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Do Black Lives Really Matter to Big Tech?

Over the last few weeks, we have seen a wave of protests and demonstrations after the murder of George Floyd. The circumstances surrounding his death at the hands of the police sparked conversations about systemic and institutionalised racism not only in the states but in other countries around the globe.

As we have all seen, companies have come out to condemn George Floyd’s murder and stand in solidarity with the black lives matter movement. Tech companies were some of the quickest to respond; releasing statements and donating money to organisations that support the black lives matter movement.

Despite this, a number of big tech companies have been called out for the fact that their past actions do match their current rhetoric.

Matching statements to actions

Tech firms stand accused of contributing to the very problems that have been in the spotlight in recent weeks and the evidence points to the fact that they are guilty of doing such.

Mark Zuckerberg released stated in a post where he announcing a $10 million donations to groups working on social justice that  “The pain of the last week reminds us how far our country has to go to give every person the freedom to live with dignity and peace,” “We stand with the black community — and all those working towards justice in honour of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and far too many others whose names will not be forgotten.”

The record shows that during the same time Facebook refused to remove Donald Trump’s “when the shooting starts the looting starts” post in response to the nationwide protests. This saw backlash from the public and sparked employees to publicly criticise Mark Zuckerberg, advocating for internal change.

In 2018 an employee called Mark Luckie, the former strategic partner manager for global influencers, detailed how Facebook is failing its black employees in a post. Mark Luckie describes black employees being discriminated against by their managers and campus security. Additionally, black “safe spaces” are being reported resulting in their content being removed without notice and the termination of accounts despite not violated any of Facebook’s terms and services. At the time of Luckie’s post, black employees made up just 4% of the workforce and Mark Luckie stated that “There is often more diversity in Keynote presentations than the teams who present them”

Amazon released a statement appearing to stand in solidarity with the black lives matter movement – “The inequitable and brutal treatment of black people in our country must stop. Together we stand in solidarity with the black community — our employees, customers, and partners — in the fight against systemic racism and injustice.”

The record shows that Amazon in the past has had several contracts with over two hundred law enforcement agencies – these are the same agencies that have been the subject of the protests over the last month or so. The biases embedded in software like Rekognition, an app licensed to law enforcement agencies, means that the software has struggled to correctly identify non-white faces. This means that black people are more likely to be questioned, stopped and in cases that are unfortunately too frequent, killed by law enforcement.

Common algorithms for predicting criminal risk showed racial bias (ProPublica)

Google’s CEO released this statement “Today on U.S. Google & YouTube homepages we share our support for racial equality in solidarity with the black community and in memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery & others who don’t have a voice. For those feeling grief, anger, sadness & fear, you are not alone.”

The record shows that many employees at Google have been advocating for more diversity within the organisation. These demands for more diversity (as well as other issues) culminated in a walkout in November 2018 by more than 20,000 employees. In September 2019, a black engineering director, Leslie Miley, said that a white employee attempted to physically block his entrance into their office despite the fact that his badge was visible. He goes on to describe the fact that this weaponised form of bias is something that is implicitly endorsed by processes at Google.

In November 2018 Google employees walked out to protest the company’s handling of sexual harrasment, discrimanation and racism (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

It’s not all doom and gloom

So far, what all the record shows is that big tech has either consciously or unconsciously contributed or are actively contributing to structural racism within their own organisations and in society. From anti-trust probes to issues surrounding race, big tech firms are demonised at every opportunity, however, over the last week or so we have seen an indication that big tech is turning their rhetoric into action.

Tech giant IBM, Microsoft and Amazon have all decided to either ban the use facial recognition technology by law enforcement agencies or get out of the facial recognition business altogether. All of these organisations have been concerned about the potential misuse of their technology.

What is the significance?

IBM’s abandonment of facial recognition technology comes from the company’s commitment to their values and the fact that they oppose all forms of human rights discrimination – this is something that we can learn from their statement to US congressional leaders. Additionally, IBM’s organisation design or structure means that all of their products and services are reviewed and scrutinized. In this particular case, IBM has an ethics AI board which is led by their Chief Privacy Officer. This C suite executive makes sure that there are no conflicts with the way their technology is being used and their values. Implementing similar structures and processes is something that big tech companies ought to be doing. This ensures that they know that their technology isn’t being used to violate the values of their organisations and human rights.

IBM opposes the use of facial recognition techonlogy (iStock)

IBM, Microsoft and Amazon’s have very important roles in influencing tech companies to take a stronger stand on the topic of human rights and anti-discrimination. Perhaps, in the near future, we will see big tech organisations implement similar, or even better if, improved organisational structures to screen the use and effects of their technology.

When the dust settles, protests subside and we look back at this period in history, what will the record show? Did big tech dance around an issue as salient as racial inequality? Or did they use their power, size and resources to advance a movement which fights against the systemic racism towards black people?

Elijah Ajuwon
Elijah is a student at the University of Manchester studying a masters in Innovation Management. Areas of intrigue include community building and emerging technologies. Elijah is also the founder of arkisites, a non-profit organisation dedicated to bridging the access gap between the tech sector and minority ethnic communities

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