Our Year in Responsible Tech

By Sarah Drinkwater, Director & Aniyia Williams, Principal, Responsible Technology

Back in 2018, we started funding the rise of the responsible tech worker. This is our effort to help tech workers and founders step into their power, and build a world in which technology makes good on its promise of improving everyone’s lives for the better: fueling an ecosystem that is equitable, ethical, and inclusive in addition to innovative.

2020 marked a monumental shift for the movement as the tech-lash came of age. At Omidyar Network, we were proud to provide a roadmap for the US Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission, and dozens of state attorney generals to file antitrust cases against the largest tech companies; there was an escalating debate (and, finally, some action) around acceptable online speech; and millions of people worldwide gained a deeper understanding of the dark patterns in the devices they use everyday watching the hit documentary, A Social Dilemma.

We’ve come a long way since US senators asked Facebook how it makes money, but there’s so much more to do.

Here are the biggest lessons we’ve learned so far, and where we hope this year will take us.

The people we’re told are “leaders” will not lead us where we need to go.

We can’t expect technology executives to self-regulate because they have no incentive to do so. In a world in which technology is inextricably bound with capitalism, CEOs are beholden to their shareholders to maximize profit.

But within those companies, there’s hope.

Tech workers, from engineers to cafeteria staff, are pushing back and speaking up; and new founders are testing out new kinds of business models and products. Together, they are holding their employers and the industry accountable to do the right thing, not just say it.

Yet too often these people face retaliation and get branded troublemakers. We see them as heroes. We believe these are the early stages of a massive tech labor movement, and the number of tech workers who understand the connection between their day-to-day job and its impact on society is growing.

To help unlock their power, we’re creating space for workers and founders to come together, funding the tools and resources they need, and developing new mechanisms for accountability.

In 2020, we launched Ethical Explorer, a tool that gives people working on tech products (including designers, engineers, or their collaborators) a practical guide to navigate and lead on complex topics such as bias in AI or outsized power.

We helped launch the Trust & Safety Professional Association (TSPA) to build the field and continue to elevate those working on the frontlines of content moderation. It is the first membership organization designed for trust and safety specialists, from contract content moderators to in-house engineering teams at big tech companies.

For tech workers yearning to upskill and meet like minds, we funded Logic School to teach them about creative protest, as well as a course at Stanford for professionals on Tech, Ethics, and Public Policy.

In addition, Ifeoma Ozoma joined our team as an advisor to help us consider how to strengthen tech workers’ abilities to whistleblow when they see or experience something wrong in the workplace.

The industry is missing a common vision and narrative about responsible technology.

Last year, we discovered that “ethical tech” means different things to different people. The lack of common narrative is a core challenge for the movement because it means that people haven’t gelled around a shared identity, have a hard time finding each other, and aren’t speaking the same language.

How can you rally without something to rally around? We have to identify the harms as well as the common goals, interests, and passions to build the path forward.

As the pandemic hit, we funded Mobius to bring technology leaders together and determine collective work. To help deepen our knowledge of how race and technology intersect, we funded the Center for Critical Internet Enquiry to bring on an artist-in-residence (an incredible filmmaker, Oge Egbuonu). And Civic Signals, now renamed New_ Public, kicked off 2021 with a festival that brought together a diverse crowd of activists, technologists, artists, academics, and urban planners to consider what healthy digital public spaces should look like.

We win together, or not at all.

For too long, tech has moved too fast and, at that high speed, broken things. An African proverb says “if you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Beyond needing less haste and more conversation, we strongly believe in solidarity and collective approaches.

If this past year has taught us anything, it’s how interwoven our lives are. Wearing a mask protects ourselves, as well as others. We exist as a society and we thrive in communities.

That’s why last year we helped launch Coworker’s Solidarity Fund, the first ever mutual aid fund designed specifically to assist employees and independent contractors who have faced retaliation for organizing in the workplace. The launch is timely given both our commitment to worker power in all forms of business under our Reimagining Capitalism banner and the continued progress of tech organizing, and we hope to see more progress in 2021 with the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union and Amazon employees voting for its first-ever union in the US.

Acting with integrity can and should become business as usual.

We think that doing the right thing for as many people as possible (whether you call it behaving with responsibility, integrity, or ethics) will be how the business world — including the technology sector — weaves together topics such as diversity, equity, belonging, and sustainability.

2020, and the years before it, taught us that tech’s unethical behavior leads to incredible harm. It also results in reputation, regulatory, and talent risk. The largest tech companies are seeing experienced employees as well as young graduates (like those in our ResponsibleCS program) turn away from the cultures they’ve built.

Articulating and living by strongly held values will be how future leaders make their companies appealing to customers, investors, and the most sought-after employees.

We’re already seeing this in the startup scene, with a new class emerging, led by organizations such as Zebras Unite,* who have created a powerful identity for founders who want to build companies grounded in values and defined in opposition to some of Silicon Valley’s most harmful norms.

That’s why our teammates on the Reimagining Capitalism team are working to shift the current corporate governance rules away from shareholder primacy towards a world that recognizes broader stakeholders, including employees and consumers. It’s why we funded Ethical Source and the Corporate Accountability Lab, elevating their existing work which challenges the notion that open source is “values neutral” by deploying tactical, practical licensing and legal frameworks to allow developers to center values in their work. We also funded Project Include to investigate how the shift to working remotely has impacted harassment and toxicity in the virtual workplace, and how tech companies can create better and fairer working conditions for all.

What Comes Next
Looking ahead, we see our work as enabling a diverse community of tech stakeholders to connect, collaborate, and co-create. To fuel the next stage of the movement, we need to focus on both the aspirational (envisioning together what we want) and the adversarial (pushing back against what we don’t). After all, communities are defined as much by what they aren’t as what they are.

In doing so, we hope examples will emerge of what we — as an industry and society — want to reward, as we so often see examples of what we want to correct. Working together, we believe a new surge of people, ideas, and examples will shift tech culture.

We’re still navigating what Omidyar Network’s role should be in the movement towards responsible tech. We aren’t here to own, we’re here to listen, empower, and contribute. We feel strongly that people who are most marginalized in our communities are critical to developing effective solutions — they have deep lived-experience and can see a clear path forward. We must find ways to hear them and respond to their needs.

If what you’ve read here resonates, tell us what you think. If you’re already engaged in some form of this work, or want to be, then we’d love to hear what you are working on or passionate about.

We hope you’ll join us on the journey.

And starting February 9th, we’ll be hosting a series of community conversations to share more of what we’ve learned. Register now for The Tech We Want: Tech Whistleblowing featuring the work of Ifeoma Ozoma.

*For transparency, Aniyia Williams is one of the four co-founders of Zebras Unite and continues to serve on their board. She joined Omidyar Network after we made a grant to the organization.