Is Big Tech Pro-Choice?

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S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. The anticipated end of Roe versus Wade and national protection of abortion rights is forcing many American businesses to take a stand or explain why they won’t. And for tech companies, that’s complicated.

S2: Mostly what you’ve been hearing are certain companies that are willing to assist their employees in getting this type of health care. And that sounds all great on the surface until you think about the fact of like, what is it that I have to tell Amazon about my personal business in order to get them to help facilitate me getting an abortion.

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S1: The tech industry in the future of abortion rights coming up on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a word, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host. Jason Johnson The recent news that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe versus Wade has sent shock waves through much of the country. While those who oppose abortion rights are celebrating, millions who believe in reproductive freedom are angry and many are scared about what the future holds. And just as it has on other social and political issues, big tech could play an outsized role in what happens next on abortion rights. In addition to tech money heavily influencing our government officials, the same companies that use artificial intelligence to predict our buying and viewing habits may have information about who is seeking an abortion and other reproductive health care. To talk with us about that. We’re joined by attorney Bonnie Williams. She analyzes bias in tech and A.I.. She’s also a diversity and equity consultant and CEO of Bandwagon Fan Club Inc, a data and identity analytics tech company focused on sports and entertainment. Barry, welcome to A World.

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S2: Thanks, Jason. Happy to be here.

S1: You’ve written and spoken extensively about how artificial intelligence can be used to discriminate. What are your concerns about how I could be used, like against people who are seeking abortions? What’s the thing we should worry about?

S2: The thing that I would be most cognizant of is AI is used not just from a standpoint of thinking about facial recognition technology or how to figure out if you have a good enough credit score to get a certain percentage on your home loans. But when you think about how all of those things can be combined, that is the Minority Report issue, Black Mirror, all of that of the day. So they’re going to use air to discern, you know, is this really an issue around is it the health of the mother? The health of the mother typically is going to deal with physical effects, like if you’re going to bleed out during childbirth, if you’re going to hemorrhage, that has absolutely nothing to do with the mental health of the mother. But I can guarantee you that some dude coding right now in his basement is not thinking about that at all. And he’s probably going to be the person that is discerning what the algorithm should be looking for.

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S1: One of the things that I’ve learned in sort of paying even more attention to this issue is the idea that demographically I could be targeting certain kinds of people. For example, the largest seekers of abortion may vary state by state. In the state of Texas, its Hispanic population is the largest population seeking abortions and other places. The largest population doesn’t break down by race. It’s women between the ages of 20 and 29, which might speak to sort of financial instability. So is it possible that I could sort of create this image of this is what a woman in Michigan who likely to get an abortion would do and lead to sort of a minority report like Precrime, like cops showing up at your house saying, hey, if you’re thinking about this, don’t do it.

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S2: I mean, it totally could. But the problem is, when you look at the demographics, if you look state by state, particularly in the states that are seeking to restrict this, the majority of the population of people who are having those procedures done are women of color, and they’re younger women of color and typically already mothers. And so if someone who was going to be writing an algorithm for this type of procedure or to discern who should or shouldn’t have it or who will or won’t have it, they’re going to look at those factors.

S1: What’s the information about us that may already be captured by AI companies that can be used to identify who’s already had an abortion or like even who believes in abortion rights? Are there any particular kinds of apps that we should worry about?

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S2: Yeah, there are certainly things that you should be mindful of. So I always tell people, I even remind my own kid who’s old enough to be on the Internet. Now that the Internet is written in ink, it is not written in pencil. So whatever you put out there is there. You thought you deleted it. Somebody had the screenshot. But more than that, these companies have screenshots on steroids. So there was just a case that came out, I believe, at the end of last month where data scraping is totally legal and companies can do it. So that means any footprint trail that you’ve left on the Internet and it’s free, it’s up for grabs, doesn’t require password. It doesn’t require anything else. If you put it there, they can use it. And so if you have talked about being an abortion rights advocate, if you’ve talked about having one, if you’ve talked about your race or ethnicity, if you talked about your education level, all of that is fair game. So those are things that companies can then take and find a way to like figure out what to do with their algorithms based off of the demographic that it is that they’re choosing to target. That’s something else that people don’t necessarily think about a lot but is accurate is these algorithms are not agnostic. They are not racially agnostic. They’re not socioeconomically agnostic. There’s somebody being. Targeted. And that’s why they’re written the way that they’re written and used the way that they’re used. You’re leaving a breadcrumb trail. Every time you tweet, every time you post something. And if maybe you have the little globe set so it’s public on Facebook that they could use that. Any time that you shopped somewhere, you’ve clicked on an ad. All of that stuff is fair game. All of it. So if you talk about these things publicly, that information is up for grabs. They will use it. They will, you know, cultivate it, do whatever they want with it, and you’ll just have to deal.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. And we come back more on the tech industry and abortion rights. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson, host of a Word Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else. I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and liked what you hear, please subscribe, rate and review wherever you listen to podcasts and let us know what you think by writing us. And a word at Slate.com. Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking about Roe versus Wade and the tech industry with attorney and A.I. expert Barry Williams. So especially since the so-called racial reckoning. Right. You have these big companies that have been under pressure to take a stand on important social issues. And sometimes they do. Sometimes they throw money at the problem. Sometimes they actually change their internal policy in the wake of this leak that Roe versus Wade will be overturned at some point this year by the Supreme Court. What have we heard from big tech companies? What have we heard from Twitter or from Tik-Tok? Have we heard anything?

