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Urgency and Agency in Technology Policy
A conversation with Ifeoma Ozoma and Matthew Sun
This conversation is published in Kernel Magazine’s second issue, which we just released yesterday. We’re releasing just a few pieces this week; to read all of our released content so far, visit kernelmag.io. For access to all of our essays now, please purchase a copy of the magazine.
Ifeoma Ozoma is the founder and principal of Earthseed, a consulting firm advising individuals, organizations, and companies on the issues of tech accountability, public policy, and health misinformation. She is a co-sponsor of the Silenced No More Act, authored by California State Senator Connie Leyva and signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2021, which allows every individual in California to share information about discrimination or harassment they have faced on the job, even after signing an NDA. Ifeoma is also the creator of the Tech Worker Handbook, a collection of resources for tech workers who are looking to make more informed decisions about whether to speak out on issues that are in the public interest. Additionally, Ifeoma co-founded the Transparency in Employment Agreements Coalition, which is scaling the protections in the Silenced No More Act to workers across the globe through shareholder engagement.
Matthew Sun is a tech worker and former graduate student researcher at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology, where he co-authored research on the privacy practices of labor organizers in the tech industry, forthcoming in the 2022 ACM Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing conference. He is also the digital director of Kernel Magazine and a member of Reboot’s core leadership team.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. A response sourced from the Reboot community is published below it.
📈 Urgency and Agency in Technology Policy
By Matthew Sun
Finding Systems-Level Leverage
Matthew: You’ve done such different work over the years: fighting health misinformation, removing plantation wedding content on Pinterest, blowing the whistle on pay inequity and discrimination, co-sponsoring the Silenced No More Act, and creating the Tech Worker Handbook. How have your priorities shifted or evolved through this work over the years? And secondly, how has it all led you to what’s on your agenda right now?
Ifeoma: It’s interesting because my priorities haven’t shifted that much, just where I’m doing the work from has changed. When I was at Pinterest, and even before then at Facebook and Google, my focus has been figuring out where I have influence within my area of expertise. That’s been in the policy area — specifically, content moderation and tech policy when I was at Pinterest. What is the good that I can do at scale? And how can I use where I’m at and what I know to positively influence things within my reach?
At Pinterest, that was misinformation, at a time when both internally and externally, there wasn’t really an appetite to address it. That was way before COVID, when there was a measles outbreak and other health-related misinformation issues. Pinterest was in a unique position to address this, because eight in 10 moms in the U.S. use the platform to make decisions for themselves and their families. And if they’re encountering health misinformation on the site, that’s a huge disservice we’re doing to individuals and kids around the country.
The work that I’ve done since leaving is focused on workers’ rights, policy, and climate change, but it similarly relies on the policy expertise that I gained from Facebook and Google and college. The focus has been just figuring out how to scale it. With Silenced No More, there isn’t any larger scale at the state level than passing a bill in California, and now another in Washington state, which was fashioned after the California one.
That has led to extending those protections through the shareholder work that I’ve done recently over this last proxy season1; it’s resulted in Salesforce, Apple, Alphabet, Twilio, and other companies changing their policies to extend the protections from California to their workers.
M: Your work has spanned many different channels, whether that was sharing your story and whistleblowing through social media, pressing for legislation at the state level, or this coalition of advocates and investors making these shareholder resolutions. How do you approach finding the right levers to push and finding the right people to get things done?
I: Tech being a system that is also situated within a larger system is exactly how I approach it. It affected my decision to go into tech versus going to law school. The most practical reason was that I didn’t want to take on debt, but in addition, I felt that if what I really wanted to focus on the intersection of policy and technology, there’s no better place to do it and to learn exactly how it works, and not in just a theoretical way, than the inside.
In the same vein, when I first wrote the proposal for the shareholder work and shared it with a few foundations to see who would help with funding, I laid out that this was something new. If it worked out, it would hopefully create a playbook not just for workers’ rights issues, but for other issues within the tech industry. Through my time in tech and now the last two years “outside” of tech but still working on tech issues, I’ve observed that the shareholder space is really weak. A lot of what shareholder activists are doing, at least within tech advocacy, is asking companies to do the right thing without really forcing their hand. So it’s all carrot, no stick.
