Big Tech’s Role in Policing the Protests

And again, this has been going on for years; I remember covering this in 2017. And Jeff Bezos and Andy Jassy, these higher-up Amazon executives, spoke in favor of Rekognition. They said it would make people safer, and they defended it. It’s really unsettling to now see them tweeting in favor of Black Lives Matter, in favor of the protesters, when they have in the past defended the very tools which have been criticized for potentially increasing the inequality and increasing some of the issues or frustrations that people are protesting against right now.

A big part of this has been the relationship between big tech and police, and the other part of this, which is where we get into talking more about Facebook and Reddit, is this issue of free speech versus policing white supremacy. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman was tweeting in support of Black Lives Matter when the former CEO, Ellen K. Pao, said, “You don’t get to save Black Lives Matter when Reddit nurtures and monetizes white supremacy and hate all day long.” It was the biggest, most shocking call-out I’d seen as I was writing the article.

And one of the things Ellen Pao says is that Reddit did not do enough to stop white supremacy. Reddit allowed people on places like r/The_Donald to come together and say these racist, problematic things, and so now are you saying that you support Black Lives Matter, when before you weren’t doing enough to stop some of the racist speech? All of that brings us to what is happening right now with Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg has said that while he vehemently disagrees with President Trump’s comments about, when the looting starts the shooting starts, he says, “I disagree with him.” He declined to remove that message when it was cross-posted from Twitter to Facebook.

That exact same message was unacceptable on Twitter, but it is acceptable on Facebook? Zuckerberg has pushed back against the backlash he’s receiving. He’s saying, “Yes, I can support Black Lives Matter and, yes, I can say that, while this is objectionable, I’m going to keep it on this site.” And that’s caused a lot of pushback within Facebook; a lot of employees staged what they called a virtual walkout. Right now a lot of Facebook employees are remote, but they still took the time to log off and protest.

Mark Zuckerberg and Cheryl Sandberg met with a lot of different civil rights organizations who specifically voiced their concerns about Zuckerberg’s decision to leave that message up—that there’s a clear connection between the violence we’re seeing right now and this call to arms to stop looters using gun violence. And they basically said that if you can’t see the connection between these two things, you’re absolutely not in support of black lives. Although Facebook has offered, I believe it was $10 million to different racial justice organizations. At the same time, Zuckerberg is defending his decision not to remove that message.

LG: It sounds like what you’re saying, Sidney, is there’s hypocrisy at multiple levels. Tech companies are putting out statements of solidarity while they’re either deploying tools that are used by law enforcement, or they’re just allowing divisive or outright racist content to live on their platforms. I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit more, if we know at this point, what kind of tech is currently being deployed on the ground during demonstrations and protests to potentially track protesters? What do we know about that?

SF: One specific technology that I’m especially interested in right now, and hopefully for a future story, is called Project Greenlight. This is a system of cameras in Detroit, Michigan. And what’s so fascinating about Project Greenlight is that you have these CCTV cameras that were furnished by the city, but then businesses could also register their own cameras to the same database, so that with police officers, if there’s some type of a crime or some issue, police officers can very easily see, “OK, here’s the cameras that we have either that are ours or that were registered from business owners or homeowners or whatever, we can see exactly where the cameras are, where they’re pointing.” And so they have all these different eyes. It’s a public-private partnership that combines all these different real-time CCTV cameras.

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