Workers united

Tech whistleblowers are creating the change Congress talks about.

Spending years working in and covering the United States Congress can do wonders to diminish your belief that the institution will actually execute on any vision of change in the tech industry, from privacy to content moderation to competition. That’s not to say that Congress won’t eventually get there. (I actually think it will.) It’s just that change is slow, and probably going to be reactive to the last major crisis.

Proving to be a far faster mechanism for change in tech: workers. As in, the employees of tech companies themselves. It’s remarkable that people like Tristan Harris and Timnit Gebru and, now, Frances Haugen are, if not household names, proxies for ideas about what ails companies — “that tech addiction guy,” and so on. What these inside sources say carries weight with a public that seems to look at them and say, “If they’re concerned, I’m right to be, too.”

And, importantly, workers often have access to exactly the sort of evidence — first-hand interactions, company records, internal data and research — that regulators are made less effective by not having. It’s not an easy path to go down, including because of the non-disclosure agreements that get robust workouts in Silicon Valley and because any one person’s complaint is going to be rebutted by a lot of other people’s personal experiences, but as a lever for broadening the conversation about what the future of tech should be and how to get there, it does seem to be working.

But that employee-driven pressure is an evolving art. What did we learn about it this week?

1) The Haugen leaks and testimony triggered a response to current Facebook workers’ concerns by people in top management roles, Mike Isaac, Ryan Mac and Sheera Frenkel report for the New York Times. “Over the past week, several corporate vice presidents have held live internal events to provide employees with more information on how different parts of the company operate,” including “what the company understands about polarization, changes to the News Feed algorithm and how executives were keeping the platform safe,” they write — a forcing of the internal transparency companies in every industry talk about much more than they actually succeed in having.

2) One worker can draw out others. The Washington Post's Reed Albergotti profiles Cher Scarlett, an Apple engineer on leave who says she experienced the company as, as Albergotti puts it, “a place that blithely enables discrimination against women and other historically underrepresented groups, including disabled people.” And so she took to social media: “On Twitter, Scarlett has openly discussed the messy details of her life, and her feisty presence on the platform has quickly made her a magnet for Apple colleagues having difficulties with the company.”

3) Workers are amassing a literature. Former Pinterest employee Ifeoma Ozoma has put together a guide called “The Tech Worker Handbook,” notes CNBC's Jennifer Elias, meant to “help those who need basic information with how to share their stories of misconduct and how to prepare for what comes next.” Says Ozoma, such a document fills a gap: “I think we’re doing individuals a disservice if we’re not providing any kind of support or resources. It’s basically saying ‘throw yourself into the lion’s den and good luck.’”

4) Star whistleblowers can slow change. A profile of five past tech company activists by Johana Bhuiyan in the Guardian flags this warning from former Google employee Laurence Berland: “I worry about what it looks like when people get the idea that what’s required is heroics…[t]hat one person is going to change all this in some radical way. I worry that people see someone makes this big public figure kind of move and they think of it as ‘Well, that person’s taken care of it’.”

5) Slack gives workers an organizing space. Ellen Cushing writes in The Atlantic that, especially with the spread of always-on corporate chat spaces spurred by the pandemic, “even if you don’t use Slack, or something like it, you live and work in the world Slack helped create.” And that’s potentially a big deal for workers: “It’s a world where openness and transparency are prized; where work is something we are always kind of doing; where who we are at the office and who we are outside it are closer than ever before; where all of these dynamics mean that sometimes things go very wrong, especially for people in power.”

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IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

Dip back in to our conversation Wednesday with Johns Hopkins political scientist Lilliana Mason on political identities — and what social platforms might do to tamp down Americans’ tendencies towards polarization.