How do we reform tech?

In the past, popular movements have forced major industries to confront their need for ethical reform. But today‘s media, policymakers and activists don’t yet seem prepared to fix the tech sector’s problems. So how will reform happen?

First things first: Why does tech need to be reformed? The short answer is, tech is changing everyone’s lives, but while there are many benefits of today’s tech that we love, there are significant new economic and social risks that tech companies are introducing to society. When tech companies make decisions that affect our lives, we don’t have any way to appeal those decisions, or to meaningfully effect change. That’s a situation ripe for reform.

As President Obama phrased it:

[A] capitalism shaped by the few and unaccountable to the many is a threat to all.

The single biggest threat to the long-term health and growth of the tech sector is the backlash that could be caused by tech’s worst abuses and excesses.

Which issues matter most? Let’s look at three key issues that have the broadest negative impact on the widest range of people:

  1. Most major tech companies are deeply exclusionary. There’s been a tremendous amount of conversation about the systematic exclusion of women/people of color within tech companies, especially when it comes to career advancement, compensation, funding and equity. Yet despite all the talk, precious little measurable progress has been made. This disparity has reached the point of crisis, and worse, this systematic underrepresentation has helped cause the following two major issues.
  2. Tech is increasing economic insecurity for many. In addition to the familiar “robots taking our jobs” concerns amongst industrial workers, new tech startups are often predicated on destabilizing fields that aren’t traditionally thought of as being at risk. Worse, these new “disruptors” often rely on entering new markets using methods that are illegal or unethical. Since many jobs are no longer protected by labor organizations or unions, workers are often ill equipped to defend against attacks from extremely well-funded tech companies which ignore regulations.
  3. Tech is enabling widespread public surveillance and threatening privacy. People across the political spectrum have deep-seated and well-considered objections to widespread government surveillance. But few technology companies have acknowledged or addressed their complicity in designing systems that helped enable such surveillance. Worse, many companies (particularly those reliant on advertising) misuse the massive amounts of personal data they gather from users, making corporate surveillance as objectionable as government surveillance. Trading personal privacy for “free” online services is increasingly seeming like a bad deal.

To summarize these three points: Tech companies are making people worry about their jobs and feel creeped out, without offering the chance to benefit and profit from tech success. That doesn’t mean people hate consumer technology like smartphones and apps — we love them! But the fact that we are investing enormous amounts of time and money in using these products makes it more likely that people will resent when those companies betray their trust.

Is it too late?

It’s important to acknowledge another perspective, people who do believe tech has overstepped its bounds, but who think it’s too late, and that the forces behind today’s tech companies are too powerful to fight. While the concern is understandable, we should assume that the same factors that let tech companies capture so much power so also quickly make them vulnerable to smart reform efforts. And I’m an optimist, so I’m not willing to give up without trying.


Can we just write new laws?

Today, technology is essentially the secular religion of America. Tech companies are far too large and influential to think of them as just a narrow “sector”. There is no technology industry.

This means that conventional activism alone, while important, is not going to lead to the kind of broad-scale reform that’s necessary. When Ralph Nader decided to critique the automotive industry, there was a broad base of support amongst both policy makers and media who were willing to entertain his arguments. There was even a natural constituency for his skepticism about the excesses of the automakers. This led to the opportunity for meaningful reform of even an enormously powerful industry.

Similarly, the financial crisis provided enough cultural capital for Elizabeth Warren’s thoughtful and forceful critique of the financial industry to gain a foothold, and to eventually support the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Good policy only followed once there was widespread concern about the issues at stake.

In these previous examples, we see industries being meaningfully reined in by fairly conventional methods. But many of the worst systemic imbalances in society have arisen when we treat the rise of a new sector as an inevitability, or as synonymous with “progress”. For example, though we now understand the last century of highway and transportation policy in the U.S. to have been deeply discriminatory, exacerbating existing inequities in everything from housing policy to education, at the time even many ordinarily-skeptical communities were hopeful about the potential that the highway system provided.

Even where we have seen policy successes, as in the successful regulation of the financial industry’s credit card fees with the CARD Act, it has been due to both consumers being (painfully!) familiar with the issue and policy makers being literate in the market being regulated. By contrast, with today’s consumer technologies, most end users are only literate in the human-facing aspects of the products they’re using, not in the technical decisions being made behind the scenes. It’s analogous to how an ordinary consumer might have some sense of the terms of their own mortgage, but very little awareness of how credit default swaps function.

And worse, most of the policy makers who might be in a position to rein in the tech industry are proudly, profoundly illiterate about today’s technology, both in terms of implementation and of its implications.

