After years of ignoring warnings from civil rights leaders and privacy advocates about the tech industry’s troubling practices, lawmakers in Washington seem to have been roused from their slumber by the public outcry responding to news of the massive Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data breach. But will they now act?
To be sure, the digital revolution has transformed America’s economy and politics over the past generation, creating new pathways for economic empowerment, creative expression and civic engagement. In the 1960s, television made it impossible to turn away from Bull Connor’s dogs and the horrors of Jim Crow segregation. Today, the digital revolution means that anyone can be an investigative journalist, video documentarian or advocate — documenting ICE agents separating children from their parents or the latest assault on a motorist of color or using digital data to demonstrate the extent of persistent racial disparities.
But the dark underside of the digital revolution has been ignored too long by our nation’s elected officials. Cambridge Analytica’s wholesale misuse of Facebook users’ data; Google ignoring users privacy settings to track users of iPhones and the Safari browser; Twitter allowing Russia use its platform to meddle in the U.S. elections; Grindr’s disclosure of individuals’ HIV status.
Beyond privacy, tech platforms have also given a megaphone to hate groups looking to inflame racial tensions, while allowing advertisers to discriminate against minority communities in a pernicious (and entirely illegal) new form of digital redlining.
Their platforms have repeatedly been found to exhibit racism, from deeply offensive search query suggestions to racial bias in image search results — outcomes that, while not intentional, are perhaps not surprising given the shocking lack of diversity in the teams that actually build and deploy these products.
And for all of the tech industry’s loudly-proclaimed support for “net neutrality,” their business practices routinely violate these core principles of openness and non-discrimination. From censoring anti-racism activists to patenting tools that prevent comparison shopping, there’s a huge gap between the industry’s words and actions when it comes to protecting neutrality.
Self-regulation is a fool’s gold; Big Tech has had innumerable apology tours with every successive scandal, only to ignore systematic reforms once the political storm passes.
Earlier this month, 50 civil rights and advocacy organizations joined together to call on Congress to protect the internet and extend its promise to all Americans by prioritizing civil rights online. In the weeks ahead, it is vital that our elected leaders seize on the momentum generated by the recent Mark Zuckerberg hearings and ensure that angry committee room soundbites are followed up with meaningful action.
Building upon the examples set forth by civil rights leaders in the past, our letter laid out clear principles that should form the framework for any internet protection legislation Congress may take up.
First, Congress must strengthen the privacy rights and protections of American consumers online. Consumers deserve meaningful control over how their data is used online, as well as transparency into how their private information may be used. Consumers must have reasonable means of redress when they believe their data has been compromised or improperly used.
Second, the tech sector must become accountable for policing illegal and abusive activity on their platforms. Leading platforms have been documented enabling harassment and abuse of women, people of color, LGBT communities and religious minorities, while suppressing the speech and civic participation of targeted populations — activities that, without accountability and action, will continue to put already vulnerable communities at greater risk.
Third, consumers’ rights should be protected across the entire internet ecosystem, just as entrepreneurs and innovators deserve equal opportunity in the whole sector. Rules governing privacy and data collection should be consistent regardless of who collects it and how it’s collected. Furthermore, a comprehensive plan should include standardized terms of service to maintain a safe, enjoyable user experience, including enforceable consequences for hateful activity.
Lastly, we must take a hard look at the persistent and indefensible racial and gender gaps in Silicon Valley’s hiring practices. Despite exposés and Department of Labor lawsuits, the problem isn’t getting any better. The companies that effectively serve as gatekeepers to the entire internet look nothing like America — and that’s a problem.
Americans are speaking up in record numbers to demand Congress take action to address what ails the internet. Lawmakers have an obligation to respond seriously to this outcry, to ensure that future generations of Americans will have an opportunity to enjoy the full promise of a free, open and inclusive internet.
Amy Hinojosa (Twitter: @MANANational )is president and CEO of MANA, a national Latina organization. Gavin Logan (Twitter: @NatUrbanLeague) is a telecommunications fellow at the National Urban League. Kham Moua (Twitter: @OCANational)is the senior policy and communications manager for OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates.