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A former Facebook manager who famously accused the social media giant of having "a black people problem" will tell lawmakers today that it's “absolutely necessary” for Congress to step up its oversight of Silicon Valley.
Mark Luckie, who has emerged as one of the tech industry's most prominent critics, will say Big Tech's diversity problem is so severe it has contributed to “discrimination built into the products” of companies such as Amazon and Google.
“For Congress and this committee, more oversight of this nation’s tech companies is absolutely necessary,” Luckie will tell the House Energy and Commerce Committee at today's hearing on diversity in tech, according to testimony he provided to me. “Continuing to learn more about how the industry functions and hearings like this will lead to better economic solutions for all Americans.” (Luckie worked as a Washington Post editor for about two years, ending in 2012).
House Democrats seem eager to bring attention to the problems associated with Silicon Valley’s largely white, male workforce. However, it's unclear whether they will actually be effective in changing these private companies' behavior — especially because they don’t seem to have a plan of action beyond today’s hearing.
A spokesman for the committee told me he was not aware of any plans to introduce diversity-related legislation.
And a spokeswoman for the Congressional Black Caucus did not respond when I asked if there were any plans this Congress for legislation addressing the issue. The CBC previously led efforts in Congress focused on diversifying the tech industry, such as the Tech 2020 initiative, making trips to Silicon Valley to meet with tech leaders and pressure them to diversify their boards and workforces.
Although diversity advocates say they welcome new forums to discuss the pressing issue — and acknowledge policymakers can draw needed attention to it — many are skeptical it could result in immediate change.
“It’s not clear what Congress’s role could be and how practical, honestly, that is as an immediate term or short-term driver of change,” said Joelle Emerson, founder and chief executive of Paradigm, which consults with technology companies on diversity issues.
Even Luckie’s prepared testimony offers few specific suggestions.
He will, however, thoroughly outline what he sees as the problem. He will testify that a lack of diversity throughout technology companies' ranks is contributing to oversights that result in high-profile slips that impact minorities or women. He’ll point to an Amazon algorithm that preferred male candidates to female candidates for technical roles, or Google’s Photos app automatically labeling images of African Americans as gorillas. And when Apple released its Health Kit app in 2014, it tracked a wide range of vital functions — including, even, copper intake — but it did not track menstrual cycles. (Amazon's founder and CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“There are a number of reasons some of these oversights happen, including overreliance on algorithms, teams without diverse voices, or lack of input from communities of color,” he will say. “Most of these oversights can be mitigated by employing and retaining staff from diverse backgrounds in an environment that welcomes all voices. Statistically, tech companies are not doing that.”
And some potential solutions may just be too complex for Congress to take on — at least in the near term.
Another witness, Nicol Turner Lee from the Brookings Institution, will suggest that Congress should modernize civil rights laws to address issues such as bias in artificial intelligence. But technologies like artificial intelligence are so quickly evolving that it may be difficult to put specific new laws on the books. Yet even if that were to happen -- especially in a Democrat-controlled House, the party may struggle to push any updates through a Republican-controlled Senate and White House.
There could be something Congress could do with the laws it has now: Turner Lee says in her testimony that tech products shouldn't be above existing laws protecting against discrimination, and she thinks lawmakers should look at how employment and housing law will be applied to new technologies.
Absent action from lawmakers, employees are taking action into their own hand. Luckie, who wrote his memo right before leaving Facebook, is an example of the intense pressure that employees can put on Silicon Valley leaders from inside the companies.
For almost five years, many of the technology companies have released annual reports on the diversity of their workforces, following a blog post from a former Pinterest engineer called, “Where are the numbers?” More recently, employees at Google walked out in November to protest the company’s handling sexual harassment claims, creating pressure for the company to change its policy that requires employees to settle such claims through private arbitration.
As he takes the hot seat today, Luckie's most effective strategy might be to challenge the companies to change directly. Though no companies are testifying in today's hearing, their hefty Washington operations probably will be watching.
Luckie plans to advise them to have more focus groups with diverse communities so they can avoid some of the oversights they've made in the past. He'll also warn them there's a cost to their failure to address diversity.
“Our shine cannot be denied,” he'll say. “Tech companies need to recognize the greatness or risk losing some of the industries’ most brilliant minds.”
He won't just be using his testimony to spotlight the issue. He'll also let his fashion choices send a message. From his Twitter:
My socks for tomorrow’s diversity hearing pic.twitter.com/BNHVSyKqLs— Mark S. Luckie (@marksluckie) March 5, 2019
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BITS: Community activists are criticizing a proposed incentive agreement between Arlington County and Amazon, The Washington Post’s Patricia Sullivan reported.
They wanted local officials to require the retail giant to pay union-level construction wages, donate to affordable housing funds or end its partnership with federal immigration authorities before the county doles out $23 million in incentives. Instead, the proposal says Amazon will receive staggered payouts over the next 15 years as long as it fills a certain amount of office space in its Crystal City headquarters.
A local anti-Amazon account tweeted:
What does Amazon have to do to get $23 million from Arlington? Just show up!https://t.co/g7e63iWFJz— SCAMAZON (@hqpoo) March 5, 2019
Helen Li, who helps run the account, said the county is “protecting Amazon, and not protecting the people who don’t speak English, the poor and working-class people here.”
Officials could still try so seek concessions from the company even though local governments in Virginia are limited in what they can require from companies. “Arlington County Board chair Christian Dorsey (D) said the county can still put pressure on Amazon to provide benefits to working-class and poor residents, and never intended to include those ‘asks’ in the narrowly written agreement, which the County Board will discuss and vote on March 16,” according to my colleague.
