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Silenced no more: A new era of tech whistleblowing?

Last week’s testimony from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen was devastating.

The documents she took from the company were carefully and methodically explained – a window into the inner workings of Facebook. It was a stunning moment of theatre – her testimony reverberating around the world.

But last week could be significant for the future of whistleblowing in Silicon Valley for another reason.

On Thursday night Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, signed into law the Silenced No More Act.

Sweeping changes

The legislation has been pushed by Ifeoma Ozoma – a whistleblower who used to work at Pinterest.

She came forward with accusations of racism against the company in June last year – allegations on which Pinterest told the BBC it did not wish to comment.

Ifeoma Ozoma
Ifeoma Ozoma

In doing so, she realised that the law was strangely skewed.

It is no secret that Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) can be used in the US to silence employees. It was something that came up time and time again during the #MeToo revelations.

Legislators in California responded by bringing in a law that protected whistleblowers in sexual harassment cases.

But Ms Ozoma realised that the law didn’t protect other forms of alleged discrimination – like racism. Since then she’s been fighting to change the law.

And on Thursday, she did just that.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

“The act allows anyone in California, regardless of the language in an NDA… to speak about their experiences with discrimination, harassment, or any other unlawful conduct,” Ms Ozoma says.

That is a big change to state law in California. Overnight, legal agreements that look to prevent employees coming forward have been severely restricted.

“It’s wonderful,” she tells me.

‘The CIA playbook’

Silicon Valley has traditionally been a terrible place for whistleblowers.

Last month I spoke to Cori Crider, from Foxglove, a group that helps whistleblowers come forward.

She said something that shocked me.

“I spent more than a decade working in national security and I very often feel like Silicon Valley types play from the playbook of the CIA on this stuff,” she said.

Being a whistleblower anywhere is difficult. But when it comes to tech, it can be particularly so.

“Think of the surveillance capabilities that these companies have… you have to assume that they have access to every single thing that you’re doing,” Ms Ozoma says.

Silicon Valley is a paranoid place – and with good reason. Intellectual property and proprietary technology is where much of the value of a company comes from. You don’t want your employees running off to another company with your trade secrets.

Tech companies, though, have been accused of secrecy mission creep – using tightly worded agreements to stop employees from raising legitimate concerns.

Cher Scarlett is a software engineer at Apple. Last month she made a complaint against the company to the US National Labor Relations Board.

She alleges that the company suppressed attempts by workers to organise.

Cher Scarlett
Cher Scarlett

In her filings, she alleges that Apple repeatedly blocked employee efforts to survey and discuss pay – something on which the tech giant has not commented.

Ms Scarlett was uncertain whether she could raise her concerns publicly, or of the legal implications in the documents she signed when she started the job.

“You know, for anybody who’s not a lawyer, it’s scary… I don’t have the expertise to understand the legal jargon,” she says.

“It’s very, very heavy, and you end up with a lot of scrutiny, and hostility.”

The public eye

Timnit Gebru says she was fired from Google in December last year. She has accused the company of institutional racism and supressing research.

Google has apologised for the circumstances under which she left the company.

Ms Gebru says that taking on a corporation with unlimited resources is frightening.

Timnit Gebru speaking in 2018
IMAGE SOURCE – GETTY IMAGES Image caption -Timnit Gebru speaking in 2018

“The cost, it’s no joke,” she says. “Lawyers cost a lot and you don’t even know if it’s worth it.”

And then there’s the publicity. When Ms Gebru made the claims, she was was suddenly catapulted into the international limelight. Her phone rang off the hook.

“I didn’t have any time to process any of it, emotionally, no time at all. I was just constantly on the phone, to [other] employees and talking to the press.

“I knew it was very important for my story to come out before Google’s,” she says.

Being a whistleblower can be daunting, and it helps to have financial backing.

Elizabeth Holmes
IMAGE SOURCE – THERANOS Image caption – Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos

Elizabeth Holmes is currently standing trial in San Jose for fraud.

The company she founded and ran, Theranos, claimed to be able to diagnose hundreds of diseases through a few drops of blood.

It couldn’t.

Tyler Shultz, who worked at the company, was crucial in exposing the scandal. He was brave and courageous. But he is also the grandson of former Secretary of State George Shultz, and could afford lawyers when Ms Holmes tried to intimidate him with threatening letters.

Ms Haugen’s testimony may be inspiring to many, but the international scrutiny she received – the blunt pushback from Facebook – may intimidate others.

Tyler Schultz in close-up on a stage
IMAGE SOURCE – GETTY IMAGES Image caption -Tyler Schultz exposed the problems at Theranos

And then there’s the age old problem that whistleblowers have – the fear that if they speak out they’ll become unemployable.

“I think a lot of people are worried that they’re not going to be able to find another job after they come forward,” Ms Scarlett says.

This all helps to explain why the media gets so excited by people like Ms Haugen. She isn’t the first, but it is rare when people come forward.

“It’s a deeply personal decision that is based on people’s personal situations, and their circumstances,” Ms Ozoma says.

She has written a handbook for whistleblowers to help them understand how the process might pan out, what to expect and how to prepare.

She hopes it will assist employees who are thinking about taking the plunge.

Yet despite the change in the law in California, Ms Ozoma still believes the system is stacked against coming forward. And until that changes, scenes like last week’s senate hearing will be the exception.

Source – https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-58850064

Written by – James Clayton

Image Credit – Reuters

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