Home Technology Big Tech’s employees are one of the biggest checks on its power

Big Tech’s employees are one of the biggest checks on its power

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen created an international media blitz earlier this year when she leaked tens of thousands of damning internal company documents to the Wall Street Journal and US government. Her disclosures so far have prompted public outrage and government investigations — and they’ve directed a spotlight at an increasingly powerful movement of tech workers who have been organizing to hold their companies accountable over ethical concerns ranging from workplace issues to questionable business practices.

These employees — a mix of public whistleblowers and internal activists — often risk their careers and reputations to alert the public to problematic behavior at the companies they worked for. Some of them are blue-collar workers who take even greater risks to speak out because they have less financial and professional security than corporate employees. But they keep coming forward, as more disillusioned tech workers become convinced they have the unique insights that will force powerful tech giants to face public accountability for their missteps.

To understand why these workers spoke up — and how that impacted their own lives and the world since they did — Recode interviewed almost a dozen recent whistleblowers and employee activists in tech, from Frances Haugen to Chris Smalls, a former Amazon warehouse manager who is now helping lead a movement to unionize the company’s blue-collar workers.

“A few years ago, it was very rare to read about somebody inside a big tech firm speaking up publicly, both at the top and at the bottom. The tide has turned,” said William Fitzgerald, a partner at communications firm The Worker Agency, which specializes in representing workers and whistleblowers in the tech industry.

As tech companies have grown from startups to empires, there’s a growing concern that these giants need to be checked, better regulated, or at the very least, more closely scrutinized. And tech employees are uniquely positioned to do that. They are part of a limited group of people who have a behind-the-scenes understanding of the complicated algorithms and internal company policies that underpin so many of the apps and services most of us use every day.

Even many political regulators, whose job it is to oversee these companies, admit they lack the technical expertise to do so — showing how much these whistleblowers’ and activists’ testimony matters. In a world where some of the most powerful tools of communication and commerce are controlled by a handful of corporate executives, these employees who speak up are providing an unexpected and meaningful balance to Big Tech’s power.

Then-Google AI research scientist Timnit Gebru speaks at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018 in San Francisco.
Kimberly White/Getty Images for TechCrunch

“The everyday person needs to understand the extent of the harms that these companies could perpetuate,” said Timnit Gebru, who used to co-lead Google’s ethical AI department and recently started a research institution to study the effects of AI on marginalized groups. She says she was fired in 2020 (Google says she resigned) over a conflict related to one of her research papers. “And so it’s the whistleblowers who do us a huge service, because then we could have regulations that address some of these issues.”

The whistleblowers and activists who spoke to Recode are an important part of tech’s ongoing reckoning. These workers are speaking up at the possible expense of their jobs, financial stability, and even their mental health. And despite their companies’ efforts to crack down on this movement, whistleblowers are still coming out at major tech companies and startups alike in greater numbers than before.

Speaking out against a powerful company like Google, Facebook, or Apple isn’t an easy choice.

“No one wants to be a whistleblower,” Haugen told Recode. “It is a horrible experience from the perspective of wrestling with what to do. Having to realize that you could do something — it’s scary.”

That’s how it felt for Sophie Zhang, a former data scientist at Facebook, who spoke out and shared evidence that revealed Facebook has repeatedly failed to stop widespread political misuse of its platform.

Zhang, whose job at Facebook was to identify spammy activity on the platform, gradually became aware of a deeper issue after she started working at the company in 2017: Authoritarian governments in places like Azerbaijan and Honduras were systematically using fake Facebook pages and profiles to influence politics in those countries.

She found that a torrent of politically motivated fake accounts was slipping through the cracks and avoiding detection at Facebook. So she said she took her issue up the management chain and asked to hand over the work to a dedicated team, but says she found limited success.

Former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang.
Lisa Danz

“I should not have been single-handedly making decisions that impacted national presidents and made international news,” Zhang told Recode. “After a certain point, I started losing sleep at night because of the responsibility.”

In a statement to Recode in response to whistleblower claims by Zhang, Haugen, and others, Meta (formerly known as Facebook) spokesperson Kadia Koroma wrote, in part:

“We value constructive feedback and expect to be held accountable, but we also think it’s important to set the record straight when the work of thousands of people at Meta is mischaracterized. Claims being made about our company misrepresent how much we care about these issues, how much progress we’ve made on them, and how much we invest to improve even further.”

In response to Zhang’s claims in particular, Facebook said that it has taken some action against coordinated fake accounts in Honduras and Azerbaijan.

Zhang said her managers ultimately told her to stop finding fake political accounts and focus on her main job responsibilities. After Zhang was fired around eight months later for what Facebook said was poor performance, she posted an internal memo on Facebook’s employee communication platform, Workplace, detailing the problems she identified at the company. In her memo, which BuzzFeed News obtained and published excerpts of in September 2020, Zhang wrote about how conflicted she felt and why she was hesitant to blow the whistle on Facebook publicly: “I consider myself to have been put in an impossible spot — caught between my loyalties to the company and my loyalties to the world as a whole.”

