Last Friday the Centre for Humane Technology hosted an event, “What is possible for tech reform in 2021?”. The event was livestreamed on Airmeet and featured Randy Fernando (executive director) talking to David Jay (head of mobilisation).

Their conversation took place less than 48 hours after Pro-Trump protestors stormed the US Capitol and on the same day Twitter placed a permanent ban on Donald Trump. Both Twitter and Facebook had temporarily locked Trump’s accounts on Wednesday night, while the Capitol was under siege, due to the president continuing to make unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.

Despite the events of last week, I found the discussion positive and energising. Mainly because, as Randy pointed out, the attack on the Capitol is a deafening klaxon to anyone who might think unregulated social media is still a good idea.

Five strong reasons emerged to suggest the tide is turning on tech reform. Here they are, with direct quotes from Randy and David during the event.

1. The siege is a wake-up call

Randy Fernando (RF): This horrific attack makes clear what’s possible with a broken and unregulated business model. Social media has conditioned us for years to disagree about what’s true. In the absence of a shared reality, we each take action commensurate to what we believe to be true. The Social Dilemma predicts a future that does not have to [happen]. We need to collectively wake up from the digital spell that’s been cast by ten years of unregulated social media [….] As a starting point, we need to understand the conditions of others.

David Jay (DJ): As people stormed the Capitol they were livestreaming the event. Some of those streams were monetised. It was performative. Social media created the conditions for this. We’re uniquely placed to change some of these positions. While [the attack on the Capitol] is terrifying, I also have some sources of hope. That a kind of change is possible. That there are campaigns for change.

[David cites, as an example, a new campaign to stop Stripe processing donations to a leading Proud Boys activist.]

RF: It took something like [the Capitol siege] for a lot of the major lines to be crossed. Now – finally – the social networks are acting. It took something like that to get there. We wanted to created a shared understanding. What happened yesterday has created very favourable conditions for people to start thinking about these systems and how they function. Now everyone starts at a point where they have a good understanding. That’s really helpful.

2. Tech employees are unionising

DJ: Yes. There’s creative, fertile soil for this change [tech reform]. You can see that shifting [….] Google employees formed a union at the beginning of this week. This is part of broader trend. Because there’s been such a lot of external pressure, employees have permission to be active in a way that they haven’t in the past [….]

As head of mobilisation, I talk to a lot of those tech employees. It’s really important to understand what the nature of some of the humane opportunities are. [When] I talked to platforms in late 2019 there was this myth of neutrality: they’re just giving people what they want – free speech. Their job was to underpin the neutral structure to enable this dialogue.

Now we’ve seen all that’s come, all the struggles we’ve seen with Covid 19 and the Presidential Election, it’s clear that misinformation is a massive problem.

[In the US, cases of Covid-19 passed 20 million on New Year’s Day, while Donald Trump continues to claim massive voter fraud, despite lack of evidence.]

At the end of 2019, the tech companies had crisis plans: [they said] “we’ll sacrifice engagement to solve these problems”. But the plans were kept behind glass doors. Now the glass is getting broken constantly [….] The crisis happening around Facebook became much more dominant than any need for growth at the company.

Within Google, the crisis created by the firing of Timnit Gebru [a leading ethics researcher who highlighted risks in Google’s business model] helped lay groundwork for the unionisation we’ve just seen. And for powerful senior voices stepping forward at the company.

3. Policy is shifting

DJ: [Another] shift we’re seeing is in policy. The end of last year saw significant movements re antitrust for Facebook and Google [several lawsuits have been filed]. There are additional moves coming out of the UK [he’s referring to the Online Harms White Paper]. But antitrust and privacy don’t quite address the full scale of the problem.

As Randy points out, everything is “lined up” for some progressive laws to be passed. As of last Wednesday, when Democrats won the Georgia Senate runoff, the US Presidency, the Senate and the House of Representatives are all under Democratic control. Although both Randy and David admit, the legislative framework needs some thought:

RF: When we have these giant companies functioning it does make it harder, but simply breaking them up and having many fragmented companies operating with the same broken business models won’t solve anything [….] Personal data is a contributing factor but it’s not everything. Antitrust or privacy laws aren’t alone going to solve these problems.

We’ve all universally vulnerable. These companies aren’t in the business of selling our data. They sell persuasion. We have to talk in those terms to get the right answers.

A side effect of privacy [regulation] is that, every website you go to, you check a box saying you accept their privacy standards. Are you going to read them? No. We end up with a bigger problem where people are accepting terms they don’t understand. This [legislation] is meant to protect users but it ends up being problematic for them.

4. Space is clearing for new platforms

DJ: Many of the large [tech] platforms are in a defensive stance. It’s a really powerful time for new platforms to emerge. We’re seeing early parts of that ecosystem begin to take charge of that space. We can really use that space [….]

Across the board, it’s a time when platforms are responding to employee pressure and outside pressure in ways in which they have’t in the past. These companies grew with models that caused external harm. Now people are asking, “how can we avoid replacing these with the same problems playing out?” [….]

DJ: This is such a powerful moment for new, emerging technologies. Google came about when Microsoft was struggling with antitrust legislation. For Facebook it was similar [not sure of the reference here]Some new paradigm is emerging. We’re well-placed to help that emerge.

5. Consumers are getting ready

Humane tech, ethical tech, responsible tech – whatever you want to call it, it’s most definitely a thing. Tech reform is firmly on the political agenda. And consumers are increasingly likely to ask questions about the provenance and impact of the products they use. Ethical consumer spending was already on the rise before the global pandemic hit. And early consumer reports from 2020 show that value-based spending and increased health awareness are typical behavioural changes emerging from the impact of Covid-19.

The values of humane tech seem very aligned with the post-Covid world that people seem to want. The fact that at least 435 people joined the livestream event last Friday was a positive sign.

RF: Humane technology is value-centred. Humane tech is sensitive to human nature. It doesn’t exploit our vulnerabilities. Humane tech narrows the gap between the privileged and less privileged, marginalised and non-marginalised. The first thing we do is close those gaps – we bring people up. We want to foster the same connection and care you have for people you know as for people you don’t know. We want to support human thriving. A lot of our tech ends up bouncing us between what we want, something new, what we don’t want. It’s all about money. Humane tech has to unite us, not profit from us.

Humane tech has to look at unintended externalities. The technologist piece is one piece. Cultural framing and setting is another piece. We need right conditions on the consumer side, the technology side, regulations, market conditions. All these pieces need to be taken care of. Let us know what you can do!

Next steps

Hopefully you’re as excited as I am about the possibilities for real change in 2021. It seems there are so many projects looking not only at tech reform, but how to create a better world in general post-Covid. I’ve started a Twitter list to try and pull together some of these. Let me know if you have a project I can add 🙂

Meanwhile, the Centre for Humane Technology is doing a great job at driving the conversation forward. They run regular events on ethical tech. Here’s how to get involved.

Photo: Patricia Prudente on Unsplash