The bottom line: appropriate regulation to rein in tech abuses is likely to lag significantly behind the market, reactively responding to problems rather than proactively anticipating them and preventing them. In the meantime, the companies that are getting things wrong will continue to get richer and more powerful. We need better laws, but we can’t just sit and wait for them.

Can boycotts work?

Typically, social movements lean on product boycotts and direct consumer purchasing pressure to force change in big companies. But the interconnected, networked nature of today’s technology, combined with the increasingly rapid centralization onto a small handful of platforms owned by a cabal of tech titans, makes it almost impossible to refuse to participate. Refusing to buy tuna if it wasn’t dolphin-safe was straightforward, but it’s unreasonable to ask people to forgo seeing photos of their grandkids on Facebook on the off chance that Facebook is secretly sharing their data with the NSA.

Indeed, the marginalized people most victimized by tech’s excesses are also the ones who most need the opportunities that tech like smartphones or social networks can provide. We can’t just tell people “dont’ buy it” or “don’t use it” when it comes to tech that has negative impacts because it also cuts off opportunity to learn essential job skills and to make vital professional connections. There’s too much baby in the bathwater.


Direct, networked action

If lawmakers are going to follow instead of lead, and boycotts would hurt consumers worse than companies, what can we do?

The answer lies in mimicking the techniques by which tech companies amassed so much power in the first place: building powerful networks that are too resilient to easily be destroyed.

In this model, we adopt aspects of traditional activist movements, including clearly articulated policy goals, strong and coherent language to describe the problem, a lightweight participatory model that gives everyone a role in the movement, and direct actions that people can personally perform on a daily basis.

Similarly, we look at regulatory reforms that have had significant impact on other powerful industries, and adopt the best techniques from those efforts: model legislation for policy makers at every level of government, education through documentation like white papers and direct conversation with regulators, incremental policy changes that can be incorporated into other legislation affecting these companies, and direct court challenges for transgressions that violate existing laws.

But in contrast to prior industry reforms, many of these activist and policy efforts will happen without an organizing entity, or a political action committee, or a lobbying group. Learning from modern movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #FightFor15, we can provide a way for individuals to act and to coordinate without necessarily being official members of an organization. This will be especially critical as we’ll need participation from people who are currently working within the major tech companies, and most will be understandably wary of visibly participating in such efforts.

What about media?

Perhaps the biggest wildcard in an effort to reform tech is the shifting role of media. Most major media organizations have journalists who are willing to be critical of tech on the grounds of being insufficiently diverse, violating privacy, or threatening people’s jobs. But the chilling effect of tech titans like Peter Thiel working to destroy a media outlet can’t be overstated — media outlets are going to be far less likely to be critical of the Uber-wealthy leaders of the sector.

Worse, tech has in many cases succeeded in marginalizing and sidelining the academic researchers who traditionally critique and interrogate powerful industries, either by being a dominant source of funding for their academic institutions or by successfully reframing public opinion to such a degree that thoughtful critics are dismissed as Luddites or cranks. It’s no wonder that a thoughtful analysis of contemporary tech criticism explains:

Some of the most novel critiques about technology and Silicon Valley are coming from women and underrepresented minorities, but their work is seldom recognized in traditional critical venues. As a result, readers may miss much of the critical discourse about technology if they focus only on the work of a few, outspoken intellectuals.

We can’t rely on media alone to hold tech companies accountable in an era when tech moguls have destroyed some major media outlets and invested in many of the others.

The answer to these challenges is the same as the answer to the shortcomings of conventional activism and policy making: we’ll need to form lightweight networks of individuals committed to doing the work ourselves. Obviously, individuals can’t personally sustain long-term investigative research, but individual contributors can identify and articulate issues, and the community as a whole can support, fund and amplify more ambitious efforts.

The bottom line

Ultimately, people who love technology, who are still enamored of its amazing potential, need to feel a sense of urgency about changing the culture and practices of the big tech companies. The era of being seen only as positive contributors to society is quickly coming to an end, and without a healthy culture of self-criticism, the backlash will be so strong that it takes the good tech products down with the bad.

But tech has long had a wonderful tradition of accepting bug reports and trying to get those bugs fixed. As I mentioned in Wired a few years ago, there are examples of successful user revolts pushing back overreach or abuse from even the most powerful tech companies. And everyone at the top of the tech ecosystem, from investors to board members to CEOs is finding it increasingly impossible to ignore the reality that cultural headwinds may pose as much of a threat to their success as any technical challenges.

People in tech love to talk about disruption, love to talk about how we’re changing the world. In this moment where reform is necessary, we face the opportunity to prove if those intentions are truly sincere.