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S2: Yes, we have heard some things. Mostly what you’ve been hearing are certain companies that are willing to assist their employees in getting this type of health care. And that sounds all great on the surface until you think about the fact of like, what is it that I have to tell Amazon about my personal business in order to get them to help facilitate me getting an abortion? Probably a lot more that I want to talk to my manager about other than how’s the weather? Thinking of it from that standpoint too is like now I have to give more personal, detailed health care information to my employer, which that opens a whole other can of worms in terms of what do they do with that information, how are they storing that information and how can that information be used against you at a later date? You know, and the policies around it haven’t been, I’m sure, probably not fully scoped out. But if they have been, it’s not something that we’re privy to yet, because it makes me the first thing I think about is a lot of these companies also offer educational benefits. So if I stay and get an advanced degree while I’m working at this company, in order for the company to pay for it, I have to agree to stay there an additional two years after I get my degree. Like, are you doing that with, like facilitating people getting abortions? I don’t know. Does that mean that they have to stay an additional six months because you helped them go out of state to to facilitate this? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t want my personal my employer having that much insight into my personal life.

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S1: And I’m curious, Barak, because this is the other thing that gets me. What about the money? Right. When we look at what’s happening with Disney and Disney after internal pressure, because they were going to do it on their own after internal pressure at the company, the LGBTQ community, allies, friends, family, people who just care about America. We’re like, Yo, we work here. You need to do something about it. And Disney said, We’re no longer giving money to any Republican candidates in the state of Florida or any of these major tech or social media companies saying, I am snatching back money from these Republican governors. I am snatching back money from these senators. I’m taking money back from Mitch McConnell. Because to me, if you ain’t trying to take the money out of these folks pockets, you’re really not doing anything.

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S2: No, you’re not. And I would say, I think, honestly, a lot of corporate activism that you saw during the, quote unquote, racial reckoning where the Voting Rights Act came out of that, where’s the police reform that came out of that? Nowhere instead was a bunch of companies two years ago who said, oh, we’re really going to give some money to black people. Like, what does that mean? And also, two years later, can you show us some receipts of when you did that? Can’t. Okay. Don’t pay lip service to what it is you’re doing. And I think after what DeSantis did with Disney, that scared people. And so what I think is so interesting about that, and which is completely contradictory and hypocrisy is we’ve already had a Supreme Court ruling where corporations are people. And so they can make political statements, they can contribute however they like to until you, you know, journey down to Florida and Disney says as much. And then DeSantis is like, oh, okay, cool. That’s how you feel. Boom. Now you don’t have your tax breaks. How about that? I think because companies have seen that what they’re willing to do now is we will find a way to help facilitate you getting this type of health care and we will pay for it. We’re not going to make a public statement or say that we’re not going to donate to someone or, you know, completely leave the state and not do business in that state. We’re just going to help you go somewhere else and get that done. But we’re not giving up our tax breaks for you.

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S1: One of the things that you talk about and you focus on is, you know, diversity in tech or the lack of diversity in tech, and that a lot of these companies are very top heavy with men. And there’s not a lot of women there’s not a lot of women in positions of authority, is not a lot of women in the room, regardless of what the Lean In stereotypes happen to be. Are there even enough voices within a lot of these tech companies to even push for what you’re suggesting? Because what you’re saying is, well, the companies like I look, I’m not going to say anything about the Supreme Court, but I’ll throw you a check if you want to get an abortion in another state. Do you think there are enough women and enough positions of authority in Silicon Valley to even push back and say, either one, we have to do more? Or to the idea of shuffling our employees from state to state in order for them to practice something that had been a rite for all of our lives. Probably the best long term solution.