Several months after parts of her memo were published, Zhang went public with her story in the Guardian. Since then, she’s found a new audience to share her story with: international lawmakers. Zhang has been invited to speak before the UK Parliament, lawmakers in India, and other governmental bodies about regulation to limit the harm of social media platforms like Facebook. Eventually, she’s thinking about finding another job in tech, but for now is able to support herself with savings while she advocates for tech reform.

For Zhang, the hardest part of whistleblowing was the moral burden leading up to it.

For other whistleblowers, the hardest part of the process is what comes after they speak out.

Former Google engineer Rebecca Rivers protested the company’s work with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), arguing that it wasn’t in line with Google’s ethical principles because of the human rights abuses associated with the immigration agency. Rivers said that her life turned upside down after she spoke out, even though she only did so internally at the time.

Former Google engineer Rebecca Rivers.
Courtesy of Rebecca Rivers

Google fired Rivers in 2019, saying that she made “clear and repeated violations” of its data-security policies. Rivers was one of five employees involved in internal organizing that Google terminated at the same time, dubbed “The Fired Five.”

“I think that part of what caused Google to want to take this kind of action is that they were seeing larger organized groups of [workers] again and again on issues,” said Laurence Berland, another member of the Five. “And I think that that kind of organization, that kind of exercise of power, is what these tech companies like Google are most afraid of.”

Berland, Rivers, and the other members of the Fired Five are involved in litigation against Google with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that the company retaliated against them for legally protected worker organizing activity. The case could be a precedent-setting one for expanding workers’ rights to free speech while on the job. But it’s been slowed down by procedural delays that Google’s lawyers initiated around releasing certain documents, which could take months or longer — a process Rivers called “mentally exhausting.”

There is a common criticism that people who blow the whistle in tech are doing it for attention or fame. But the former employees Recode spoke with scoffed at the notion, relaying their own experiences of personal suffering and the relatively comfortable lives they led before they spoke out.

“It’s frankly not good for you as an individual” to be a whistleblower, Berland told Recode. “If you’re lucky, the worst you’ll go through is some stress and some expense, but you can end up really burned out. You can end up blackballed.”

Rivers said in the months following her termination from Google, she struggled with her mental health. She had recently come out as trans and had to dip into her 401(k) savings to make ends meet as she struggled to find a new job. The pressure was so great that, at times, she was suicidal.

“Every application I sent would be an immediate rejection. Not even a phone call from HR,” said Rivers.

Eventually, Rivers found a fit: In August of last year, she was hired at an internet-focused research group, the NYU Ad Observatory, where another member of the Fired Five, Paul Duke, is also working.

Since Rivers and her colleagues were fired, there has been an uptick in whistleblowing and activism at other tech companies like Facebook, Apple, and Amazon. At some of these firms — particularly within the notoriously secretive, heads-down work culture at Apple — that level of organizing was previously unthinkable.

Rivers said that’s why, even “with all the hell” that she’s been through, she would speak out at Google again if given the chance.

“I see the impact that I’ve had, not only at Google but in the tech industry as a whole and in the labor movement as a whole,” she said.

Even a few years ago, it was a lonelier world for would-be tech whistleblowers.

But as more whistleblowers and activists have come forward, they’ve begun building a community that can offer support to conflicted employees.

Ifeoma Ozoma, a former Pinterest public policy manager who accused the company of racial discrimination in 2020, said that, once she went public with her claims, she felt alienated from some of the colleagues who had been privately sympathetic to her case.

Ifeoma Ozoma in February 2021.
Adria Malcolm

“They were afraid that they would be next if they said anything,” Ozoma told Recode. “There’s a lot of isolation that takes place.”

When Ozoma was considering how to speak out about Pinterest, she said she researched the work of tech activists before her, like Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton, who were two of a handful of organizers of the Google Walkout, a historic protest against the company’s handling of sexual harassment.

Now, Ozoma is a key leader for a growing community of tech employees.

In October, she released an online resource called the Tech Worker Handbook, which provides advice for would-be tech whistleblowers and activists. In recent months, she’s been supporting Apple employees by helping file a shareholder proposal asking the company to reassess using nondisclosure agreements to prevent employees from speaking out about harassment and discrimination at work.

Other activists are focusing on relief funds for employees who risk their financial stability to speak out.

Liz Fong-Jones, a former Google engineer and tech activist, set up the Coworker Solidarity Fund in partnership with the nonprofit Coworker.org for tech worker whistleblowers and organizers. Fong-Jones put $100,000 of her personal finances from her stock in Google toward seeding the project. She said so far, the fund has distributed $180,000 in grants to 64 people, including those who “suddenly need[ed] to scramble to have COBRA [health insurance] or suddenly need to cover their rent — especially people who were working lower-wage jobs.”

Google’s Gebru said that when she spoke out, she was heartened by how many tech workers supported her on social media.

“There was an infrastructure built to organize. It was good to see how that … played out in my situation,” she told Recode. “That groundwork galvanized a lot of people.”

