‘You can't leave companies to police themselves’: Lessons from Facebook's civil rights audit

Before the Facebook Papers, Facebook's audit made the case for transparency.

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A new report released Wednesday lays out how companies can successfully conduct their own civil rights audit.

Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

Before Frances Haugen, before the Facebook Papers, before The Wall Street Journal's Facebook Files, Facebook had a chance to correct some of its algorithmic bias issues through an internal "civil rights audit" that concluded last year. According to people who contributed to the audit at the time, the company's response fell short.

That audit was conducted by Laura W. Murphy, a former director at the ACLU who has experience running similar audits for companies like Airbnb and Starbucks.

Murphy worked with Facebook for two years, collecting data from users, executives and employees, interviewing over a hundred civil rights organizations and ultimately putting out an 89-page audit that did not hold back in its indictment of the company's handling of everything from discriminatory ads to hate speech.

Today, Murphy released a new report in collaboration with The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Ford Foundation on how other companies can successfully conduct their own civil rights audit. She spoke with Protocol about general best practices and her response to the whistleblower allegations against Facebook, as well as how other companies could make good faith efforts at internal reform — before the dam bursts.

Facebook needs "more controls over content," and it needs to "invest more in human review," said Murphy, who recommended that the company invest in more resources to study and address hate. She said the company didn't go far enough toward moderating content, but she also acknowledged that the platform will always require algorithms as part of content moderation simply due to its sheer size. "I don't know what the solution is," she said.

The most important thing when conducting an audit like this, Murphy cautioned, is that there must be buy-in from senior leadership, pointing to Sheryl Sandberg's support for the Facebook audit.

But according to some who worked with Murphy on the audit at the time, one key person was not supportive, and it was the one person who mattered most: Zuckerberg. "Facebook answers to one person, and I don't think that one person bought in," said David Brody, senior counsel and senior fellow for privacy and technology at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an organization that Murphy consulted with during the two-year audit process.

Still, Murphy believes that the reforms Facebook made on the recommendation of her audit were significant. She points to the company's historic settlement of civil rights lawsuits challenging its advertising policies as well as the formation of a civil rights task force. But in Brody's estimation, Facebook likely would have reached that settlement anyway, with or without the audit's recommendation. "The plaintiffs' claims were very strong," he pointed out.

In a statement to Protocol, Facebook's vice president of civil rights and deputy general counsel, Roy L. Austin, Jr., wrote: "To my knowledge, Facebook is the only company in the world to hire a Vice President of Civil Rights…There are no quick fixes to the issues and recommendations the auditors surfaced. Becoming a better company requires a deep analysis of how we can strengthen and advance civil rights at every level of our company, and we remain committed to doing that industry-leading work."

According to Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU, which was involved in litigating the ad cases against Facebook, civil rights audits are "necessary but not sufficient." Yes, companies ought to be looking at equity concerns, but ongoing issues like the ones Facebook is experiencing reveal that "you can't leave companies to police themselves." The answer instead lies in legislation and litigation.

In the case of Facebook, while the audit was an additional pressure point, the automated ad delivery systems that Murphy called attention to "were not resolved," said Sherwin, pointing to studies that have shown that the platform continues to deliver ads in a manner that's racially discriminatory.

Ultimately, there is no enforcement mechanism compelling companies to take forceful action — particularly actions that are potentially damaging to the bottom line — post-audit. Yet, Murphy is still bullish on the merits of civil rights audits, and the nearly 40-page report she authored lays out specific ways other companies can conduct one themselves.

She called on more companies to join Facebook, Starbucks and Airbnb in conducting this type of audit, specifically the companies that members of Congress have called on, which include Amazon, Google and Twitter. Brody also cited YouTube specifically as a company that could benefit from a civil rights audit due to its issues with election and COVID-19 disinformation, as well as Uber for its practices that "skirt around labor protections" for drivers.

"The problems are going to be there whether you find them or not," said Brody, who views audits as a valuable tool for advocates when the cost of litigation is prohibitive, and valuable for companies when conducting an audit helps them "avoid a bigger hammer coming down from somewhere else."

Companies that undergo a civil rights audit should do so with full awareness of what it requires. Organizations need leadership buy-in. They need to bring in an independent auditor with civil rights expertise and existing relationships with stakeholder organizations. They need to be prepared to disclose sensitive data and information to that auditor, and they need to be prepared to disclose the results of the audit publicly, according to Murphy and others who have gone through the process. Most importantly, they need to be prepared to reckon with what they uncover, even if it's painful.

Companies that have gone through the audit process have advice too. "Understand that it's a long-term process," and be prepared to continue to reform on the audit's recommendations long after it's completed, said Clark Stevens, director of stakeholder initiatives at Airbnb, which completed its audit with Murphy in 2019. In other words, companies should go in with their eyes wide open.


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