Protests Renew Scrutiny of Tech’s Ties to Law Enforcement

Google did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication. In a statement after publication of this article, Richard Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, said, “We vigorously protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement. We developed a process specifically for these requests that is designed to honor our legal obligations while narrowing the scope of data disclosed.”

Some companies are being called out for developing products criticized for enabling over-policing and surveillance of nonwhite communities. For example, when the official accounts for Salesforce and Github tweeted support for Black Lives Matter, many people online pointed out the company’s contracts with Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Nextdoor, a community-based social networking app, tweeted its support for Black Lives Matter, prompting immediate criticism. For years, Nextdoor’s leadership has faced accusations that its users racially profile people of color and accuse them of crimes.

In a statement to WIRED, Nextdoor said racial profiling on the app declined after it began using algorithms to detect racist speech and required more detailed information if a user wants to report someone as suspicious. “Just one incident is too many, and we remain committed to the hard work,” the company said.

Criticism extended beyond concerns over working with police. On Monday, Reddit cofounder and CEO Steve Huffman voiced his support for Black Lives Matter in an open letter to employees. Hours later, former CEO Ellen K. Pao accused Huffman of ignoring the racist trolls on the platform and, more seriously, of profiting from white supremacy.

“You don’t get to say BLM when Reddit nurtures and monetizes white supremacy and hate all day long,” she tweeted. As interim CEO in 2015, Pao pushed to ban some of the most flagrant subreddits, prompting backlash from longtime users. When Huffman succeeded her as CEO, he instead opted for a more hands off approach in which “communities … set appropriate standards around language for themselves.” A spokesperson for Reddit said the company has banned racist subreddits and that Reddit now displays a warning screen to visitors of its most infamous subreddit, r/thedonald, a pro-Trump forum.

Likewise, Facebook continued to face criticism after executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, met with civil rights leaders Monday night. Zuckerberg on Monday said Facebook would donate $10 million to racial justice organizations and noted that the original video of Floyd’s death was posted to Facebook. But Zuckerberg has declined to take action against President Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” message, cross-posted from Twitter, where it was flagged with a warning label. Outraged employees organized a virtual walkout and spoke publicly against the decision.

In a statement after Monday’s meeting, the leaders of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Color of Change connected the violence against protesters and Zuckerberg’s decision. The Facebook CEO “did not demonstrate understanding of historic or modern-day voter suppression, and he refuses to acknowledge how Facebook is facilitating Trump’s call for violence against protesters,” the statement read.

In a statement a Facebook spokesperson said the company was “grateful that leaders in the civil rights community took the time to share candid, honest feedback with Mark and Sheryl” Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer.

“I think we might look at it as what is sometimes called ‘performative wokeness’ by these companies, and issuing a statement that they ‘stand with the Black community’ is the absolute least they can do,” said Chris Gilliard, an independent researcher studying surveillance and racism.

“Many of these companies generate profit either by the exploitation of Black labor and/or by amplifying hate and extremism that directly harms Black folks,” he says. “If Amazon truly felt that Black lives matter, they would change the way they treat their workforce, stop selling Rekognition, and discontinue selling Ring doorbells. If Facebook truly stood with the Black community, they would eradicate the rampant white supremacy on their platform.”

Because there aren’t robust rules governing the fair use of emerging policing tools, company policy is very important. In lieu of government regulation, how executives write and interpret their companies’ relationships with law enforcement can vary widely, either to align with reform-focused civil rights movements or against them.

Updated, 6-3-20, 12:50pm ET: This article has been updated to include a comment from Google.

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