NIBBLES: The tech industry is the sector of the U.S. economy that represents the biggest antitrust problem, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said in an interview with The Washington Post's Brian Fung. “We haven’t been able to move privacy legislation for years,” she said. Klobuchar didn't explicitly say whether she agrees with calls for breaking up Facebook. However, she said she supports investigations into “these monopoly companies,” before adding that “then you look at the facts and you make a decision then.”
Klobuchar, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, competition policy and consumer rights, told my colleague that the United States has “a major monopoly problem.” She said antitrust legislation has not evolved while mergers have increased over the past five years. “It doesn’t mean every big company is bad; it just means we’re seeing more and more consolidation of power,” Klobuchar said. “The problem is, our antitrust laws haven’t attacked changes in the kinds of businesses we have.”
BYTES: As the World Wide Web turns 30, its inventor is calling on companies, governments and citizens to be part of a “midcourse correction” at a Washington Post Live event. Sir Tim Berners-Lee warned yesterday that the Web is “pointing toward a very dystopian future” on the Post's stage and said his “Contract for the Web” might be a way to protect its future.
“We need — the Contract for the Web is about locking in a midcourse correction, a change of momentum; pointing it back toward constructiveness, back toward science, facts, and democracy,” he said at the event.
The Contract is a set of principles that would defend a free and open Internet, which Berners-Lee hopes will help people rebuild their trust in it. He hopes companies, governments and individuals can all play a role in shaping these principles. He says these constituencies need to come together to address some of the thorniest questions facing the Web, about privacy or hate speech.
— The Yavapai County Attorney in Arizona said Uber is not criminally liable in a fatal crash involving a self-driving vehicle from the company last year, Reuters’s David Shepardson and Heather Somerville reported. A woman died in Tempe, Ariz., in March 2018 after being hit by an Uber self-driving car. A back-up driver was in the car when the crash occurred. “Yavapai County Attorney’s Office, which examined the case at the request of Maricopa County where the accident occurred, did not explain the reasoning for not finding criminal liability against Uber,” Reuters reported.
— Facebook is barring foreign political ads on its platform ahead of elections in Indonesia in April, the company announced in a news release. The temporary ban applies to ads purchased outside the country that refer to politicians and political parties or seek to encourage or discourage voters from casting their ballots. Facebook said it will use automated processes and human reviewers to spot ads that aren't allowed on the social network under the new rule. “Combating foreign interference is a key pillar of our approach to safeguarding election integrity on our platform,” Katie Harbath, public policy director for global elections at Facebook, and Ruben Hattari, head of public policy for Indonesia at the company, wrote in the news release.
— Some owners of shopping centers see Amazon's expansion of its physical retail locations as a potential opportunity as traditional retailers including Sears and Macy's close down stores, the Wall Street Journal's Esther Fung reported. “Brokers and landlords believe that Amazon—more so than other retailers—has the expertise to draw the right crowd of shoppers, given its trove of consumer data on which products have the most demand in a given location,” according to the Journal. “Amazon Prime members, who tend to have more disposable income, are considered especially desirable.”
— More technology news from the private sector:
— A group of liberal Democrats including Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) asked regulators to prevent T-Mobile and Sprint from merging, the Hill's Harper Neidig reported. The lawmakers said the deal would be detrimental to low-income earners who use the service providers and to workers as well. “The sole reason for this merger between T-Mobile and Sprint appears to be helping a handful of individuals get significantly wealthier,” the lawmakers said in letters to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and Makan Delrahim, assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division at the Justice Department.
— Russian lawmakers are pushing a bill that would tighten authorities' control over Internet traffic in the country, Bloomberg News's Ilya Khrennikov and Stepan Kravchenko reported. The legislation, known as “Sovereign Internet,” would create a system that could enable regulators to block or reroute traffic. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the law would help counter a new U.S. policy loosening restrictions on offensive cyber operations against adversaries. But experts say the law chiefly aims to prevent political unrest. “Russia is moving in a similar direction as China,” Rongbin Han, a professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia, told Bloomberg News. “You don’t necessarily need to shut down the entire internet to quash political dissent. It’s smarter just to filter online content.”
— France wants to make it easier for tech professionals to come work in the country, TechCrunch's Romain Dillet reported. The French government announced that it is revamping its French Tech Visa. “Your visa is valid for four years and renewable after that,” Dillet reported. “You don’t have to stay in the same company — you can work for another company and keep your visa. Your family also gets visas so they can come with you.”
— More technology news from the public sector:
-- Snap made payouts to at least three female employees after they were dismissed in layoffs that allegedly disproportionately targeted women, the Wall Street Journal's Georgia Wells reports.
“The job cuts were part of a companywide culling that began in March 2018. Within the firm’s growth and design teams, which work closely with Mr. Spiegel and his top lieutenants, all six of the employees who were eliminated in one round were women, according to a number of people familiar with the company’s structure and the layoffs,” Wells reported. The payouts were a response to a letter some of the affected employees wrote asking why so many impacted employees were women.
— News about tech workforce and culture:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
— News about tech incidents and blunders:
— Today in funding news:
- House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection and commerce hearing on diversity in the tech industry.
- House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on “Maintaining U.S. leadership in science and technology.”
- Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Privacy Act on March 12.
- The Brookings Institution holds an event titled “How can public policy keep up with technological change?” on March 12.
- The Brookings Institution holds a discussion on “How China and the U.S. are advancing artificial intelligence” on March 12.
- The Brookings Institution holds a discussion on online consumer privacy on March 14.
The looming showdown over executive privilege:
Border Patrol: Apprehensions of families outnumber single adults in 2018.
Melania Trump addresses nation's opioid crisis in Las Vegas town hall: