Politics

Tech's favorite lobbyists want to end qualified immunity for cops

Support from the Internet Association could help activists' racial-justice efforts. So why are they so nervous?

A billboard that says Black Lives Matter

The announcement from the Internet Association is the latest sign that Big Tech will make racial justice one of its political causes.

Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

A trade association that represents Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter said Wednesday that it will lobby Congress and state legislatures to eliminate qualified immunity for police officers and to demilitarize police departments across the country.

The announcement from the Internet Association is the latest sign that Big Tech will make racial justice one of its political causes, just as it has done before with LGBTQ+ rights and progressive immigration policies. But some activists are wary — nervous that Big Tech, with its close relationship with law enforcement and diversity problems of its own, won't be a reliable ally on the issue.

"As long as these corporations and their lobbying groups continue to profit from and enhance the capabilities of the police, immigration and surveillance states, there will always be a conflict of interest and their commitments to Black lives will ring hollow," said Brandon Forester, a national organizer with digital rights advocacy group MediaJustice.

But the Internet Association, as well as leaders at IBM and Salesforce, say that the tech industry has a responsibility to begin funneling some of its millions of dollars in lobbying budgets toward racial justice issues. "When we saw the national moment that is happening, we reached the conclusion that we have to do more than talking points or cosmetic changes," said Sean Perryman, the association's director of social impact policy.

The Internet Association unveiled its policy proposals around police reform Wednesday — the first tech trade group to do so. Perryman said the group is preparing to back particular pieces of legislation that include the police reforms they're advocating but that it's still reviewing the latest proposals from Republicans and Democrats.

IBM CEO Arvind Krishna last week pledged to support "new federal rules" to "hold police more accountable for misconduct." Like the Internet Association, IBM has stopped short of embracing calls to "defund the police," instead calling for bringing more police misconduct cases under federal court purview and making changes to the qualified immunity doctrine — proposals that have some bipartisan energy in Congress as lawmakers consider a police reform package.

"We are absolutely going to lobby on this," Chris Padilla, IBM's vice president of government and regulatory affairs, told Protocol.

Meanwhile, Salesforce joined other corporate leaders last week in urging Georgia to pass a hate crimes law, a Salesforce spokesperson said in an email. Salesforce has faced extensive condemnation for its contract with Customs and Border Protection, but in a blog post last week, Salesforce executives Ebony Beckwith and Tony Prophet announced they would be dedicating a pillar of their new Racial Equality and Justice task force to "advocating for public policy reforms on critical areas, such as policing, hate crimes and criminal justice."

Tech companies have historically argued that they support LGBTQ+ rights and expanded immigration rights as an extension of their support for their workforce, which includes LGBTQ+ people and immigrants from many countries. Now they're making a similar argument when it comes to racial justice and police reform, saying they have a responsibility to weigh in because they have Black employees among their ranks.

The Software Alliance, known as BSA, which represents software companies including Microsoft, has not come out with a new policy proposal. But Victoria Espinel, president and chief executive of BSA, said the association is supporting member companies that are "very seriously considering what legislative proposals they can get behind." This week, BSA board members and senior leaders will talk with civil rights experts who will offer thoughts "on some of the racial justice [and] police reform policy recommendations out there," Espinel said.

The Information Technology Industry Council, a trade group that represents companies including Microsoft, Google and Amazon, said it has launched a new working group to develop and advocate for "public policies that can begin to address racial justice."

But not every company and trade association is on board with the move toward lobbying on police reform. CompTIA and the Consumer Technology Association told Protocol that they are not launching new outward-facing policy initiatives in response to the wave of protests and energy around racial justice. Instead, they're redoubling on programs aimed at increasing diversity and inclusion in tech.

"We want to stick to the areas where we have the most expertise, where we have the most credibility, where we can make the biggest impact," said Todd Thibodeaux, CEO CompTIA, the IT industry's top trade group. He said CompTIA is working on expanding its efforts to train and place people of color at leading tech companies.

Margaret O'Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington who has written extensively about Silicon Valley, said tech companies came out in favor of marriage equality only after it began to become a mainstream issue.

"Now it'll be interesting to see how, in such a short amount of time, something like 'Black Lives Matter' — the phrase, the hashtag, the notion — has moved very quickly into becoming a more mainstream idea," she said. "Ideas about racial justice could become something companies could safely come out and be out in front and be active on and be lobbying for, in the same way they lobbied for immigration reform or for gay rights, without worrying about alienating consumer boycotts or a good chunk of their user base."

Still, like Forester, Jacinta Gonzalez, an organizer with Latinx advocacy group Mijente, said she is "wary" of the support from the tech companies, considering that many of them have vested interests in increasing police budgets. "We're concerned about what they consider to be police reform," Gonzalez said. "We know that it has to come from a place of needing to defund the police, and that means spending less money on tech and data companies who are trying to advocate for contracts that are just good for them."

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