Tech employees can make up for executives

Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey — representing Facebook and Twitter, respectively — recently testified before Congress, this time evading questions about bias on their platforms. We frequently turn to tech executives to answer for such issues because they have the agency to make changes. But they are not alone.

Overlooked are the tech employees — the 10,000 or so at Facebook — that build the platforms executives defend. Tech’s reach makes employees’ agency clear. Consider the two billion active Facebook users — 200,000 per employee. The average U.S. Congressperson serves only three times as many people.

Not only does the reach of employees suggest influence, so do their actions. In the fall of 2017, Mark Zuckerberg said it was “a pretty crazy idea” that fake news on Facebook had an effect on the 2016 general election. Despite widespread public condemnation, Zuckerberg held firm to his position. Through internal complaints, employees led Zuckerberg to change course: the news feed algorithm switched from favoring inflammatory stories — clickbait — to focusing on friends.

The editor of Wired, in his analysis, noted “the place you can put the most pressure on executives comes from the engineers.” So too was it through internal lobbying, prospective employees refusing job offers and protest resignations that Google dropped a contract to help Department of Defense drones better recognize targets.

As a recent instructor on ethics to computer scientists at the University of Washington and a former employee of Microsoft, I know that sometimes what tech employees need is a push. They need a push to realize they are uniquely positioned to act against malfeasance. They need a push that says your bosses hide behind platitudes and your government is checked out, but you can do something.

Still, my students and peers see themselves as limited to only the confines of the tasks given them — as lacking discretion. In class, when faced with a problem without a tangible, let alone code-able, solution, my students moved on. In effect, they said values in the light of profit have no more hope than does a sandcastle in a tide-flat.

Given the dearth of tech talent, tech employees have more agency than they might project.

They too quickly forget the privilege of tech. According to Glassdoor, the average Facebook engineer earns $130,000 a year. Techies are gentrifying neighborhoods in San Francisco, Seattle and Austin. Their products shape our increasingly digital lives. Concerns about employee replaceability are overblown. Given the dearth of tech talent, tech employees have more agency than they might project.

As articles call for regulation from Congress and responsibility from Zuckerberg, they suggest only those well-known have ethical agency. Rarely do we think of employees as we think of executives — as potential agents of change. Just as we recognize the influence of constituents over those whom they elect, we should recognize the sway of tech employees over the devices that begin our days and mediate our lives.

An employee does not singularly have the agency to shape the course of Facebook as does Zuckerberg, but she is not limited to the tasks she is assigned. Her influence extends beyond the code that she writes to the internal memos assailing Zuckerberg for his position on fake news. Her influence extends to the product decisions she makes, like whether to include screen-reader support when designing a website, even if it takes more time.

My students cried foul at suggestions that they make software systems accountable. “There’s no algorithm to solve it!” Students pushed back against the notion that they could consider values tangential to the design of a system. “Not if it reduces ad revenue!” They lay such considerations at the feet of designers, researchers, management and somebody else. “It’s not my job” not only evades responsibility, but also ignores that the most prominent computing society has a code of ethics.

It is through both discretionary opportunities and collaborative action that tech employees — or any worker — can advocate for a system that prioritizes more than profits. This requires appeals to colleagues, conversations with squirms and averted eyes and a rebuke of the abstractions that wash away ethical quandaries.

As we call to make algorithms accountable and executives — Dorsey, Sandberg, Zuckerberg — responsible, we should remember the people who allow those two to exist. I do not suggest a cessation of efforts to regulate free expression, or any other value. Absent regulation, absent executive responsibility, consider the people behind the product. Phone your friend at Facebook or Google. They need the push.