By Ben Grazda
Six months after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen told the world about Facebook’s abusive business practices, she sat with First Lady Jill Biden as a guest for President Biden’s State of the Union address. The First Lady’s other guest was the Ukrainian Ambassador to the US, Oksana Markarova, representing the citizens of the country standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression. This is an exceptional moment in history. We face immense challenges, but one thing holds true: the bravery of a few can still galvanize movements to hold the most powerful companies and governments accountable.
In the last decade, the size, wealth, and power of companies like Facebook (now Meta), Amazon and Google has seemed almost unstoppable. Their growth seemed to squash competition and workers’ movements and has been accused of inflaming violence with fatal consequences in Myanmar, India, the US Capitol, and now the streets of Ukraine. We have seen academics, civil society, journalists, and organizers step up to hold Big Tech accountable. Yet a complete lack of transparency over their operations and decisions means the fight remains lopsided. Regulations are making slow progress on lawmakers’ desks. Efforts to improve workers’ rights languish.
But in the past couple years, we have started to see a paradigm shift, in large part because of a few brave whistleblowers who have stepped up to shine a light on Big Tech’s internal decisions that have an outsized impact on workers and the public. This has spurred officials from around the world to act to hold companies accountable. When these whistleblowers testify in front of the US Congress and parliaments, and when they get broad attention with the help of investigative journalists, lawmakers listen and are inspired by their courage. This week, the Digital Services Act in the EU, the Online Safety Bill in the UK, and several pieces of US legislation are barreling forward, all with input from tech whistleblowers specifically cited by lawmakers. There are also calls to finally strangle the corrosive and cowardly stream of disinformation spreading from Russia across the EU and beyond.
And yet, too often, change brought on by the attention of whistleblower revelations in major Western media comes too late for those with the least power. Coverage of Facebook’s role in Myanmar and Ethiopia atrocities increased after Frances Haugen shared a trove of documents in 2021, but, in fact, activists in India, Myanmar, Ethiopia, and beyond had been calling out the devastating impact of Facebook for years. It is good that Western governments and shareholders with out-sized power have taken note now – and that the company may face real regulations in its home country – but we must do better to listen to more voices sooner. We have to not only proactively listen to marginalized communities, but build our coalitions more broadly from the start, with inclusion as a focus, not an afterthought. We need to empower workers and support their organizing efforts so they can change systems from within. We must recognize our own blind spots and work as allies with those on the front lines of the fight against oppressive power.
We need to build worker power and, in the meantime, must stand with the whistleblowers that offer an emergency brake of accountability when lives are at stake. With so much suffering imposed by those in power, we are grateful for the bravery we see in those who stand up. We see it in Facebook employees like Sophie Zhang and Frances Haugen. We see it in Google employees like Jack Paulson and Timnit Gebru. We see it in the thousands of Amazon workers organizing and the tens of thousands of gig workers around the world standing up for their fundamental rights against extortion and harassment. We see it in the content moderators working for contractors who were outsourced and pushed aside by the largest companies, such as Daniel Motaung in Kenya and Isabella Plunkett in Ireland. Their voices and bravery are galvanizing a world of change. We ask that you join us, and the many organizations and individuals fighting for a more just world, today, here, and now. The people in hot wars, from Ethiopia to Ukraine, know too well the human and societal tragedy that comes when power is not held accountable.
At The Signals Network we support acts of bravery from people who speak out. From Chinese human rights advocates, to Kenyan content moderators, to French nuclear plant officials, and many others, we protect and amplify those who have bravely spoken out. As part of our Tech Accountability Project, we empower workers on how to speak out if they have witnessed wrongdoing. We co-authored the Tech Worker Handbook and hold monthly events to connect tech organizers with our network of lawyers, journalists, and other experts. We are also building an inclusive network in the US and across the EU, and many other countries to support those who come forward and provide specific tools for those already in the fight.
Join us. Whether you’re a tech worker, an advocate, a lawyer, a journalist, or simply a concerned citizen, there are ways you can actively take part in the bigger movements spurred by whistleblowers’ brave acts. Let’s lift up the bravery of the few, so we can build movements of many and create real change for this generation and all those to follow.