Black Lawmakers Are In The Fight To Regulate Tech (Part 1)
For nearly a decade now, a drumbeat of headlines, conferences, and community initiatives—sometimes syncopated, sometimes cacophonous or intermittent—has called out the technology industry for the paucity of people of color within its companies’ walls. The crux of the argument: The closer a team of makers can resemble the consumers of the product it makes, the better, more sustainable, and more equitable the product.
Welp, Silicon Valley is still struggling to diversify its workforce—representation of Black technical employees at Google, Apple, and Microsoft has essentially remained static since 2014—and in 2019, we are witnessing the consequences of the world’s most influential industry having been constructed atop a rickety, white and male purview.
“Even as they need certain communities in order to thrive and be relevant and exist, as Black people are over-indexing on WhatsApp and Instagram—both owned by Facebook—and on Twitter, the fact that they don’t have that kind of representation at the highest levels speaks volumes about how they view us,” says Brandi Collins-Dexter, senior campaign director at Color of Change. “Whether we’re property or opportunity to them, or whether they actually [want to act] in the best interests of our communities.”
In absence of that kind of representation (the kind that might have tapped Mark Zuckerberg on the shoulder following his recent White House meeting with President Trump and whispered that it’d likely bode badly for his Black usership if presidential candidates were permitted to lie outright in their Facebook ads), some Black lawmakers seem to be stepping in as proxy for those without a seat at the corporate table, as well as for those who are most vulnerable to the repercussions of Big Tech’s appetite for market dominance.
Dismantling the (Tech-Enabled) Surveillance State
As vice chair of the Committee on Energy and Commerce in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Yvette Clarke of Brooklyn, New York’s ninth district has been focused on technology and communications policy for years. But it wasn’t until earlier this spring, when she learned of a landlord’s controversial plan to install facial recognition tech in Brownsville’s Atlantic Plaza Towers, just outside her district, that she fully realized the potential implications of this particular innovation.
“I knew that it was only a matter of time that, if we already have management companies that are either looking for this technology or being pitched this technology, that the deployment of it would become far more extensive without any real-world testing and real-world perfection, [and] that it could and would have an adverse impact on low-income communities,” says Clarke.
In July, she, along with Congressmembers Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, introduced the No Biometric Barriers to Housing Act, a bill that would prohibit the use of facial and biometric recognition in public housing. The Department of Housing and Urban Development would also be required to study and submit a report to Congress on any existing use of the technology and its impact on public-housing dwellers.
Clarke’s primary concern with widespread adoption of biometric identification tools is similar to that of many experts: It is too flawed in its current state to be deployed in people’s homes or by law enforcement. Multiple studies have shown that the technology is error-prone when attempting to identify darker-skinned individuals, as well as women. Last summer, the ACLU tested Amazon’s Rekognition software—which the tech giant is not only selling to police departments across the U.S., but is also marketing aggressively to precincts wanting to access footage captured by Ring doorbells—and found that it had incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with people who had committed crimes.
“One of the things that became very clear over time, just in interacting with the tech sector, was the lack of diversity among its workforce,” says Clarke. “With that comes a lack of understanding, or a lack of sort of authentic input, whether it’s in algorithms or other usages that would not skew them or in any way create a sort of misconception of these communities.” Clarke has become a vocal proponent of diversifying the tech industry, along with other representatives including Pressley, who’s publicly lamented faulty TSA scanners and hair pat-downs; “Auntie” Maxine Waters, who’s threatened to propose regulatory action to de-whiten Silicon Valley; and Barbara Lee, who reintroduced an ambitious bill earlier this year that addresses the “pipeline problem” from pre-K to tech company.
In the fight to curtail the reach of facial recognition, though, Black lawmakers lost one of their most influential soldiers earlier this month when House Rep. Elijah Cummings died at the age of 68. Not only had Cummings, who was elected as chair of the Committee on Oversight and Reform in January, launched an inquiry into the U.S. military’s use of facial recognition technology—and thus, the image database it shared with the FBI—but he was also reportedly planning a bill with Republican Congressman Jim Jordan that would effectively halt the federal government’s acquisition of such tools. There’s been no word yet on the fate of the potential legislation following Cummings’ passing.
“Private companies are using this technology more and more,” Cummings said during a May hearing. “There are virtually no controls on where this information goes. You could be at a rally supporting gun rights or protesting gun violence. You could be marching for the right to life or a woman’s right to choose. You could be pressing for the repeal of the ACA or the expansion. In all of these cases, the government could monitor you without your knowledge and enter your face into a database that could be used in virtually unrestricted ways.”
Stay tuned for Part II of this series where we explore the dismantling of tech surveillance in communities of color.