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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Under pressure, Apple commits to conducting a civil rights audit

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

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Happy Thursday! The Washington Post has lowered its paywall through tomorrow, so it's a great week to read up on coverage from our stellar tech team.

Below: The first Apple retail store files to unionize, and lawmakers want answers about Spanish-language misinformation about Ukraine. But first:

Under pressure, Apple commits to conducting a civil rights audit

Civil rights advocates notched a victory this week by securing a commitment from e-commerce giant Amazon to conduct a racial equity audit, a step they say is crucial toward ensuring that companies’ products and workplace practices aren’t perpetuating bias or discrimination. 

Now, some advocacy groups are turning their attention to another major target in their public pressure campaign: fellow tech giant Apple.

Last month, Apple shareholders approved a nonbinding proposal urging the company to carry out an audit “analyzing the adverse impact of Apple’s policies and practices on the civil rights of company stakeholders,” as Facebook, Airbnb and other firms have already done.

Apple initially opposed the measure, arguing it “already fulfills the stated objective” of the audit. But on Wednesday, Apple confirmed to The Technology 202 that it will follow through on the proposal. 

“We are deeply committed to building a more just and inclusive world and will continue to engage with a range of stakeholders as we move forward with plans to conduct a civil rights audit,” Apple spokesman Josh Rosenstock said in a statement.

Earlier this week, leaders from the racial justice group Color of Change met with Apple staffers to urge the company to commit to a sweeping audit — but one representative said he walked away without a clear sense of how the tech giant would respond.

"We have some concerns coming out of the meeting that they believe that what they outlined in the proxy statement suffices,” Johnny Mathias, deputy senior campaign director for Color of Change, told me during an interview earlier Wednesday. 

“We take these issues seriously and respect organizations like Color of Change which do important work to advance equity,” Rosenstock said.

While shareholders could have turned up the heat on Apple’s board of directors if the company failed to follow through on the audit, the tech giant was not bound by it. 

Color of Change and other civil rights groups have spent years calling on companies to review their practices and make changes to address concerns, to mixed results. Companies including Airbnb and Facebook conducted audits that lead to some, but not all, policy changes sought by advocates, while others such as Google have rebuffed the ask

Facebook said in November it fully implemented 55 percent of their audit’s recommendations. Its former auditor, civil rights expert Laura Murphy, has since voiced fresh concern about its practices and said the company should expand its civil rights team “exponentially.”

Mathias said it’s not enough to simply commit to a review, however — it needs to be “robust” and carried out by an independent auditor that will hold Apple accountable.

Mathias said one key indicator is how transparent the assessment is, including whether there’s a concrete timetable for what auditors will produce and when. 

Another, he said, is whether the review is broad in scope and “meaningfully [affects] the jobs of people across the organization,” including executives. Those are points they sought to convey in their meeting this week with Apple. 

Apple did not provide additional details about its planned audit or who will lead it.

Amazon’s newly announced audit is already facing criticism that it falls short. It’s slated to focus on policies affecting its hourly employees in the United States, leaving out much of the company’s corporate structure.

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Charlotte Newman, an Amazon manager who sued company executives in a discrimination and sexual harassment case, spoke out on Monday about the audit’s narrower scope.

Amazon said the audit, led by former attorney general Loretta Lynch, will cover nearly a million employees and that it “will publicly release the results” when it’s completed.

New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who filed a shareholder proposal calling on Amazon to conduct the review, said Wednesday he will withdraw the measure. DiNapoli called Amazon’s decision a “major step forward” and said he hopes it is “just a first step.” Amazon referred an inquiry to its past proxy statement on the issue.

Color of Change is hoping that by engaging with Apple early on, it can push the company to take on a meatier review. And they’re looking to build on the momentum from recent victories.

“This is moving to becoming a corporate standard that shareholders, consumers, civil rights advocates expect the companies meaningfully interrogate the discriminatory impacts of their products and policies,” Mathias said.

Our top tabs

In Atlanta, the first U.S. Apple retail store files petition to unionize

The Apple store in Atlanta has been gathering support for months, Reed Albergotti reports. Its Wednesday filing is the latest sign of an awakening of American labor that has included everyone from video game testers to Amazon warehouse workers.

“The Washington Post first reported in February that several Apple retail stores around the country are in various stages of unionization efforts,” Reed writes. “On Saturday, The Post reported that the Apple retail location at Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan was gathering signatures for support of a unionization effort.” Bloomberg News first reported that the Atlanta store had planned to officially file for unionization. Apple and the Communications Workers of America, a union working with the Atlanta employees, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Lawmakers seek answers on Facebook’s handling of Spanish-language misinformation

A group of 21 Democratic lawmakers told Facebook parent Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg that the company hasn’t been able to successfully stem the tide of Spanish-language Russian disinformation on Facebook, Reuters reports.

“Facebook has continuously failed to show it is adequately addressing this problem for Spanish-speaking communities, and the success of Russian-sponsored outlets in crowding out the information ecosystem for Spanish speakers serves as proof to this fact,” the lawmakers wrote. The seven senators and 14 representatives included Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.), Sens. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), and Rep. Tony Cárdenas (Calif.).

Facebook pushed back, with spokesman Kevin McAlister telling Reuters that the company is “removing content related to the war in Ukraine that violates our policies, and working with third-party fact-checkers to debunk false claims. When they rate something as false, we move this content lower in feed so fewer people see it.” The company is also “applying labels to state-controlled media publishers, including ones cited in the letter,” McAlister told the outlet.

Appeals court denies motion to rehear California net neutrality case

Telecom groups can appeal the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in the case to the Supreme Court, Reuters’s David Shepardson reports. It comes months after the appeals court rejected a challenge to California’s net neutrality law from telecom and industry groups.

“California's 2018 law barred Internet service providers from blocking or throttling traffic, or offering paid fast lanes, but it only took effect last year,” Shepardson writes. 

The decision also comes as net neutrality advocate Gigi Sohn awaits confirmation by the Senate for a seat on the Federal Communications Commission. Sohn’s confirmation would give Democrats a long-awaited majority on the commission, but her nomination has faced opposition by Republicans and some outside groups. 

Rant and rave

Cryptocurrency exchange Binance launched a new emoji on Twitter and it didn’t go well, with some observers saying it closely resembled a swastika. Here’s more from the company:

Composer and producer Dan Le Sac and Web3 is going just great’s Molly White:

The Block’s Tim Copeland:

Workforce report

Union withdraws petition for vote at Amazon warehouse in New Jersey (Rachel Lerman)

Inside the industry

Tesla shareholders lose bid for 'gag order' against Elon Musk (Reuters)

Common charger for mobiles takes step closer in Europe (TechCrunch)

Amazon Europe unit paid no taxes on $55 billion sales in 2021 (Bloomberg)

Mentions

  • NetChoice public affairs manager Kir Nuthi is joining the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s Center for Data Innovation as a senior policy analyst.
  • Nextdoor, Chegg and Swimply are joining tech group TechNet as members.

Trending

A YouTuber purposely crashed his plane in California, F.A.A. says (The New York Times)

Daybook

  • NTIA chief Alan Davidson discusses broadband at a Brookings Institution event on Thursday at 10 a.m.
  • Former president Barack Obama discusses disinformation at an event hosted by the Stanford Cyber Policy Center and the Obama Foundation today at 3:15 p.m. 

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