Pluralistic: 30 Aug 2021

Today's links

The obverse of the Indian 2000 rupee note, with the Mangalyaan orbiter replaced by the Byju's logo.

India's 'toxic' ed-tech giant (permalink)

Byju's is a titan of the Indian ed-tech market, and its flagship program, The Learning App, has 40m users and 2.8m paid subscribers; its valuation is about to climb to $21b; it's been on a spending spree, buying up competitors in Asia and the USA.

But as Akanksha Singh writes for Rest of World, the company's sales culture is rotten from top to bottom, with sales staff hustling poor parents to take out predatory loans so that they can hit their sales targets.

The article quotes an anonymous former sales person who says he sold a Learning App subscription to a driver with only $9 to his name, whose fees were directly deducted from his paycheck and whose wife pledged to work 24/7 to make up the difference.

And it quotes ed-tech activist Pradeep Poonia – a former ed-tech worker – who describes a host of deceptive tactics rooted in the fact that "Edtech is trying to solve problems that don’t exist."

He describes a sales pitch that plays on poor parents' insecurity about their children's future, that gets them to buy into expensive gadgets and programs that have little relationship to providing a solid educational foundation for their kids.

Singh's sources include "7 current and former employees at Byju's," who describe the company's pivot from emphasizing private tutors for wealthy families to subscriptions for poor parents who can't afford them, coupled with predatory loans.

Singh cites an investigation by The Ken, which found that a majority of consumer complaints were from customers who "were unaware they were being signed up for loans when they signed up for subscriptions."

The app's ToS allows Byju's to mine subscribers' sensitive personal information, which, in turn, feed its sales pipeline, and former sales associates describe how this is used to prey on illiterate parents, with kids being asked trick questions to make them look ill-educated.

One former sales associate summarized the pitch: "Your son can be nothing in life if he doesn’t go with Byju’s — and if you, as a parent, can’t [secure] your kid’s happiness and future … you might as well have not had kids."

Byju's sales funnel starts with a "free" 15-day trial, but the internet is full of complaints from customers who found that after the trial, they couldn't opt out of an ongoing subscription, or get a refund.

There's a common thread between Byju's and predatory ed-tech companies in the US, like Proctorio. Proctorio has made a practice of threatening and suing its critics, like Ian Linkletter.

Byju's also sued a critic, launching a $2.7m defamation suit against Poonia in retaliation for a Youtube video in which he mocked its Whitehat Jr subsidiary (Byju's eventually withdrew the case).

Poonia has also documented the hard-sell culture inside Byju's, posting a video of a sales manager abusing an associate, and in the comments, other Byju's staff say this is a common occurance.

Parents everywhere worry about their kids' education and life-chances, something that's only been inflamed by the lockdown and rising inequality.

There's a palpable sense of panic, as if the world was a game of musical chairs and your kid's chances of getting a seat were anything but assured. In that environment, it's terrifyingly easy to convince parents that they need to take on debt to protect their kids' future.

The irony, of course, is that indebtedness only increases precarity and robs families of the security that is the foundation of a good education and a resilient mindset.

A young girl stands on the upturned palm of a giant robot; she is pointing at a dial inset into its chest that runs from 'Good' to 'Evil.'

Podcasting "Utilities and Empires" and "FB's War on Switching Costs" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read two of my recent op-eds for EFF's Deeplinks blog: "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" (on the consequences of platforms high-handed disconnection policies) and "Facebook’s Secret War on Switching Costs."

Here's a direct link to "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: Platforms Want To Be Utilities, Self-Govern Like Empires":

And here's "Facebook’s Secret War on Switching Costs":

Here's the MP3 for this week's episode (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive, they'll host your stuff for free, forever):

And here's the feed for my podcast (401 episodes and still going!):

Depending on how busy I am next weekend, this is either my last or second-to-last podcast for some time, as I'm having joint-replacement surgery on Sept 7 and will be taking a potentially extended break from the internet during my recovery.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Ringling Brothers hired ex-CIA spook to harass critical journalist

#20yrsago Ray Bradbury on GWB: "He's wonderful. We needed him. Clinton is a shithead and we're glad to be rid of him"

#10yrsago Feynman: comic biography of an iconoclastic physicist

#5yrsago UK bans pens on planes

#1yrago Big Tech welcomes (some) regulation

#1yrago Zuck calls Apple a monopolist

#1yrago California's preventable fires

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Manu (

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Friday's progress: 263 words (17727 words total)

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Disneyland at a stroll
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla