with Aaron Schaffer

Pinterest is backing a California bill that would make it easier for people to speak out about workplace abuse, after one of its former employees emerged as a key advocate for changing nondisclosure agreements following her own allegations of racism at the company.  

Ifeoma Ozoma, a former Pinterest public policy manager who came forward last summer with allegations of “racism, gaslighting and disrespect” at the company, helped develop the legislation known as the “Silenced No More Act.” On the same morning that she published a New York Times op-ed calling for California lawmakers to pass the bill, Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann told employees in an email the company would support the legislation. 

The bill seeks to protect workers from nondisclosure agreements in situations where they face discrimination or racism. Silbermann said regardless of whether the bill passes, the company will adopt the policies behind the proposed law, according to a copy of the email viewed by The Technology 202. 

“We want every employee to feel safe, championed and empowered to raise any concerns about their work experience,” he said in a statement to The Technology 202. 

However, the company will not release former employees from existing NDAs in instances where there were claims of harassment or discrimination. Charlotte Fuller, Pinterest head of corporate communications, said if the company has a “completed contract” with a former employee, it would “not go back and amend it.” 

That shows the limits of Pinterest's position when it comes to former employees. Ozoma was not alone in her allegations of bias. Aerica Shimizu Banks, who also worked in the public policy office, and five other women who formerly worked at Pinterest told my colleague Nitasha Tiku there was little accountability at the company, where women were pushed out and executives in Silbermann’s inner circle faced few consequences following complaints. Several of those women spoke to Nitasha on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from Pinterest and future damage to their careers.

A reckoning on racial discrimination has put a spotlight on how NDAs can potentially be abused in the predominantly White and male-dominated tech industry. 

The agreements are so common in Silicon Valley that people can rarely check in for an appointment at a tech company’s office without signing one. But the #MeToo movement and scrutiny of systemic racism following the death of George Floyd have highlighted how these legal agreements can often gag employees from speaking out about discriminatory treatment or harassment.

“Companies have long used NDAs to prevent competitors from poaching confidential information and good ideas,” Ozoma wrote in the Times op-ed. But they appear to increasingly be used to prevent workers from speaking out about instances of harassment, discrimination or assault they may face on the job.”

Tech companies broadly supported the Black Lives Matter movement after Floyd’s death last summer, but their public statements stood in sharp contrast to the lack of diversity and reports of racist incidents at major tech companies. Ozoma writes that changes to NDAs won't end discrimination, but they could be a step toward ending the silence around it. 

There’s precedent for changing NDA laws in the wake of social movements. 

After the #MeToo movement, California passed a law to provide protections for breaking NDAs when disclosing sexual harassment, sexual assault and gender discrimination. But those protections didn’t extend to racial discrimination, and now Ozoma is on a mission to ensure victims of any type of workplace discrimination including on the basis of race, religion, age and other categories would be protected. 

Ozoma said when she and Shimizu Banks came forward, they knew they would be at least partially covered by the 2019 California law called CCP 1001. But as a Black woman, she also saw the protections' shortcomings. 

“As such, only one part of my identity was protected, leaving me in a sort of legal limbo,” Ozoma wrote. Ozoma has worked with California state Sen. Connie M. Leyva (D-Chino), who wrote the legislation in the wake of #MeToo. 

Pinterest faced pushback online from Ozoma and other activists for its email announcing support of the bill. 

In the email, Silbermann emphasized the company has never forced any employee to sign an NDA preventing them from speaking out about their experiences. (The contents of the email from Silbermann were first reported by Protocol’s Issie Lapowsky). 

But Ozoma said employees often sign such agreements when confronting financial pressures. 

“Who is turning down health insurance/rent in a pandemic, sir??” Ozoma tweeted

Other activists panned the company’s move as performative. From Meredith Whittaker, a former Google employee who was a core organizer of walkouts against harassment:

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An Australian hacking firm unlocked the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone at the center of the encryption debate.

Azimuth Security, which says it sells its cyber tools only to democratic governments, ended a standoff between Apple and the U.S. government when it built a solution for the FBI to get into Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone 5C, Ellen Nakashima and Reed Albergotti report. The development comes after five years of secrecy over the identity of the developer of the tool. 

Even Apple didn’t know what company the FBI used, Apple spokesman Todd Wilder said. But Apple attorneys inadvertently came close to learning of Azimuth’s role in a different court case last year. The FBI declined to comment. 

Apple has sparred with cybersecurity firms such as Corellium, which it sued for copyright infringement over software that let researchers find holes in Apple software. A federal judge ruled for Corellium last year.  

A man sued Detroit police after facial recognition technology falsely identified him and he was wrongfully arrested.

Robert Williams's lawsuit is one of the first of its kind, highlighting the risk of innocent people being swept up by the controversial technology increasingly being deployed by law enforcement, Drew Harwell reports. Williams’s lawsuit is at least the third in the United States in which Black men have raised doubts about the technology’s accuracy, which research shows often misidentifies people of color.

Williams, a 43-year-old father, was arrested last year on charges of stealing watches after investigators used facial recognition tools to scan the surveillance footage of cameras at a Shinola store and identified him as a thief. Prosecutors dropped the case less than two weeks later, and police later apologized for “shoddy” investigative work. 

“How does one explain to two little girls that a computer got it wrong, but the police listened to it anyway?” Williams wrote in The Washington Post last year. “As any other Black man would be, I had to consider what could happen if I asked too many questions or displayed my anger openly — even though I knew I had done nothing wrong.”

Facebook’s oversight board expanded its scope to remove content left up on the social network.

The move will allow any Facebook and Instagram user, including employees, to refer other users’ content for removal, Reuters’s Elizabeth Culliford reports. It’s a significant expansion of the board’s mandate, which had only allowed people to appeal decisions where the social network had taken down content and had criticized for being too limited. 

The board's administrative director, Thomas Hughes, said he expects the number of appeals to surge as a result of the decision. 

The board’s decisions on Facebook content moderation are binding and can overturn Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's calls on whether to remove posts. The board also can recommend that Facebook adjust its moderation policies, and Facebook agreed to comply with a majority of its first round of opinions. The board is weighing its highest-profile case, the social media network’s ban of former president Donald Trump. A decision is expected to be announced in the coming weeks. 

Rant and rave

Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism:

Kate Klonick, an assistant professor of law at St. John's University Law School:

Tech Policy Press editor and CEO Justin Hendrix:

Inside the industry

The CEO of America's largest chip company said the global semiconductor shortage will last for years.

The chip shortage will go beyond 2022, Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger told my colleague Jeanne Whalen. Gelsinger, who attended a White House meeting on Monday about the problem, said medical equipment suppliers worried about the semiconductor shortage at the meeting. Intel, the largest-by-revenue American semiconductor company, has said it plans to make short-term changes, such as boosting its automotive chip production, within six to nine months.

“We do believe we have the ability to help,” Gelsinger said, but “I think this is a couple of years until you are totally able to address it. It just takes a couple of years to build capacity.”

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Mentions

  • Former Wikimedia chief of staff Ryan Merkley has joined the Aspen Institute's Commission on Information Disorder, where he will be director. 

Daybook

  • Senate Finance Committee chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) discusses Section 230, an Internet liability shield law, at a Consumer Technology Association summit today at 10 a.m.
  • The Senate Commerce Committee holds a hearing on the Endless Frontier Act, a bill that aims to improve technology transfer and U.S. innovation, today at 10 a.m.
  • The House Judiciary Committee marks up a report on digital market competition today at 10 a.m.
  • Cecilia Muñoz, the director of former president Barack Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, speaks at a New America CA event on gig workers on April 19 at 1 p.m.

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