY already mean that using HEY World compared to just about any other newsletter service is going to be a far less traumatic experience, in case you become the victim of abuse.

That said, if you'd love to use HEY World, but you're really worried about being the target of abuse, and you're already a paying HEY customer, I'd be happy to comp you another, dedicated address you can use with HEY World, such that your regular HEY world address isn't shared with the world. Then you can completely quarantine the experience. Just send me an email and we'll work it out. (Please only ask for this if you have specific fears based on past experience, the nature of the topics you'll be writing about, or such, though. For 98% of writers, we've designed the system to be resilient with the existing HEY protections. This is an offer for the last 2%. And one I have to manually track, fulfill, etc.)

So that's how we've been thinking about HEY World and abuse. It'd be lovely if the internet wasn't such a grim place at times, and you didn't even have to consider this, but it can be and you need to.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.