It’s nice to know that an all-tech site like TechCrunch has a senior reporter focused on diversity, inclusion and social justice. Her name is Megan Rose Dickey and she moderated Friday’s opening main stage panel discussion at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco, a Q&A with Block Party founder and CEO Tracy Chou and Project Include co-founder and CEO Ellen Pao on ethical tech.
There was much to discuss. Dickey began by noting that “the last couple of years in tech had been filled with workers speaking out against their employers for contracts with ICE and other government agencies… gig workers have protested low wages… [and] diversity and inclusion is still moving at a glacial pace in the industry.”
So what are the panelists’ biggest concerns around ethics in tech right now?
“I think the easiest one right now is Juul,” said Pao. “What are you doing to your customers? And how are you thinking about them… you’re going to get them addicted, and they’re your customer base to grow, and you’re going to target them… [You] advertise through having kids try to reel other kids in, and then you’re going to tell people that you’re actually this ethical company that’s trying to help prevent people from smoke?”
Chou cited Theranos, the consumer health technology company once valued at $10 billion that turned out to be a massive fraud. “If you’re trying help people in the medical capacity and actually misleading them, potentially even causing death, if you’re recommending the wrong things,” she said.
There can be no doubt that Juul and Theranos knew exactly what they were doing. But what about companies like Facebook that argue they don’t know what’s happening on their platforms?
“I think it’s hard to say there isn’t intent at this stage,” Pao asserted. “It’s like unconscious bias, is it really unconscious anymore? The use of this data to manipulate elections just for the sake of bringing in more ad dollars and more eyeballs is, I think it’s egregious.”
“What kind of data [are they] collecting? How are they using it?” asked Pao. “How are they selling it?… And then where’s this data users are generating leading them to? So it’s like the path into white supremacy, the path into fake news, all of it is on these platforms and Facebook isn’t the only one. It’s on YouTube, it’s on Reddit, Twitter. They have to start being held accountable [for their] actions. And it’s not just intent, it’s the impact of your actions as well.”
Chou cited mass shootings and online radicalization of white nationalists as two areas of great concern. “There’s culpability in the platforms that are enabling people to connect in these ways and become radicalized,” she said. “And it’s no longer just online. The online abuse and harassment is bad enough, but it’s translating into real world harm, like very big harm at the scale of mass shootings.”
Pao, whose tumultuous tenure as Reddit’s interim CEO ended with her resignation after less than a year at the company, said she is trying “to distance myself” from that chapter of an illustrious career in tech and finance. While at Reddit, she was the first leader of a large social media company to ban revenge porn and unauthorized nude photos as part of her broader efforts to curtail harassment on the site. In 2016, Pao co-founded Project Include, a non-profit that uses data and advocacy to accelerate diversity and inclusion solutions in the tech industry. Project Include’s mission is “to give everyone a fair chance to succeed in tech.”
“How do we change tech startups so that they become healthy, diverse and inclusive, big companies?” asked Pao. “[We’re] focused on making sure that companies have diversity internally and have inclusion internally. And [that] there’s equity and representation at all levels and in all functions.”
“Sometimes it’s an uphill battle,” Pao admitted. “So we focus on working with companies where the CEOs are already oriented towards diversity and inclusion, and we can help them by bringing them a group of peer CEOs to talk with and figure out ways to experiment, we can help them by giving the data on what their employee base looks like and what the sentiment levels of different groups are.”
“[We’re] starting to change people’s values,” she added. “You see more and more people putting inclusion as one of their company values.”
Uplifting Ethics in Tech
What’s the best way to get to a more ethical tech industry? There is more than one way, the panelists asserted. “Fundamentally we’re still living in a capitalist system, so I think the economic incentives are still overriding,” said Chou. She added:
“That being said, other things can play into that. So really bad press can hurt companies economically. And so then they’ll start to address it. The delete hashtag was really interesting case of like organizing around a lot of unhappiness about various Uber practices. But it actually had a measurable impact on installs and usage. Obviously, many other things are going on with Uber, but I think that kind of consumer broad based bad press Uber to think a little bit about what they were doing.”
Chou said employee recruitment is an important way to uplift ethics in tech. “If there are enough employees or candidates who make a strong stance saying, I’m not going to stand for this, I will actually leave the company and protest, or I will no longer work at a company that does these things, then there’s… recruiting pressure [for] companies,” she said.