Whistleblowing takes center stage at Rightscon

By Bella Golden

June 9 2022 – San Francisco – The Signals Network kicked off day one of RightsCon with two major sessions focused on the importance of whistleblowing to hold Big Tech to account. Over 700 participants attended events in which whistleblowers discussed their own personal journeys, as well as the overall structure that exists to support whistleblowers like them.

During the first session, the Rightscon-sponsored fireside chat Whistleblowers, Activism, and Accountability in the Tech Sector,” Sophie Zhang, a whistleblower and former data scientist at Facebook (recently rebranded as Meta), explained her experience with providing essential information and knowledge to the public. She sees her role as bridging the gap between secretive companies, lawmakers, and the public to inform and protect citizens, and ultimately enact change. Sophie has shared documents with the press and testified internationally regarding Facebook’s reported role in enabling worldwide political manipulation.

“Fundamentally you can’t solve a problem unless you understand it— it is usually only a problem that those within a company are aware [of] and you can’t solve the problem because you don’t know it exists,” she said, adding, “I see my role as providing the information.”

Sophie’s first act as a whistleblower was in early 2021, but she continues today to make people aware of wrongdoings at Facebook. Recently, she worked with two dozen Indian media organizations to publicize private documents revealing the impact of inauthentic political Facebook accounts, after the democratic institutions in India and Facebook refused to take action. She continues to be open about her information, collaborate with local media partners in India, and urge other tech workers who may consider becoming whistleblowers to talk to her for advice and support.

Meanwhile, TIME reporter Billy Perrigo spoke in the second session, sponsored by The Signals Network and Whistleblowing International Network, entitled “Preparedness is Power: How to achieve impact when speaking out in tech.” Billy discussed his work with whistleblowers such as Daniel Motaung, who was featured in his piece on content moderation labor practices in Africa. Billy emphasized that whistleblowers are key to his investigative work, and that protecting them is vital.

“It is important to know that there are groups, like The Signals Network, who have [whistleblowers’] interest at heart. One of the things I found incredibly helpful about working with third groups is that they allowed me as a journalist to put my incentive out on the table, and tell people that I as a journalist want to get the story out there. I would not do anything to harm you to get that story.”

Erika Cheung, Theranos whistleblower, validated a human-centric approach to whistleblower protection. Erika cited empowerment and knowledge as necessary tools to protect whistleblowers and emphasized that workers need to understand the availability of support systems. She advises others to take advantage of the network of whistleblower resources that are available to protect those who are willing to risk their personal and professional well-being for the protection of human rights and societal systems.

“The act of speaking up is really easy, but the circumstances around the process of speaking up are really complicated, like understanding how you engage with lawyers. For me, talking to a lawyer equals costs that I could not afford. But there are many whistleblower law firms that are willing to meet with you and figure out your options for your specific case and help you speak up.” She added: “Being a whistleblower is a very hard process in many ways, in terms of how it affects you professionally and how it affects you personally, and it’s something it needs to be taken with an amount of care and consideration. The most important step is finding who your support network is and people who can stand by your side through this process.”

Whistleblower protection groups like The Signals Network are readily available and consistently willing to assist workers in understanding their options, and to help them move forward to enact change in the safest and most effective way possible, as our Executive Director, Delphine Halgand-Mishra explained:

“The whistleblowers are our emergency brakes— without them we could not know what is happening inside companies who have huge power and know everything about each one of us.”

RightsCon continued its commitment to raising awareness of the importance of whistleblowing in Big Tech into the second day, in which tech workers who wanted to privately explore issues around whistleblowing were given the opportunity to learn firsthand from whistleblowers and lawyers. Tyler Shultz, Theranos whistleblower and an advisor to The Signals Network, was one of the whistleblowers at the meeting. Tyler shared his deep experience in the personal and professional pressures around speaking out, and described how he explored different pathways and what lessons he thinks others can take from his example.

For those unable to attend these sessions, you can watch them at the links above. There are useful resources with more information, such as The Tech Worker Handbook, created by Ifeoma Ozoma and a number of support organizations, including The Signals Network. The Signals Network has developed an EPIC holistic support system that includes Empowerment, Protection, Investigation, and Change. Learn more about the system and our Tech Accountability Project.

If you have any questions about our work or how we could be a resource for you, please get in touch using our secure email at info@thesignalsnetwork.org.

Published On: June 9, 2022By