Wednesday's riots at the Capitol all but ensured that Democrats, newly empowered by their majority in Congress, will be coming for the social media companies they say played a key role in fueling the insurrection. Now, those lawmakers might also have an ally in the Justice Department, which has been a key critic of tech's many misdeeds for years.
On Thursday, buried under the news rubble of Wednesday's siege, President-elect Biden nominated Vanita Gupta to be associate attorney general of the United States. While Gupta is best known as the former head of the Justice Department's civil rights unit under President Obama, over the last few years, as CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Gupta has often sat shoulder-to-shoulder with tech leaders including Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, urging them to think through some of the most challenging content moderation dilemmas they face and pushing them to do more to stop online chatter from spilling over into offline harm.
In public remarks following her nomination, Gupta called Wednesday's events "horrific" and said: "The Department of Justice, as it has done throughout history, will have to uncover and reckon with hard truths; hold people, companies, and institutions accountable to our Constitution and laws; drive change where there is injustice; and heal a nation starving for decency and hope."
This summer, as racial justice protests raged across the country, Gupta was part of a group of civil rights leaders who met virtually with Zuckerberg, urging him to crack down on voter suppression ahead of November's election and take action against President Trump's violent threats about the protests in Minnesota. "We were stunned about the different interpretations about what voter suppression really means and looks like in this era," Gupta told Protocol this summer, referring to that meeting. "The company has not been sufficiently enforcing the policies because of the fundamental disagreement around what constitutes voter suppression."
Gupta also worked closely with Airbnb on its civil rights efforts, including a new research initiative called Project Lighthouse, which is studying discrimination on the platform.
While the last few years have bred a cottage industry of professional tech critics, people who have worked closely with Gupta in this area say she's been particularly influential in effecting actual change. "There are a lot of people who talk a lot and have a lot to say and don't get a lot done. Vanita is a person who gets a lot done," said Rashad Robinson, president of the civil rights advocacy group Color of Change. Robinson noted that Gupta was particularly influential in persuading Facebook to take action on disinformation surrounding the U.S. Census. "Vanita was incredibly important and did a lot of work behind the scenes," Robinson said. "The type of work that never ends up in the press, that doesn't end up talked about publicly or heralded."
"Vanita really encouraged her staff to get into the weeds — and she got into the weeds as well — on tech policy," said Laura Murphy, president of Laura Murphy & Associates, who has conducted civil rights audits of both Facebook and Airbnb and who worked closely with Gupta during her time at the American Civil Liberties Union.
During her audits of both companies, Murphy said she saw Gupta become a "tremendous partner" to Facebook and Airbnb. "She went in there delivering a hard line about the implications of their decisions for civil rights, but she did engage them with a great deal of grace, and they, in turn, really felt in awe of her and relied on her," Murphy said. "I think she had a huge impact on the decisions Facebook made closer to the election."
One issue Gupta advocated for at Facebook in particular was the creation of the Voter Information Center, which launched last year. "It is really significant that through our collective efforts, Facebook finally did some urgent stuff like creating the Voter Information Center," Gupta told Protocol last summer. "Getting that kind of accurate information out to Facebook users is crucial." But at the time, Gupta said she was continuing to press the company on issues of voter suppression, particularly when it came to President Trump's own posts about the election. Now, months later, Facebook has taken the unprecedented step of blocking President Trump from posting for the remainder of his presidency.
Murphy said that Gupta's move back to the public sector will be "a loss" for the companies that sought out her expertise. While she hasn't withheld criticism of these companies, she hasn't been as antagonistic as some other groups either. Last summer, for instance, under Gupta's watch, The Leadership Conference stayed out of a widespread #StopHateforProfit advertising boycott. Airbnb declined to comment for this story, and Facebook didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment.
Of course, as associate attorney general, serving under attorney general nominee Merrick Garland, Gupta will have a lot more on her plate than just addressing the tech industry's faults. But both Murphy and Robinson predict Gupta's intimate experience working with the tech sector will be invaluable to the Department of Justice. She comes to the position having looked at these issues from the companies' perspective and the perspective of the grassroots movements that she collaborated with, Robinson said. "I'm glad there is someone who has experienced those meetings and sat in those rooms," he said. "Unless you have, you don't get it."
That's especially important as the country's top law enforcement officials sort through messy questions about how laws that apply to the offline world ought to apply online: Should Section 230 immunize tech platforms from being held liable for civil rights violations they enable? How do fair housing laws apply in a world of automated, on-demand digital advertising? What is the definition of voter suppression online? And how does the tech sector's enormous scale and power brush up against the country's antitrust laws?
Murphy believes Gupta is well-positioned to help the federal government answer some of those questions: not from the perspective of an insider, but from the perspective of one of the few legal scholars and civil rights advocates who has seen these companies from the inside out. "She's going to bring her tech fluency to the leadership of the Justice Department," Murphy said. "That can only help America."