Silicon Valley Is Playing Defense on Racism

This is a moment of reckoning with racism in America, and a moment for progress. Based on my conversations with some of the advocates calling for that progress, it’s fair to say that the tech industry is making… well, a little. Mostly at the margins.
U.S. tech hubs, led by Silicon Valley and Seattle, are bastions of enormous wealth and power in a deeply unequal world. Black people are both vastly underrepresented in their ranks and often underserved, or even actively harmed, by their products. So the industry is a natural target for scrutiny at a time when outrage at police brutality has boiled over and sparked a wholesale re-examination of society’s discriminatory inner workings.
So far, almost every big tech company has offered well-publicized gestures of support to the cause of racial equality. They’ve made statementsvideospledgesdonations, and even a few personnel shuffles. (My own employer launched a blog about the fight against anti-Black racism.) Those actions are, for the most part, welcome, and in many cases surpass what large companies outside the tech sector have done. Yet few tech companies — not zero, but few — have seen fit to shake up their leadership or change how they do business in any meaningful way.
Which raises the question: What would truly substantive, anti-racist reform of the tech industry looks like? Can we even imagine a Silicon Valley that works as well for Black people as for White? If so, how would we get there? Those are questions that I’ve been asking both Black leaders within the industry and outside critics and academics this week, and I’ll have more on their answers in a forthcoming piece on OneZero. As a quick preview of that: One industry insider who is Black told me he thinks the answer starts with representation and inclusion throughout the ranks, to a degree that most tech companies haven’t yet begun to fathom. But one academic who studies the discriminatory effects of technology told me he thinks even that wouldn’t be enough to make products such as Facebook or Amazon’s Ring truly anti-racist.
“I’ll be blunt,” said Chris Gilliard, a professor at Macomb Community College. “I think that some of these technologies are incompatible with a free and equitable society.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, those kinds of existential questions are not the ones the industry’s top executives seem to be asking at the moment. They seem to be asking instead: What can we do to show that we’re listening to the current demands for reform and that we sympathize? And how can we do it while keeping our existing products and power structures intact?
How tech companies are responding to the movement for racial justice — and how they aren’t.
💬 For a collection of companies that have historically evinced relatively little interest in how their products play into systemic racism, internet companies have been relatively quick to respond to the protests sparked by George Floyd’s killing — but mostly with PR moves.
💬 As the Washington Post pointed out, Alexa and Siri and the Google Assistant will now tell you that Black lives to matter if you ask them, even as their corporate masters employ relatively few Black people themselves, especially in the leadership ranks.
💬 Amazon ran a Black Lives Matter banner on its homepage touting its $10 million donations to social justice organizations, among other steps, even as critics highlighted the racially disproportionate impacts of its surveillance technologies, including its Ring doorbell cams and Rekognition face recognition service. (More on the latter in a moment.) My OneZero colleague Sarah Emerson pointed out the company also raises money for police departments at a time when activists are calling to defund them.
💬 Snap stopped promoting Donald Trump on its Discover page last week in response to his incitements to police violence against protesters. Yet the company has been accused of a racist culture, and Business Insider reported Thursday via an anonymous inside source that CEO Evan Spiegel decided to keep Snap’s diversity report private to avoid sending the message that it is not welcoming to underrepresented minorities. (If that were truly his concern, you’d think the answer might be to hire more of them, rather than to hide the fact that he hasn’t.)
💬 While the famous tech companies get most of the scrutiny, some of Silicon Valley’s most pernicious discrimination is at work in the startup and venture capital ecosystems, according to a report from the Washington Post’s Nitasha Tiku. Fresh commitments from SoftBank and Andreessen Horowitz to fund underrepresented founders “mask years of underinvestment, particularly in Black women,” Tiku reports. She cites a study showing that just 1% of venture capital money went to Black startup founders in 2018, while, perhaps not coincidentally, just 1% of decision-makers in venture capital were Black.
💬 For leaders in tech who want to get serious about addressing White supremacy, Black founder Tiffani Ashley Bell asks a series of probing questions in Marker. One example among the many: “Venture capitalists are in the business of intelligently managing risk while guiding capital to life-changing, fund-returning returns. So, why do so many VC firms behave as if investing in Black entrepreneurs is a risk they can neither manage nor take?
💬 The list of unconvincing half measures and hypocritical claims is long, while the list of fundamental changes to tech products that perpetuate racism, so far, is short. But there was at least one response from the tech industry this week that every source I’ve talked to agreed was substantive. IBM announced in a letter to Congress on Monday that it will no longer research, develop, or offer face recognition technology, and questioned whether automated face recognition should have a place in law enforcement at all.
💬 Some pointed out that IBM was behind in face recognition anyway. Yet its move clearly applied pressure to rivals and appears to have spurred both Microsoft and Amazon to step back from supplying face recognition for law enforcement as well, albeit only conditionally in Microsoft’s case and only temporarily in Amazon’s. In his essential weekly column on A.I. news, General Intelligence, my OneZero colleague Dave Gershgorn reflected on the influential 2018 research paper that launched a movement to persuade tech companies to take it seriously. These moves alone won’t put a stop to police use of face recognition, Gershgorn noted, but they could help to spur regulations that would.
Under-the-radar trends, stories, and random anecdotes worth your time
🗨️ Zoom banned U.S.-based activists at the Chinese government’s request. After Axios reported on it, the videoconferencing company admitted this week in a blog post that it had ended Zoom meetings and deactivated the accounts of at least two Chinese pro-democracy activists in the United States and one activist in Hong Kong. The company said it reinstated its accounts and would change its processes to comply with China’s censorship requests only for users based in China. Critics found that response less than reassuring. I wrote last year about the growing trend of U.S. tech companies choosing compliance with the Chinese government over the free speech of users outside mainland China.
🗨️ A report from NYU on social media content moderation called on tech companies to stop outsourcing the job. While the task is central to what social media companies do, they have “marginalized the people who do this work,” which helps to explain why they have failed to prevent their platforms from being exploited for ethnic and religious violence, including genocide in Myanmar. Bringing moderation in-house was one of eight recommendations from the report, which you can read in full here. Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is circulating a petition demanding that Facebook take more responsibility for misinformation. (His opponent, of course, is demanding the opposite.)