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In 2020, Big Tech reckoned with racial injustice. Its work is far from over.

From Facebook's walkouts to Amazon's facial recognition moratorium, did any of it make a difference?

In 2020, Big Tech reckoned with racial injustice. Its work is far from over.

Racial injustice issues engulfed the U.S. this year, and Big Tech wasn't spared.

Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

The movement for Black lives marched straight into the heart of some of Silicon Valley's most powerful companies this summer, with Facebook employees staging a virtual walkout over the company's policies, Pinterest employees speaking out about racism and retaliation they experienced and a parade of tech giants making heartfelt commitments to diversity and supporting POC-focused causes.

But as the year comes to a close, one of those giants, Google, is facing an uproar over the firing of Timnit Gebru, one of its top AI ethicists, after she wrote an internal message to fellow Googlers that criticized biases within the company and within its AI technology. It's a scandal Gebru's supporters argue is emblematic of the costs Black people in the tech industry bear for speaking out on issues related to discrimination every day.

So, the natural question to ask is: Did the summer's promises really have any impact on the tech companies who made them? According to some activists, the answer is yes. But there's so much more work to be done.

"What I'm seeing from my purview as a racial justice organizer, especially in the summer, was this transformative moment where corporations, including tech corporations, showed up and expressed values in ways that they never have before in support of the broader movement for Black lives," said Arisha Hatch, chief of campaigns at the advocacy group Color of Change, which focused part of its activism on the tech industry. "The accountability work moving forward is actually pushing them to do tangible things that match up with their broader values."

Hatch said she saw some of those "tangible things" start to materialize this year. For one thing, companies like Facebook and Twitter made measurable commitments to hiring underrepresented minorities, including in executive positions. "Six years ago they were saying it was illegal for them to make those sorts of commitments," Hatch said.

Facebook also promised to set up an internal civil rights infrastructure, following the recommendations laid out in a civil rights audit that Color of Change and others had fought for for years. Hatch called that commitment "the highlight of the year" in terms of progress in tech.

There were some other meaningful advances, too, according to Malkia Devich-Cyril, senior fellow and founding director of MediaJustice: "We saw the movement for Black lives have an incredible impact on the tech industry in the facial recognition debate."

As protests against police brutality swept the country, Amazon said it would stop selling its Rekognition technology to police for one year, Microsoft said it wouldn't sell facial recognition tech to police until there was a federal privacy policy and IBM said it was getting out of the facial recognition business altogether.

Though skeptical that these companies made the decisions out of the goodness of their hearts, Devich-Cyril said the impact is still real: "It was because of the fight and the language of 'defund the police' that those companies even went that far and said: Let's have this moratorium while we figure this out."

Still, Devich-Cyril said they'd like to see tech companies go a lot further in terms of breaking their ties with police, which extend well beyond facial recognition into predictive policing and risk assessment algorithms. "At every stage of the policing system, of the carceral system, we now have technology," they said. "The movement for Black lives has taken this on."

Even as corporate executives have made promises, however hollow, minority tech workers were also emboldened to speak out this year more than they have been in the past, Ifeoma Ozoma said. She, along with her former colleague Aerica Shimizu Banks, described the discrimination she faced at Pinterest on Twitter. That opened the door for other tech workers to share their own stories, too. "A lot of people said that because of the clarity of [our] statement … they felt like they could say more," Ozoma said. "For a long time, they felt like you can't say what happened or who did it or how it happened."

Twitter lit up this summer with the stories of how Black tech workers and startup founders are treated in the industry. "Where I think there's been progress is in folks understanding their ability to organize and blow the whistle," Ozoma said.

But the progress ends there: Whistleblowers, Ozoma said, still face the brunt of the consequences for the problems they call out inside tech companies, an experience she's felt firsthand. "People don't understand the toll that speaking up takes, that enduring any of this takes," Ozoma said.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has said the company will investigate Gebru's firing, writing in a letter to staff, "We need to accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent Black, female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily. This loss has had a ripple effect through some of our least represented communities, who saw themselves and some of their experiences reflected in Dr. Gebru's."

But for now, it's Gebru who's the one without a job. While Ozoma and Gebru have received plenty of verbal support for their actions, Ozoma said options for whistleblowers are far more limited than many of those supporters understand. "People say, 'Go start your own business.' With what fucking capital?" Ozoma said. "There's an immediate financial toll ... There's a career toll even though people say, 'Anybody would be lucky to have you.'"

Ozoma is now working on a project with the Omidyar Network to provide resources to whistleblowers. She said it's time for tech companies to stop making promises that they end up breaking and to start facing repercussions from the market. She's hopeful that some of that's beginning to happen, as evidenced by a shareholder lawsuit recently filed against Pinterest in response to the allegations she and Shimizu Banks made. "I don't believe in commitments," Ozoma said. "I believe in consequences."

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