The shareholder piece cannot work on its own. It has to be in connection with changing the facts on the ground with legislation. After the bills in California and Washington, there was another bill in Ireland at the national level and a bill on Prince Edward Island in Canada. There’s also the federal bill on forced arbitration for sexual harassment and assault here in the U.S.
By literally changing the facts on the ground [through legislation], the conversation and the position of power that you have as a shareholder advocate or activist is very different. It allows us to make a unique case to large asset managers, who are the other part of the equation. It’s not individual shareholders who make the difference on these issues. Large banks like Vanguard and the proxy advisors like State Street typically own one to three percent of a company and make a massive difference on the votes. We didn’t try to make a case that appealed to these large asset managers’ consciences. Instead, we wanted them to understand the risk that they were facing. These companies are operating within a patchwork of state laws where there’s now regulatory pressure that directly translates to financial risk to them as shareholders, especially as a majority or large shareholder. At Pinterest, for example, shareholders are the ones who ended up paying the $75 million in settlements [to resolve discrimination allegations]. Shareholders will pay for this, whether they think it matters or not. That’s the conversation we need to have.
Legislators at the state and federal levels have already shown that they care — they’re filing lawsuits. You can make it clear that this is a serious situation where management does not have its interests aligned with shareholders. As the shareholder, you don’t actually care in a systemic way about the individual VP who’s discriminating against people, but you’re going to care about the millions of dollars in settlements that the company will leave you to pay. Meanwhile, management cares about covering that up. Therefore, this is not something where you can just trust what companies say — you have to step in. We had one of the first successful shareholder votes in years at Apple, and we had an overwhelming vote in our favor at IBM, et cetera. These results have shown that this is something that’s possible, and I hope that other people step up and do it.
This is the stuff that isn’t sexy. No one was lining up to create a website like the Tech Worker Handbook, because it takes hours and hours, months and months of work, just compiling information. None of it is new, either. Shareholder activism isn’t new. But you have to be willing to do the stuff that isn’t as fun but results in tangible wins. That’s where my focus is. I don’t care about convenings or just talking about stuff. I don’t care about writing thought papers and whatever else. Those are exercises that other people in the tech accountability space seem to be obsessed with.
Holding Tech Accountability to Account
M: You allude to this navel-gazing tendency within the tech accountability space. There’s a plethora of academic articles and thinkpieces densely packed with a lot of intellectualization and references to various critical theories. Of the scholars and organizers and activists I follow, I feel like there’s an ideological split between folks who advocate for grassroots or mass movements, and people who believe in elite-driven change and policy work, i.e., “change from the inside.” These paths aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but I often sense that across this ideological split there’s a bit of mutual contempt, or perhaps disdain, for the other side. Is this something you’ve encountered, and do you think this is a barrier to building broader coalitions or an obstacle to the progressive movement for tech accountability?
I: I’ve definitely encountered it. There are some people who I know respect the work that I’ve done but would never consider sitting down with Vanguard or BlackRock and having a conversation about how, as large asset managers, they should push tech companies to change their policies. My response is that my focus is on what is tangible.
Although there’s definitely power in unionization drives and organizing, we have to be practical about the system we’re in — and the system is fucked. For example, everything about the SEC is trash; it doesn’t actually regulate the sector that it is in charge of. But while we’re changing the system and its mechanisms, we still need to work with what is currently in place.
My theory of change comes from my view of Octavia Butler’s work in the Parables series. It emphasizes what is practical and what will immediately result in tangible changes. Theorizing and intellectualizing does not change the material positions of workers. If we had spent years talking ad infinitum about what should change for workers contracts when it comes to NDAs (non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements), the California bill wouldn’t have already gone into effect six months ago.
