What will happen if we don’t organise as a profession?

I’ve been pleased to see generally good feedback to my piece in A List Apart, which was published at the exact moment I sat down in the cinema to watch “The Force Awakens” (coincidence?), discussing the problems the web profession faces as a consequence of our lack of professional organisation. My goal was to kickstart a public debate, and in that regard it has been a success.

No one is saying that professional organisation will be easy, or quick, or universally accepted. It’s not the overnight solution to our industry’s problems. But with each passing month I am more convinced that it is the key to our industry’s survival. Perhaps it’s worth running through a few of the problems we will face if we don’t shape up, come together, and take a seat at the table.

1. Non-stop ecstatic hucksterism

We work in a field where anyone can set up shop as a web designer or developer. That is the best thing about our profession. It’s also the worst. It means a lack of clarity in roles, specialisations, and experiences for both professionals and their employers. And as I discussed here, it also permits hucksterism to run unchecked by moneyspinning side businesses promoting themselves, sometimes illegally, as official web design associations.

Those “organisations” are just the ticket for members of what I call the shadow web industry. Take this spam email as an example. It’s a common offer inviting readers to buy a fake web design business. (I know a little about these schemes because a client once started our project kickoff meeting by telling me about the one he used to run. Great way to destroy the client-provider relationship at the outset, by the way.)

It works like this: the sucker pays four or even five figures to a “web design business in a box” firm which gives him a computer and some sales training in return. The firm sets up a legitimate-looking but completely fake web design business and encourages the sucker to promote it. When orders come in, the sucker feeds them off to the firm, who in turn outsources the work to places like Thailand and eastern Russia. The web sites are designed using low quality templates and the content is usually plagiarised. The work goes out under the sucker’s name despite him not having had one minute’s worth of web design training. He names his price and takes the biggest cut. The firm takes a smaller cut. The actual “designer” gets a third world wage. The only good thing that can be said about these schemes is that they allow the bottom feeders of our industry to keep each other company, but that is little consolation for the legitimate agencies and self-employed designers who lose business to this shadow web industry.

One of the ways fake web design businesses maintain the illusion of legitimacy is to claim an affiliation with a business organisation or trade association. And who better to provide that service than the litany of faux trade associations? Fake web design businesses can pay a fake web design association for a fake membership badge. This is the cloud cuckoo land of our profession.

A legitimate, member-driven industry body would make quick work of this nonsense. The responsibility for creating that resource is ours alone. Until then, the shadow web industry will continue to operate unchecked, unabated, and unchallenged.

2. The loss of professional defense

Here’s one thing I can’t stress enough: the rest of the world not only assumes the web profession has an industry body, but expects us to work through one in the dissemination of new laws and policies. When the proverbial hits the fan, not having an industry body to have told you otherwise will not protect you from the consequences.

Let’s take the EU data protection reform (GDPR) as an example. This law, which is expected to go live in 2018, will redefine everything that the web industry can do from the ground up. The GDPR stands to have a profound impact on sole traders and microbusinesses who, in the tried-and-true custom of EU digital lawmaking, will be expected to implement the same compliance strategies as multinational corporations. The proposed fines for data breaches in the new regime are between 2% and 5% of a business’s annual worldwide turnover.

There is a lot to get right, there is no room for error, and when it comes to getting to grips with your compliance obligations, you are on your own. Without an industry body or trade association to walk you through the GDPR, you can expect to spend a considerable portion of the next two years learning about all of this in your spare time. That alone would be bad enough.

The Society for Computers and Law made the following observation about microbusinesses and penalty fines for data breaches under the GDPR:

…when assessing the level of fine, national supervisory authorities need to take account of adherence to codes of conduct or approved certification methods…SMEs would be well advised to monitor developments with their specific industry sectors and, of course, any official guidance. Doing so may act as some level of defence where the breach occurred despite the code of conduct being properly observed.

What that means is that when the inevitable data breach happens, your data protection authority will look at what guidance your industry’s trade association has developed for their members. If you belong to an industry body which has provided you with help on compliance, you may have some protection against harsher penalties. But if you do not have an industry body to back you up before you inadvertently fall afoul of the new regime, you certainly won’t have that protection when the fine arrives.

That is not a problem with the EU: it’s a problem with us.

3. Post-referendum headaches

Yeah, and speaking of that. It’s no secret that some of the unhelpful interventions in digital law created by the EU have damaged its reputation within the profession:

The problem is that these laws are extraterritorial. Leaving the EU, as the UK is putting to a public referendum in June, changes absolutely nothing. As long as you are still doing business with EU countries – whether that’s selling digital downloads or collecting customer data – you will still need to be in compliance with EU digital laws. Leaving the EU to get out of compliance obligations not only won’t get you out of them, but will only serve to dump those problems onto your European colleagues to resolve in a system where your opinion will no longer count.

The web industry’s problems with EU digital laws have been caused by our failure to show up to the table and represent our profession at the consultative phase. It’s our fault, not theirs. We need to grow out of our passive-aggression and begin working with the EU, regardless of whether we “leave” or “remain”, because that is what industry bodies and trade associations do. Instead, we’re trying to throw in the towel before we have ever once tried engaging with them on their own level. That’s just silly. To paraphrase LBJ on political frenemies, “I’d rather be inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”

So let’s start pissing.

4. Organise or be organised

At the moment we have the luxury of debating the pros and cons of professional organisation. We also have the right to ‘agree to disagree’ by presenting an informed case for why an industry body is not necessary.

Those days are numbered.

Some time in the not too distant future, there’s going to be an event. Thousands of people will die. And it will be the fault of some errant piece of code written by some poor schmuck under hellish pressure facing impossible deadlines…
It doesn’t matter what it is. What is sure is that it’ll come…
And when it happens, when thousands of people are killed by a stupid software error, the governments of the world will act. They’ll have to. The population will scream for protection, and the lawmakers will respond with self-righteous indignation. In their toolkit they’ll have regulations, restrictions, licensing requirements, and certification tests. They might take control of our education. They might specify who can be hired and who can’t…
What tools they bring to bear upon us depends upon us.

Uncle Bob is right. “After the Disaster” is a warning we must heed.

If the makers of the web do not come together and organise on our own own terms, we will be organised on someone else’s. The takeover of the web industry will take place on someone else’s timescale and under someone else’s rules. We will be forced to join the body which someone else decrees, pay the dues they set, sit the certification exams they write, and fork over the legal penalty fees they invent.

For our apparent failure to prevent the disaster from coming, members of the industry will be treated with the presumption of guilt. We won’t have the luxury of protesting our pariah status, mind, because we’ll be too busy defending ourselves in Congressional hearings, Parliamentary committees, and criminal courtrooms. Our careers will be lost and our reputations will be destroyed. We’ll probably have deserved it.

Still think we don’t need an industry body, then?

About the author

Heather Burns is a digital law specialist in Glasgow, Scotland. She researches, writes, publishes, consults, and speaks extensively on internet laws and policies which affect the crafts of web design and development. She has been designing and developing web sites since 1997 and has been a professional web site designer since 2007. She holds a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. Learn about hiring Heather to write, speak, or consult.