This story is part of a new series about the forces—and people—driving worker activism across sectors. It originally appeared in Techonomy’s Spring 2019 magazine.
The tech sector is facing growing public pressure to prioritize people over profits. Technology is routinely co-opted and abused in ways its creators never envisioned. Its development is bringing threats to the privacy, liberty and even the safety of everyday citizens —polarizing electorates, supporting surveillance states, and encoding bias in social systems.
This is not the first time society has questioned the tradeoffs involved in the advances of technology. It happened with calculators, automobiles, radio, and even the printing press — but our current moment is different. In a networked world in which technologies can have global reach, the work of specific individuals can influence industries and other lives at a power, speed, and scale orders of magnitude beyond what most people even a short time ago could have dreamed.
Even as tech companies struggle with how to respond, many technologists are waking up to a new scope of responsibility. They are realizing they can’t just “develop against requirements,” but must also ensure they don’t undermine civil and human rights. And a growing community of activists, regulators, artists, organizers, lawyers, and educators are joining them to help ensure tech advances create a more prosperous and just future for all.
It has become clear that blind techno-optimism does not work. And now tech workers are finding their voice and voting with their feet. They are increasingly unwilling to work for companies who they believe behave unethically, on a variety of topics—including gender and racial equity, and how they handle defense contracts. Business leaders face a challenging new reality from within their organizations that they can’t afford to ignore.
Professional technologists are coming together inside and outside companies in groups to help advance the public good, under the rubric of “Civic Tech,” “Tech for Good,” and “Public Interest Tech.” Some are going to work for socially-engaged and non-profit employers like Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union, which are scaling up their own digital efforts. Meanwhile, groups like Higher Ground Labs and New Media Ventures are helping provide infrastructure for socially-conscious startups.
Workers inside tech companies are boldly protesting activities and products they disapprove of, and sometimes having a significant impact. For example, after more than 4,000 Google employees signed a petition of protest in 2018 demanding the company renounce any work on “warfare technology,” the company pulled out of a deal with the Defense Department to use artificial intelligence to analyze video images.
At Microsoft, a similar but smaller employee effort failed to deter company work with the Pentagon. But in early 2019, Microsoft executives said the company had turned down work with U.S. police forces and with agencies in unnamed foreign countries for fear its facial recognition and artificial intelligence software would be used to curtail human rights. Separately, workers at Amazon wrote a letter of protest to CEO Jeff Bezos entitled “We Won’t Build It,” urging that company to stop selling facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies.
At the Techonomy 2018 conference, Bloomberg Technology anchor Emily Chang, author of Brotopia, which documents longtime sexism in Silicon Valley, said she’d recently detected a significant change in employee attitudes. “I’ve had women who work at Google come on my show to talk about discrimination and harassment,” she said on stage. “They still work at the company. A year ago that never would have happened. They would have been too scared.”
Increasingly, employee activism is being systematized. Coworker.org, for example, is a non-profit platform designed to make it easy for employees of a company to mobilize peers for internal action. And the activist Tech Workers Coalition conducts regular meetings across the country. “Guided by our vision for an inclusive & equitable tech industry,” its home page reads, “TWC organizes to build worker power through rank & file self-organization and education.”
Serious problems nonetheless persist. For one thing, applications of technology often disproportionately harm vulnerable communities. Technology has historically been used to track, marginalize, exclude, and criminalize low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. For example, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently filed suit against Facebook, charging it with violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by enabling real estate advertisers to avoid showing ads to people who were “non-American born,” “non-Christian”, “interested in accessibility,” or “interested in Hispanic culture.” Facebook employees appear not to have reacted.
“I’ve had women who work at Google come on my show to talk about discrimination and harassment. They still work at the company. A year ago that never would have happened. They would have been too scared.”Emily Chang, Bloomberg Technology anchor and author, Brotopia
But this isn’t just about compliance with longstanding civil rights protections. If tech is going to play a role in creating a more prosperous and just future, technologists must step outside of tech and engage with communities likely to be affected or left behind, as well as with domain experts in fields they are poised to transform.
New systems are emerging to help technologists think more critically and methodically about the impact of their creations. Doteveryone—that’s the name of an actual organization in Britain—has created a tool called TechTransformed which “helps product teams build with responsibility.” It aims to help developers map the values their product embodies, understand the context in which it will be used, anticipate its consequences, and demonstrate its social contribution. Similarly, the Ethical OS was created by a partnership between nonprofits the Omidyar Network and The Institute for the Future. It includes a risk-surfacing framework that tech teams can use to quickly consider how their product might jeopardize various human rights. Toolkits are only a starting point; conversations about values, rights, and systemic consequences should accompany every development project to properly account for these risks.
There is a real business risk for companies that do not get ahead of these issues. They face an increasingly discerning workforce, changing regulations, and growing consumer expectations that companies will operate ethically, and responsibly. It is not enough to say “don’t be evil.” Ethical review needs to be elevated to an ongoing core business function. Band-aids won’t work. The DNA of products and business models may need to change.
We need a new story about what tech success looks like, and about how we want to coexist on this planet. We need to move beyond the dogma of “inevitable change” and “disruptive innovation.” The message to the tech industry is clear: Take these issues seriously or expect to be disrupted.
Lyel Resner is a Fellow at the MIT Civic Data Lab, and an Adjunct Professor of Public Interest Technology and Social Innovation at NYU. Michelle Shevin is a Technology Fellow at the Ford Foundation, where she supports a portfolio of grant-making on digital access, rights, and justice.
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