There’s a weird divide between certain whistleblowers and organizers, because there’s this notion that “whistleblowers are independent, while organizing [as a community] is what’s necessary.” It’s not a distinction that I think is useful, because what are people going to organize around if someone doesn’t first speak up? We don’t get the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island unionizing without Chris Smalls and others speaking up about the conditions there. You need something to organize around. Chris Smalls was fired. I was fired. Meredith Whittaker was fired. The list goes on and on and on. But you don’t get the walkout without people speaking up. You don’t get even what’s going on at Starbucks without a barista pointing out the actual conditions. Then other folks hear it and are like, “Well, shit, I thought it was just our store. But actually, it’s an issue everywhere.” This is why we need to organize.
M: A lot of student activism in college sometimes felt very immersed in a “purity politics” approach to issues, which translated to refusing to be in the same room as the people who hold power. It was “problematic” to enter certain professions or work at certain companies. This aversion is understandable. But it also feels like in order to do the kind of work that you have done, which is super impactful, you have to bite the bullet and be in rooms with these people.
I: You have to understand how it works. I don’t think that people within the industry are the only answer to this, but we certainly understand it. As an activist group, we understand when we’ve booked an important meeting. We can tell whether the person we’re meeting with actually runs that thing at Facebook, because guess what? I worked there.
While I absolutely support outside organizations who are focused on these issues, I’m also focused on empowering the individual worker who ultimately is the most equipped to understand what is broken and what needs to change. The purity stuff… it’s just not practical to me. If you’re working within a system to uphold it, then that’s an issue. If you’re working within it to change it, that’s what we ultimately want.
Agency as the Antithesis of Fear
M: I get the sense that you want people who look up to your work to believe that they themselves are equally capable of going out and just, you know, doing it. And sometimes, that requires putting all of that intellectualizing and theorizing on the backburner in order to just make tangible change. Did you always have this pragmatic attitude towards change? For students or early career folks who might not be there yet, where did it come from?
I: I think a big part of what keeps people from just doing it — whatever it is — is fear, whether it be the fear of failure or fear of the powers that be. I have never really had that fear. I think that this fear is just a part of American culture. People don’t value the time that they have, because they think, “Oh, I can just work on it next year, or I can just do it when it’s more convenient.” But none of us knows how much time we have.
My approach, which has gotten me in trouble many times and in many places, is let’s do it and find out whether it doesn’t work. I don’t want to sit around and talk about whether it can work next year when I can try it this month. And if it fails, then I know that it failed, and I can try the next thing. Like the shareholder work, there are a number of organizations and foundations I approached who said “Well, we need to do a study and see some research to know whether it can work.” And I’m like, “Look, you’re wasting my fucking time. If you don’t want it, just say that.” I’m not spending a year on research when I can actually be moving things now.
Once the political situation changes, in the makeup of Congress or if Trump wins in 2024, the window of opportunity for changing things within these companies shortens significantly, so I just don’t see the need to wait. That said, I don’t think you should bulldoze into things without having knowledgeable people on board. In California, I worked with co-sponsors of the Silenced No More Act who actually are lawyers. To understand the legislative process, I hired a lobbyist in California to work on the bill because she’s registered to lobby legally, and we wanted to make sure that disclosures were done properly. I’ve also worked with groups like Coworker who understand organizing. You need to have the right folks together at the table working in coalition. But not having everything perfectly shouldn’t be the reason to wait.
M: How do you conceptualize your own unique position and the power you have, since you’re not an employee of a tech company anymore? Where do you really pinpoint your own power as someone on the outside?
I: It’s both the experience that I gained while working inside of these companies and also the perspective I have now that I’m out. I know the way that policy works in both the regulatory and systems sense. I also know how policy works internally at these companies. I know who is just a spokesperson, who’s just a middle manager, who’s actually a decision-maker, and how to talk to all of them.
I have encountered so many large nonprofits, foundations, organizations, that feel like they need to pay deference to tech companies and tech execs. My perspective is totally different. Yeah, be respectful in a conversation. But I don’t owe any sort of deep respect to someone who just happens to be the SVP in charge of x, because that’s [just] their job. Their job is to understand and mitigate risk. Understanding that, I approach the conversation knowing that if I increase the risk for you, both for your role personally and for the company, then I might get to a different place in the conversation because your motivations are different.
