Coraline Ada Ehmke

Human Rights Microaggressions in the Tech Industry

Coraline Ada Ehmke | November 26, 2018

The following is from a speech that I delivered at the Business and Human Rights Forum at the United Nations in Geneva in November of 2018.

William Butler Yeats once wrote that “nobody running at full speed has either a head or a heart.”

We live in an era where many corporations have profits that exceed the GDPs of entire nations, yet their governance is by an unelected, unrepresentative, and largely uncaring elite who prioritize profits over people.

Tech companies are the golden child of modern capitalism. The internet economy has a greater impact on GDP than agriculture or utilities in many countries. Tech companies are the standard by which other corporations measure their own success, and the guide stars that they follow to shape their own goals and objectives and aspirations.

In the interconnected world of the internet, the mechanisms by which we communicate, connect, organize, and even interact with our governments are brokered by corporations. Much of our news and communication in the modern age is mediated by social media platforms. But governments don’t seem to have the will or power to regulate these companies; and they can’t compete with them for talent. Technology is outpacing government at the same time that tech companies are gaining disproportionate influence over governments.

Historically, technology companies have been party to every kind of human rights abuse, and this continues today: enabling the spread of violent hate speech and propaganda; subjecting their low-skilled employees to inhumane working conditions; war profiteering; environmental catastrophes; and enabling the growing threat of the surveillance state.

The rapid pace of technological advancement produces a near constant stream of new threats to human rights. No one seems to stop to consider the consequences of new technologies; few ask, “we can, but should we?”

The kind of unchecked capitalism that tech companies thrive in seems, in practice, to be anathema to human rights.

Although it is the most egregious human rights violations that attract headlines, there is an emerging threat from the technology sector that is not often considered in terms of human rights. These threats are a harbinger of greater violations to come, and are indicative of the blind pursuit of profit and moral failings of large tech companies.

In the social justice domain we recognize a phenomenon called ‘microaggressions’. Microaggressions are intentional or unintentional slights or insults that communicate derogatory or negative messages to people who are members of a marginalized group. Microaggressions are a symptom of systemic bias and unfair power dynamics, and collectively they have a tremendous impact on the health and well-being of marginalized people.

In the same way, a lot of the behavior that we see from companies in the tech space can be thought of as “human rights microaggressions”. These are actions and policies that infringe on our human rights in small ways, but that, taken together, represent a larger threat. They indicate deeper biases, prejudices, and moral failures, and point to worse violations to come. Through their actions or inactions, tech companies are reinforcing and normalizing the systems of power and oppression that lead to greater and greater violations of human rights.

In her book “Algorithms of Oppression”, Dr. Safiya Noble, a professor of communication at the University of Southern California, argues that while most people think of Google and other search engines as akin to a public library, where people can find accurate and timely information about the world around them, these sites aren’t as trustworthy as we might expect them to be.

She did searches on the terms “Black girls,” “Asian girls,” and “Latina girls” and found that sexualized imagery was the primary way they were represented on the first page of search results. Reducing these women to sexualized objects is a violation of both the Preamble and Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: it is a violation of their human dignity.

Search engine algorithms decide what information we’re exposed to and reinforce biased assumptions about what is worth knowing. And there is a dominant white, male, heterosexual, cisgender point of view that shapes these search results. Google’s algorithms, by design, encode the status quo, including opinions about what information and perspectives on the web are valid and valuable.

Algorithms are not neutral. When tech companies build their algorithms, whether for presenting and filtering content, screening resumes, or even predictive policing, the unrecognized biases and privileges of the human beings who created them are perpetuated, which can sometimes lead to morally unacceptable results.

How information is filtered, presented, and amplified also impacts the way that our governments operate.

The 2016 elections in the United States were unquestionably influenced by bots and other propaganda mechanisms spreading false information on social media. Facebook and Twitter are both guilty of not acting to prevent this abuse of their platforms, but indeed of profiting from their own lack of accountability. They are also complicit in human rights violations by cooperating with foreign governments to identify, track, and even geolocate dissidents.

Tech companies are guilty of microaggressions against workers’ rights. They employ discriminatory hiring and promotion practices, and they perpetuate pay gaps between white people and people of color, and between men and women.

They undermine employment protections for LGBTQ people; in many states, thanks in part to lobbying for so-called “right to work” statutes, it is legal to fire someone for being gay or being transgender. In fact, I was fired, without cause, one month after I came out as transgender at my job at a tech company. My life was upended at a very vulnerable time by a tech company that brought discrimination to bear in an act of violence against my right to exist freely as myself.

Tech companies profit by gatekeeping our human rights, their exercise, or worse, their denial. But they are never held accountable for their actions. At best, an executive might be paid to resign, or they may be fined what amounts to a tiny percentage of their revenue as punishment. That’s not enough. We cannot allow tech companies to remain effectively immune to justice.

Technology companies are, without doubt, running at full speed. We must stand up to be their heads and their hearts. Our human rights and our human dignity hang in the balance.