Lisa Roman arrived at Twitter just in time for the techlash.
It was 2018, and Roman had spent her career in government, working for the Department of Defense in Baghdad and coordinating U.S. policy related to Syria both for the State Department and the White House National Security Council.
But the pace of things on Twitter's public policy team was chaotic even for her. "A lot of our day-to-day jobs, as you can imagine in the public policy shop, were starting to become extremely reactionary," Roman said. "You would sort of wake up and your agenda was set for you, because you woke up to an email from one of the campaigns or a letter from Congress."
By the fall of 2020, as the frenetic pace in tech was peaking in the run-up to the U.S. election, Roman was looking for a job that would allow her to set the agenda, not the other way around. And she found that job in a somewhat unlikely place: the dating app Bumble.
Around that time, Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd was looking to start an internal policy team of her own, but one with a decidedly different set of stated goals than other tech policy teams have. "I said, 'Well, what is it exactly that you're looking for? Are you worried about this set of conversations resulting in a law that will impact the business?'" Roman remembers asking Wolfe Herd. "She's like, 'No. I need someone to come and help make the internet safer for women.'"
Roman joined Bumble as its vice president of global public policy last October, and has since begun building a small but experienced female-led team with an unusual mission, as far as tech policy shops go. While most tech teams in D.C. are working overtime to stop legislation that could hurt tech, Bumble's team is also actively pushing legislation across the country to stop behavior that hurts women — both online and off.
In September, Roman hired Payton Iheme, who spent five years on Facebook's public policy team, to head up Bumble's work in North America and Latin America. Like Roman, Iheme had an unconventional path to the tech industry, serving in the U.S. Army from the age of 17 and later working in the White House. "I was very keen on global problems, and I was drawn to tech being able to help, at scale, solve some of those," Iheme said.
But as relationships soured between the government and the tech industry, Iheme said, "I felt that I was not able to make those types of impact." Especially after George Floyd's murder and the Capitol riot — during which Iheme was deployed as an active member of the National Guard — Iheme said she started thinking harder about "where you want to put your energy." She decided she could make a bigger difference focusing on a more narrow set of issues.
Bumble's nascent policy team has focused for the most part on legislation related to unsolicited intimate imagery, work that began before either Roman or Iheme joined the company. In 2019, Wolfe Herd herself testified before lawmakers in Texas, where the company is based, on a bill that made it a misdemeanor to send unsolicited lewd photos, with violators subject to fines of $500. Wolfe Herd was motivated to speak not just on behalf of Bumble's users, but based on her own experiences with online harassment. Wolfe Herd famously filed a sexual harassment suit against Tinder, the rival dating app she co-founded before starting Bumble.
"If indecent exposure is a crime on the streets, then why is it not on your phone or computer?" Wolfe Herd asked lawmakers at the time. "We have to call on you because as tech companies, we can only do so much. Please help us fill the gaps where we fall short."
That bill was signed into law in 2019, inspiring the company to build a team that could push similar laws in other states. "Folks stepped back and were like: 'Wow, we could do this all the time,'" Roman said.
Bumble's policy team now consists of four people, including another former Facebook staffer, Jansen Wolf, and Nima Elmi, who spent five years at the World Economic Forum and served as a senior adviser to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Somaliland. The team has worked to push bills similar to the Texas law in New York and California, and even became a co-sponsor on California's SB 53, known as the FLASH Act, which was introduced by state Sen. Connie Leyva in December 2020. Wolfe Herd testified in support of that bill too, but it has yet to pass out of the legislature. "I very much appreciate Bumble's continued commitment to ensuring the online safety of women through sensible and important legislation like S.B. 53," Leyva told Protocol in a statement.
Last week, Bumble expanded this work outside of the U.S., launching another anti-cyberflashing initiative targeting the U.K. government.
While Bumble's focus has been on online harms to women, the company has backed laws to prevent offline harms women face as well. Shortly after Iheme began at Bumble, she wrote a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom asking him to sign a bill introduced by Assemblymember Cristina Garcia which would outlaw "stealthing," a term that refers to removing a condom without consent. Newsom signed the bill in October, making California the only state to explicitly outlaw stealthing as a form of sexual battery.
"We like to show up where other women are showing up to help support women, and this is one of these examples," Iheme said. "[Garcia] had been doing amazing work for several years to try to get that bill to pass, and we were just happy to help lift that work."
One of the biggest issues now facing women in the U.S. is a wave of new restrictions on abortion access. That's particularly true in Bumble's home state of Texas, where the recently enacted SB 8 banned nearly all abortions after six weeks. Bumble has made philanthropic donations to support women in Texas, and Wolfe Herd spoke out against SB 8 when it became law. But Roman said the company won't likely insert itself in policy conversations related to reproductive rights, given the size of its policy team. "We have to remain narrowly scoped in order to have the impact that I think we seek," Roman said. "Entire organizations do nothing but fight for reproductive rights and have existed for decades and are far better resourced and in a better position to take on that fight than we are."
Even as Iheme and Roman advocate for women, they said they are still actively involved in more traditional tech policy issues. Efforts to protect vulnerable groups online often run headlong into efforts to preserve tech platforms' legal protections, particularly when it comes to Section 230 immunity, which Bumble and other platforms benefit from. Some have argued, for instance, for a federal revenge porn exception to Section 230 immunity that would hold platforms liable for hosting that content. But tech interest groups have generally been wary of efforts to chip away at their liability protections, even through narrow exceptions.
Roman insists Bumble wouldn't be, in part because the company has already developed tools that automatically blur images that appear to contain nudity. "You sort of base how strong your position would be, for or against something, based on how risky it is to you," Roman said. "Our risk in that particular, very narrow situation will be pretty low."
Not every tech platform would make that calculus. But most tech platforms are not led by women. That makes a difference, according to Iheme. In any company, she said, women have to not only get a seat at the table, but they have to be able to speak and be heard at that table too. "All of those things indicate if you're able to shape policy and influence decisions," she said, noting that having women in a range of leadership positions, not just in the CEO slot, helps at Bumble.
The work Bumble is doing on women's issues may seem far afield from the core interests of a tech company, but Iheme and Roman argue it's anything but. They point out that every platform deals with harms against women, who are, Roman said, "presumably 50% of their customers."
"This is not just core to our business. This is core to Facebook's business. This is core to Twitter's business," she said. "We actually don't know why they haven't been talking about this aspect of it in their discussions or joining us at these tables."