with Tonya Riley

More than 200 content moderators are calling on Mark Zuckerberg and other top Facebook leaders to provide safer worker conditions during the pandemic.

The moderators, who contract with Facebook through firms including Accenture, said in an open letter that they have been forced back into the office to do their jobs. They demanded the company allow all moderators who are high risk for coronavirus or live with someone who is high risk be allowed to work from home indefinitely.

They also called on the company to maximize options for remote work for all content moderators, and to offer a hazard pay of 1.5 times their usual wage in instances where they’re needed to work in person. Facebook has previously said some content moderation cannot be performed remotely due to security concerns.

The moderators’ demands build on long-running criticism that tech giants do not provide enough psychological and financial support to contractors who do perhaps the most mentally taxing work in the industry. These workers spend their days reviewing the worst of the Internet, sifting through posts containing terrorist content, child exploitation, self-harm and disinformation.  

“Now, on top of work that is psychologically toxic, holding onto the job means walking into a hot zone,” the moderators wrote.

The moderators’ letter highlights the pandemic plight of Silicon Valley’s shadow workforces.

Tech giants have been among the top profiteers of the pandemic, as a shift to remote work, school and shopping have forced people to spend more time online. And they’ve been leading the way in setting work-at-home extensions for full-time employees, as some of the first companies to announce their employees would be working from home until summer 2021.

But contract workers like the content moderators often do not enjoy the same protections, and there's been a growing amount of labor activism across Silicon Valley to challenge companies to do more to protect them. 

Meredith Whittaker, one of the organizers of the high-profile walkout of Google employees in 2018, expressed solidarity with the Facebook content moderators on Twitter. 

Similar controversies have played out at other tech companies during the pandemic. 

At gig economy companies, ride-hailing drivers and other contractors fought for protective equipment and sick pay as the pandemic intensified. At Amazon, warehouse workers have protested for safer working conditions, while corporate employees work from home.

The Facebook moderators called out this inequity in their letter, noting that Zuckerberg’s personal fortune has doubled during the crisis and more than 3 billion people are active on the platform, making the workers more necessary than ever.

“Facebook needs us,” they wrote. “It is time that you acknowledged this and valued our work. To sacrifice our health and safety for profit is immoral.”

They also raised questions about the efficacy of Facebook's artificial intelligence moderation systems. At the beginning of the pandemic, the social network announced it would rely more heavily on algorithms than humans to search for harmful content on its platform due to security constraints with working from home. The company warned this shift would result in more mistakes because software makes more blunt decisions than people. 

“Without our work, Facebook is unusable," the moderators wrote. "Its empire collapses. Your algorithms cannot spot satire. They cannot sift journalism from disinformation. They cannot respond quickly enough to self-harm or child abuse. We can.” 

Facebook pushed back on some of the accusations from the workers who signed the letter.

“While we believe in having an open internal dialogue, these discussions need to be honest,” spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement. “The majority of these 15,000 global content reviewers have been working from home and will continue to do so for the duration of the pandemic. All of them have access to health care and confidential wellbeing resources from their first day of employment, and Facebook has exceeded health guidance on keeping facilities safe for any in-office work."

The letter highlights a broader push for these workers to gain full-time status.

In addition to making demands specific to coronavirus, the content moderators called on Facebook to end the outsourcing of their jobs altogether and bring these workers in house. That way, they would have the same rights and benefits as the company's employees. The workers also demanded better psychiatric services than the company's current offerings. They said right now they're offered 45-minute weekly sessions with wellness coaches, who typically are not psychologists or psychiatrists and cannot diagnose or treat them. 

Ifeoma Ozoma, who previously worked on policy issues at Pinterest, Facebook and Google, said it's time to make moderators employees. 

Our top tabs

Apple will pay $113 million to settle an investigation by three dozen states into ‘batterygate.'

States opened the probe after the tech titan's previous practice of throttling customers' old iPhones to preserve their batteries came to light in 2017. The agreement, led by Arizona, Arkansas, and Indiana also secured a commitment from Apple to be more transparent about its consumer practices in the future, Tony Romm reports.

Consumers saw the iPhone slowdowns as a ploy by the company to get them to buy newer, more expensive devices. 

Apple offered an apology and some battery-replacement discounts in response to the blowback. The company also updated iOS in 2018 to allow users to check the health of their batteries and disable performance throttling.

“Big Tech must stop manipulating consumers and tell them the whole truth about their practices and products,” Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said in a statement. “I’m committed to holding these Goliath technology companies to account if they conceal the truth from their users.”

Apple also settled a $500 million dollar multiyear class-action lawsuit over the throttling in March, though the company did not admit fault. 

Gig economy apps formed a coalition to push Prop 22-style legislation nationwide.

Several app-based platforms that funded anti-employee rights legislation in California, including DoorDash, Instacart, Lyft, Postmates and Uber, launched the new App-Based Work Alliance. 

The coalition will push a “portable benefits” system that would give workers funds added to by the company into an account that can be carried to a new job and redeemed for benefits like health insurance. In addition to lobbying state and local officials, the coalition will also advocate for federal policies.

The coalition also aims to help local businesses “compete in an increasingly online economy” and increase “transportation and delivery equity," it says.

Labor advocates have criticized the plan as another attempt by the companies to avoid paying for protections guaranteed to workers classified as employees under the law.

“The American economy and the way people work has fundamentally changed, yet public policy hasn’t kept up," Whitney Brennan, spokesperson for the App-Based Work Alliance, said in a news release. “Our country’s antiquated benefits system doesn’t reflect how people are working and living in the 21st century.”

A Michigan Republican tasked with certifying election results posted election conspiracy theories online.

CNN also found conspiracy theories about covid-19 and racist posts about Barack Obama on the page of William Hartmann, a Republican member of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers. 

The board temporarily voted to block certification of votes in Detroit on Tuesday but later reversed its decision. Hartmann, who now wants to walk back his vote to certify, shared a widely debunked election conspiracy theory "hammer and scorecard," which alleges that a package of CIA computer programs hacked the election. The theory was debunked by DHS's former cybersecurity chief. Los Angeles Times reporter Del Quentin Wilber first flagged the posts on Tuesday.

Hartmann also shared numerous from OAN, a network favored by Trump, that hospitals were inflating covid-19 numbers and that the recent announcement of a promising covid-19 vaccine was politically motivated. Facebook's fact-checkers labeled the video about hospitals as false.

Industry

The schedule for the Justice Department's antitrust lawsuit against Google could be set next month. 

The judge in charge of the case said he wants to set dates before the holidays so both parties can begin legal discovery, Brent Kendall at The Wall Street Journal reports. The government currently has a list of more than 100 potential witnesses, a list that could grow if states bringing their own antitrust investigation against Google chose to merge cases.

More industry news:

Coronavirus fallout

About 100 million Americans can get pop-up notifications about covid-19 exposure. But many haven't turned them on.
Apple and Google "exposure notifications" may help health officials detect when a person has been exposed to the coronavirus and alert nearby smartphone users. (The Washington Post)

The alerts are available in 15 U.S. states, territories and D.C. Want to learn more about how they work and how to turn them on? Geoffrey A. Fowler wrote this handy guide.

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Daybook

  • The R Street Institute will hold an event, “Technology, Policing, and Earning the Public Trust,” on Friday at 2 p.m.
  • American University's Tech, Law and Security Program will hold an event on "Technology, Policing, and Earning the Public Trust" on Friday at 1 p.m.

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