Why We’re Investing in the Rise of the Responsible Tech Worker

By Sarah Drinkwater, Director, Omidyar Network

It’s increasingly clear that so much of the change the technology industry needs will be driven by those who work within tech — speaking up; pushing back; and actively work to design and build better practices, processes, and products — whether they’re at startups or at larger firms.

That’s why we’re investing in the rise of the responsible tech worker.

We believe in a world where technology could be safe, fair, and compassionate. We want a digital world where everyone’s rights are respected, and ordinary people have access to trusted information, innovation, and power. And we champion the belief that startups, entrepreneurs, and investors should compete on the back of responsible tech. But, as the last few years have shown, market incentives and effects, that may or may not have been foreseen, have nudged us to a place where many of the technologies we use every day are causing real harm to individuals, communities, and democracies.

In the last few weeks, important decisions have been taken by private companies, such as Twitter and Facebook, that make their positions clear around what is (and isn’t) permissible to post online. These types of decisions carry deep and troubling implications for both free speech and the safety of marginalized groups like Black Americans. This is just the latest example of the importance and centrality of a handful of dominant platforms to our civic life, and the inadequacy of their responses in protecting us from mis- and disinformation, harassment, or offensive content. Thankfully, we’ve seen a rising group of passionate techies with a strong drive to do better.

To lead the charge from the inside out, tech workers need support in the form of:

  • Accessible education, whether at undergraduate level (such as ResponsibleCS) or beyond;
  • Practical tools to help embed responsibility into existing processes, such as our very own EthicalOS;
  • Mechanisms to push back, like Coworker that helps tech workers organize, both within their companies and more broadly;
  • New models and narratives to look up to, such as Tristan Harris and the Center for Humane Tech’s notion of “time well spent” as a new product success metric; and
  • Spaces and new infrastructure to bring together like minds who want to share their stories and rebuild the industry, such as the Trust and Safety Professional Association — our newest grantee.

Trust and safety is a function that has been at the forefront of ethical decision-making within tech companies in recent years. This function, historically undervalued and overlooked in the ecosystem, owns everything from financial fraud to content moderation. The people working in this function, whether policy counsel, engineers, or contract content moderators, do challenging work under intense scrutiny with important implications for the health of the Internet and society at large.

The Trust and Safety Professional Association’s mission is to support the people who develop and enforce the principles and policies that define acceptable behavior and content online. It’s the first, independent membership organization designed to serve this community, and is led by a founding team with deep knowledge in the space. The association will bring together both full-time employees and contract staff, working with companies of all sizes with a focus on designing common standards and communicating the value of trust and safety.

We’re pleased that the world’s largest content platforms recognize the importance of better defining this field and supporting the people in these roles to make decisions that enrich society and protect our democracy. Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others have joined the association as supporters and have endorsed their employees’ involvement but, crucial to the association’s design and independence, only individuals can become members, not corporations. And our grant is specifically tailored to ensure the association’s value is deepened through the participation of smaller, values-aligned companies in the community.

We have the chance to reimagine and redefine the health of our digital public spaces through this investment, and we can’t wait to see how the association and their members contribute to a new wave of responsible tech.

And we have plans to support the rise of the responsible tech worker in many other ways. We have much more to learn about what this very diverse community needs, but we’re excited to support and amplify their aspirations to ensure technology works for everyone.

Together with our work to hold tech company executives and government leaders accountable to good practices and laws and promote competition through policy and new incentives, we believe enabling tech workers to introduce new norms in their field can help build a strong, inclusive, and equitable digital world.