Former Apple engineer and tech activist Cher Scarlett.
Courtesy of Cher Scarlett

Even at Apple, a notoriously secretive company where internal issues are rarely discussed publicly, some of its workers have started speaking out about alleged discrimination, harassment, and workplace issues. Former Apple engineer and tech activist Cher Scarlett is one of the creators of an employee activist group called #AppleToo, which changed its name to Apple Together earlier this month. On the group’s public Medium page, employees have published anonymous stories about mistreatment in the workplace.

In a statement to Recode, a spokesperson for Apple responded to growing concerns by employees such as Scarlett:

“We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace. We take all concerns seriously and we thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised and, out of respect for the privacy of the individuals involved, we do not discuss specific employee matters.”

Although Scarlett no longer works at Apple, and will be starting a new job at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, her former colleagues continue to be in touch with her about organizing in the Apple Together group.

“I think that as humans, we copy each other; we’re inspired by each other,” Scarlett told Recode. “As more people in tech feel comfortable to organize or stand up for themselves in terms of ethics … or workplace issues … more people will feel safe and empowered to do so.”

So while most would-be tech whistleblowers may have to take big risks, they now have examples to follow and networks to tap into. Many of these grassroots support systems didn’t exist even a few years ago.

All this activism and whistleblowing has inarguably shined a glaring light on the problems in the tech industry.

Haugen not only gave the Senate evidence about Facebook’s missteps, but she also offered a blueprint on how to regulate the company. And when Congress released its historic report accusing companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon of engaging in anti-competitive behavior, it relied in part on confidential whistleblower testimony.

Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen testifies before the Senate on October 5.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

But whether or not these disclosures actually lead to meaningful change depends on what the public does with that information. After Haugen’s revelations, Facebook executives have faced several fiery hearings before Congress, and new legislation to regulate social media has been proposed. But so far, none has passed or is even close to passing. Google has dropped controversial projects in the face of employee whistleblowing — like its plans to work with the Pentagon on military AI and to develop a censored version of its product in China — but in 2021, it tried to restart work again with the military.

“Whistleblowers are really important. But whistleblowing itself is not all of the work. It’s not the full work,” said Ozoma. “There’s the speaking up and then there’s following it up [and] doing the work after.”

Ozoma led a successful effort to pass a bill in California called the Silenced No More Act, which legally protects workers across industries who speak out about discrimination at their place of employment. But it wasn’t easy. Ozoma said she spent “months sitting on Zoom with legislators to explain to them why the law needed to change,” in addition to fundraising for a professional lobbyist to help pass the legislation.

Other whistleblowers are putting their efforts toward forming unions, which they see as a more sustainable approach to giving workers a voice within powerful corporations.

Chris Smalls is a former Amazon warehouse manager who was fired in March 2020 after criticizing the company for how it was treating its workers during the start of the pandemic. Amazon says Smalls was terminated for allegedly violating social distancing guidelines and returning to work after a Covid-19 exposure (Smalls previously said he never went inside the building, only in the parking lot). Today, Smalls says he spends his days outside Amazon’s Staten Island warehouses trying to get his former colleagues to unionize.

Former Amazon warehouse worker Christian Smalls.
Damon Casarez for Vox

“We realize now that we’re not going to get taken care of by billionaires, we’re not going to get taken care of by CEOs, [and] to some degree, we’re not going to be taken care of by politicians,” Smalls told Recode. “So it’s up to the workers. It’s up to the activists to continue to organize.”

In the meantime, companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple have all cracked down on their internal communication tools in different ways, limiting the ability of workers to organize across different divisions and on politically loaded subjects. These tech companies also regularly investigate the communications of employees who are suspected of leaking information to the press. And while there are some legal protections in the US for whistleblowers who disclose their findings directly to government agencies like the SEC, or employees who speak publicly about workplace issues and union organizing, those protections are limited.

“In this country and in democratic nations around the world, we need much more robust and comprehensive whistleblower protections if we actually want to give our oversight authorities the ability to do their jobs,” said Libby Liu, the CEO of the nonprofit Whistleblower Aid, which helps workers across industries who go public with company information, including Frances Haugen.

But despite all the legal risk, public firings, social ostracism, and the financial instability of a pandemic, tech workers are continuing to blow the whistle with more frequency than before.

Nearly every activist and whistleblower Recode interviewed said they were talking to several others in the industry who are considering speaking out about issues like workplace harassment and discrimination, or the harms of the products their companies are building.

Chanin Kelly-Rae was a manager of diversity at Amazon in 2019.
Meron Menghistab for Vox

When Chanin Kelly-Rae, a former global manager of diversity for a division of Amazon Web Services, first spoke to Recode about racial bias issues she identified inside the company, she was the only employee to speak on the record. Now, several others have come forward publicly, and Kelly-Rae says she is in touch with more who are considering speaking out.

“People saw that I could be named and that the world would not fall apart,” Kelly-Rae told Recode. “I could have kept quiet and made a lot of money. … I could have checked some boxes that weren’t real. But that didn’t serve my purpose.”

Ultimately, despite the often negative personal consequences, tech whistleblowers keep speaking out.

“I don’t think you can ever stop this sort of stuff,” said Berland. “Short of [having] everything done by robots.”

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