The tech industry was supposed to help make the world more free, but instead it has turned into a tool of oppression

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  • The internet and the technology that sprang up after its spread was supposed to make the world more free.
  • Instead the internet has become a hotbed of racism and sexism and the tech industry is fighting against progress.
  • The culture of the tech industry needs to change so that the focus can shift away from raking in profits and towards making the world better.
  • Mary Rinaldi is a social justice advocate, a creative technologist and writer who is a Mentor-in-Residence at NEW INC.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The internet in its infancy felt deeply liberating. It made information accessible, created opportunities for relationships that hadn’t existed before, and provided richer context for our individual experiences.

The ethos of the original internet, among its users, was hopeful and open. Yet, that same ecosystem has been co-opted by profit-hungry giants who have built a culture of oppression within their industry and fought against equality in our world.

How did the internet — beautiful and unpredictable — so easily become a place of locks and cages? How did it change from a platform filled with scientists and makers building their intellectual and artistic homes to one dominated by organizations more interested in extracting wealth? How did the tech industry built on top of that platform become a hotbed of racism and sexism?

The reason, in a word, is capitalism.

The problems we face in the technology industry today — the loss of our right to privacy, a lack of data ownership, and the proliferation of tech products and services that subvert freedom and democracy — stem from an economic system that is predicated on value extraction, inequality, and dehumanization.

And it makes the tech companies who dominate the tech industry the opponents of changes that could help empower workers and make the world a more equitable place.

Fighting against the changes we need

Consistently, we’ve seen the tech industry that was built with the promise of a more open and equitable world stand in the way of achieving that goal.

Vital labor laws are often rendered toothless by armies of high-powered corporate attorneys who work with tech companies to influence the implementation of those laws, ensuring room for protection of their clients’ interests.

Employees with valid grievances are often bullied or retaliated against. Particularly in tech, there is a deep and valid fear of becoming unemployable for fighting back, even if the employer has engaged inillegal behaviorin the workplace.

For example, during a table discussion on hiring at a Female Founders Fund Conference in July 2019, a female CEO (who will remain unnamed due to the privacy rules of the event) commented that she wouldn’t hire a woman who brought a suit against a former employer for discrimination or sexual harassment, because it would be “too risky” for her as an owner. What does it say about the culture of an industry if even a member of a group that has historically been denied entry into Silicon Valley doesn’t want to hire people who speak up against injustice?

That’s not all. Many of the protections that people believe are impenetrable and a part of our social contract are consistently undermined or flaunted in the tech industry, while the very same tech companies sell a marketing myth — that they care about the spaces and people they’re harming.

Both Elon Musk’s companies, SpaceX and Tesla, have flouted environmental and labor regulations in their pursuit to colonize Mars and sell electric cars, while waxing on about climate change and environmental resources. If a person or company can’t take the time to care for their community and planet, what makes us think they’ll care for new community and new planet? And Tesla and SpaceX are not alone in their bulldozing approach to growth.

Before Uber’s fall from grace, they built their entire global expansion strategy on the platitude, “ask for forgiveness, not permission.” To that end, their well-publicized, often unquestioned approach included sidestepping regulators, bullying competitors, and mistreating drivers in order to conquer a new city.

Not only did Uber disrupt existing models that were the lifeblood for blue collar immigrants and people of color trying to climb the economic ladder, but they put riders in danger repeatedly and without remorse.

City governments opposed Uber as early as 2010, but with the infinite resources of venture capital at their fingertips, and policy and communications teams spinning stories to influence public opinion and local regulators, cities struggled to hold Uber accountable.

It took someone on the inside to tell the truth. In 2017 when Susan Fowler, a courageous woman developer whom no one had ever heard of, wrote a public post about the sexual harassment and discrimination at the company then all the rot on the inside came oozing out.

It’s not a surprise that tech companies keep utilizing “I’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission” as the basis for their growth strategy, if it gets investors and founders to a profitable exit, they’ll keep using it. Especially since regulators have made few attempts to rein them in.

The culture of the industry has to change to that the tech they build can become better

Even with a recent proliferation of employees whistleblowing and speaking up, regulators have largely maintained a hands-off approach to tech industry oversight. Tech companies capitalize on elected officials’ lack of technical knowledge and bank on easily paying minor FTC fines, making it difficult for Congress to design and advance effective accountability measures and laws.

Tech companies have also invested heavily in lobbying to ensure new laws aren’t passed that would require their compliance. Between 2010 and 2019, Facebook spent $81 million, in 2019 alone Amazon spent $16 million, and Google spent over $150 million over the decade lobbying federal, state and local government for zero oversight and ever-expanding profit margins. Even after Facebook allowed the incitement of a genocide, manipulated elections, and Google exposed users’ personal information on the internet, Congress still has not adopted new laws to regulate them.

Tech employees have remained silent about the lack of morality their companies practice, have changed careers attempting to reckon in a private with the problems that plague their former industry, while a few, some privileged, have told their stories, demanding accountability. The war-based strategies, regular abuse and encouraged greed that tech is rife with makes it difficult for individuals to stand up effectively, especially here in the US, where there are few public resources or structures to support and protect us. In spite of that, a sea change is happening.

Tech leaders are publicly resigning over human rights and racial equity issues, publicly refusing to build products or structures that cause harm. Other employees, with much more to lose, are choosing uncertainty over continuing to work for a company they believe is unethical.

Today, tech company culture looks a lot like law enforcement culture — they both demand complete loyalty, institute widespread opacity in their systems, create fear-based surveillance structures, and use handcuffs liberally, golden or otherwise. But just as public safety can be radically reimagined, so can the technologies we build.

People continuously marching in the streets, at great personal risk have effectively pushed the conversation beyond police reform towards bigger changes like defunding the police.

This “good trouble” as John Lewis, the Civil Rights leader and congressman who died on Friday, called it, drives big change, forcing our elected officials to update agendas and change laws to protect freedom and human rights. Tech employees should stir up some good trouble themselves, engaging in organized, sustained action that reclaims their sector for liberation and equality.

Mary Rinaldi is a social justice advocate, a creative technologist and writer who is a Mentor-in-Residence at NEW INC.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

Axel Springer, Insider Inc.’s parent company, is an investor in Uber.

Read the original article on Opinion Contributor. Copyright 2020.

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