M: It is pretty wild to me how much it boils down to who’s in the room and their personal beliefs and how much undue respect they might give to these enormous companies.
Bridging Individual and Collective Action
M: There’s one thing I have been curious about as an observer not just of you, but of many different kinds of whistleblower experiences in the media, whether that be Frances Haugen or other former tech employees who then go to the press. It feels like this has been happening for many, many years: wrongdoing is exposed, we get these headlines, but then not much changes, or at least that’s my perception. What do you see as being the incentives in place for companies to actually address whistleblower concerns beyond just altering their PR strategy in response to a temporary news cycle?
I: I do think that there have been a number of examples where whistleblowing hasn’t resulted in much. I don’t think it’s the whistleblower’s responsibility to both speak up and then additionally ensure that change results from it. But I do think that there is an over-indexing on some individuals, as heroes or as standalone figures, when everyone who’s speaking up is part of a long history of many other people speaking.
One of the reasons why I pushed the bill in California and why I’m doing the shareholder work now is because I believe in actual consequences. A company like Pinterest that thought they could get away with just PR changes still had to pay almost $100 million out in settlement. As part of a settlement with shareholders from the state of Rhode Island, they still had to release all of their former, current, and future employees from non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements related to harassment and discrimination. Those are the changes that I want to see.
M: You have so much experience working with various folks in different seats of power, whether that’s legislators or shareholders. When you talked about shareholder activism, it seemed like you figured out how to couch it in the language of risk and threats to economic returns. But is there a strategy you have broadly for thinking about how to get your message across to the final decision makers?
I: It’s going to sound simple, but it really is just understanding basic psychology and sociology, in terms of what motivates people. Nothing is more motivating than thinking you could lose your job as a result of handling something poorly. I don’t actually think that many of the people that I’ve worked with in the last two years fundamentally care enough to risk their jobs to do the right thing, but they care about not being blamed for doing the wrong thing. So if you put it in writing, you ensure that they understand that you understand what their relative power is within an organization, that they understand that you understand the risk that they’re in if they don’t do the right thing, and it’s made very public.
A lot of it is really just speaking plainly. I think so many people are afraid of just saying what it is; folks just want to talk around things. We don’t have time! Everything that I do is driven by the urgency that I feel around getting things to change. Progress happens as a result of very deliberate action by individuals who work together as a collective. It’s not something that happens naturally. It’s not gravity. Folks need to understand that, and then decide whether they’re going to actually do something about it or not.
M: In my own academic research, my team interviewed union organizers in the tech industry. We often heard that particularly for white-collar workers, you have relatively high career mobility and high turnover, so if you don’t like your job at Company X, it’s pretty easy to find another fairly lucrative tech job somewhere else. It does also seem in the broader narrative that unionizing in blue-collar work or service work, like Amazon warehouses or Starbucks stores, is outpacing unionization efforts in white-collar workplaces. What kinds of shifts might be required for it to become the norm for disgruntled employees in tech to really fight or agitate internally in the company, or publicly as a whistleblower, instead of just exiting and finding something new? Do you think these shifts are possible, and what’s required for us to get there?
I: They’re definitely possible. But at the root of all of it is the American myth of individual mobility. The thing that keeps people in any industry from not working together with their fellow workers is thinking that they can be the next boss.
People are so focused on being the next winner that they don’t understand that the system is set up for them to be losers for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t matter whether you make a million dollars as a senior software engineer or $100,000 as a junior software engineer or whatever else. You are fundamentally in the same rung as the line cook, as the janitor, as whoever else. You’re either the boss or you’re not. If you’re not the boss, even as a middle manager, you’re still a worker, and they will dispose of you the same as they’ll dispose of everyone else under you.
Either we all work together towards getting our rights, or everyone is in this precarious position where they can be discarded.
M: Was that something that you were always keenly aware of before your first job after graduation? Or was there kind of a pivotal moment in your career where that became extremely clear to you?
I: I have always sort of felt that way, I have understood intimately that you are either the person in charge or you’re not. And even many CEOs are not the person in charge. The current CEO of Amazon is not the person in charge — Jeff Bezos still is.
My politics and knowledge of what I personally have the ability to change has evolved, necessarily, as I’ve gotten more experienced, but I have never really had respect for people just because of their seniority or leadership positions, which has gotten me in trouble. Basically, my whole life, especially as a Black woman, and as a Black girl, in school and in jobs, I’d say, “No, actually, I’m not going to defer to you just because you sense that I should.” You need to help me understand what it is that we’re trying to do, because just saying, “I’m the boss” is not going to work for me. That is something that gets people in trouble, and it has a deterrent effect. No one wants to be the one who’s yelled at in a team meeting. I’ve been in that position because I just wouldn’t let something go. No one wants to be the one who’s pushed out of a role, and I’ve been in that position too. There are so many people who reached out and said that they experienced or knew about everything that I spoke about at Pinterest, and they still had been unwilling to say anything.
Education, Action, and the Future
M: In this issue of Kernel, we’re taking a look at the people, tools, and ideas that are bringing us to a more just and prosperous future. From your perspective, what do you see that is moving us in that direction?
I: A renewed unionization effort in the U.S. is really important. There was a time when workers’ movements were brutally crushed through the murder of activists, union leaders, and union members to repress worker power. That we’re witnessing a labor comeback because of the desperate conditions people are in again, a century later, is both encouraging and depressing, because with every uprising, there’s going to be brutal repression. We’re not there now, but I don’t think we’re too far off from that. This is something to watch out for in any way that we can.
M: Finally, do you have any calls to action for the folks who will be reading this in Kernel magazine?
I: Figure out what your area of expertise or interest is and then do what you can to change or push for change from that position. Not everyone is going to be interested in or capable of moving legislation — you don’t have to be. People can make changes inside their companies, inside their organizations, inside their universities, and they are going to know what that change is most intimately because they are in the position to understand what’s going on. Who knows if in five years you’ll be in a position to even make the kind of change you’re deferring to the future? The key thing is to do something now.
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✍️ Community Response
by Alexa Jakob, electrical engineer and climate activist
“The purity stuff… it’s just not practical to me” is the most impactful line of this piece for me, and shows why an organizing approach based on identifying, gaining, and wielding power is important. Though Ozoma does not explicitly use the term, her approach is similar to power mapping, an organizing strategy that researches key decision makers, maps their connections, and identifies the levers they can be influenced by. By gaining a deep understanding of how systems work, coupled with her willingness to meet with big tech executives, Ozoma is able to deftly wield the levers of power.
As organizers, I sometimes wonder if we let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and I sometimes feel that we shy away from wielding power. For a student activist group, refusing a meeting with a university president may refuse the co-optation of the movement by administration, but it would also leave an opportunity for influence on the table.
This complexity exists all the way up to Congress - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, probably the most prominent left member of Congress, often talks about rejecting this framework. During the summer debate over the bipartisan infrastructure framework, which would have invested in roads and bridges but also in fossil fuel pipelines, she tweeted, “Very often I am told that raising concerns abt provisions that risk harm to communities like mine means I’m “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.” That phrase often becomes a euphemism for “I’m willing to sacrifice your community for mine.” I reject that. We can all win.” And yet, her refusal did not alter the outcome - the bipartisan infrastructure framework passed unchanged.
An inside-outside approach is necessary. We need activists moving the Overton window, doing nonviolent direct action, holding rallies. We also need to be in every room where every decision is made. To work towards justice, one should worry less about keeping a pristine conscience by never making decisions, and instead do the difficult work of grappling with our responsibility to use our power to work towards justice. We won’t get personal absolution for our inevitable mistakes through this work, and we don’t need it. We just have to keep chipping away at systems of oppression.
Thanks for reading! We’d love to hear your own response to this conversation — drop a comment on this post or tag us in our thoughts on Twitter at @kernel_magazine.
We’ll be back tomorrow with a reported piece on Ameelio, a tech nonprofit aiming to topple the prison communications industry.
Pulling the right levers and pushing the right buttons,
Emily & the Reboot team