S2: There are not enough women in positions of power to fight back on this. I mean, the person who would have the most influence in any of this would be Sheryl Sandberg. She, you know, lean in. I mean, that’s the whole crux of your argument is lean in. Well, we can’t lean in if I can’t have certain rights or their rights that are dictated by people who wouldn’t ever even understand or imagine being in my predicament. So I think that that by itself is the first thing is you’re not going to have enough women to kind of move the needle on that. And I think that what that then begs the question is, so where are the men in this? Right, because these women are having sex, getting pregnant on their own for as much as people pay lip service to the idea of allyship, this is where the rubber meets the road. Like, where are those white, powerful men who could completely turn the tide of this if they choose to do so? If you’d say, Hey, you know what? I’m leaving Texas. Hey, you know what? I’m going to leave Alabama. I’m going to leave Mississippi. I’m going to leave Tennessee, because now you’re starting to also see an erosion of. Now they want to get rid of access to certain types of birth control. Like it’s not just abortions. Like, okay. Well, we also want to make sure that you can’t even prevent pregnancy with your own body. You will have to be reliant upon a man to use some type of protection, like, let’s just get rid of all your agency. How about that? And so, yeah, moving out of the state. Sure. That that may be beneficial for some women who have the means in order to do so. But what about for everyone else that you leave behind? Like, if those people don’t work at Amazon, you’re not paying for them to go out of state. So then what? Like, this isn’t just about the protection of your employees, but this also is about the protection of people who actually patronize your business. And if these companies would actually take a more realistic and holistic glance at this, they would understand that this is not just about, oh, well, my employees live in Texas, so we’ll throw you a bone to help get you to, you know, Washington for a weekend. No. What about everybody else who buys your products that lives in Texas and is stuck there and can’t get out? It’s a bigger picture. And if you think about it, even just from a strictly revenue perspective, if you’re that greedy and don’t care about actual rights, if people are having more kids because the government is forcing them to, they’re going to have less money to spend on your products.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more with Barry Williams about the tech industry and the future of abortion rights. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking about big tech’s response to the anticipated fall of Roe versus Wade. We’re talking with tech analyst and corporate responsibility consultant Barney Williams. There is this persistent myth that big tech companies are progressive by default. Right. But they’re not necessarily progressive. They might be perceived as libertarian. And increasingly, when we hear about Elon Musk and Peter Thiel and some of these other folks, a lot of these guys are borderline right wing or at least alt right friendly. How would you characterize the current leadership across sort of Silicon Valley? Are these guys still in the sort of geeky libertarian space or are they moving harder to the right? And what could that mean as far as what these companies do in the face of over the next couple of months?

S2: Yeah, I would say they probably occupy the space in between the space between libertarian to right wing. And I would say that they’re probably trending, right. Even just, you know, you could look at the to be the perfect example of that is akin to like Bill Maher. Right. Like when he was on Politically Incorrect, that was a completely different version of the person that you’re getting on real time right now. And I feel like that’s pretty much the space in which most of these tech pros live in is very live and let live. But also, you could just kind of live if that means I don’t have to pay more taxes knowing that live for people who are not going to cost me tax money in order for you to live. So I would say that that is where you see things trending. Right. And it’s very interesting because it’s a a big kind of potent mix of, you know, socially liberal to an extent, but fiscally conservative. But you also cannot deny the fact that they are able to decide that if push comes to shove, if I have to vote on one issue, their issue is going to be their finances because, you know, you’re not actually impacted by the social implications of these things. You don’t have a uterus. You have a ton of money. So if you choose to even live somewhere else to get away from things you don’t like, you could do that with ease. Do you have the luxury to not be invested in these these certain causes because they don’t affect you? And if they don’t personally affect you, if like doesn’t even exist, it’s like the tree falls in the forest. So that’s kind of their general attitude.

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S1: Is there anything that the public can do? Is there something we could do to pressure Google? Is there something regular people can do to pressure Facebook? Is there something regular people can do to affect, you know, Twitter or Tumblr or Instagram or we basically just at the whim of if and when our tech overlords decide that they care about, you know, the imposition of of a new theocracy.

S2: The best place that you could fight is with your your pocketbook. Or I would say for some of them, based off of the ones that you named, it would be engagement you’ve already seen over the last, say, the last week. You’ve seen a ton of these tech stocks like take a tumble in terms of value. So if we continue to not engage on these platforms, that’s less ad dollars for you, that’s less revenue. That means that your stock is going to continue to plummet until you do something. But I think it is imperative for people to really think about what is the best way to effect change like that. When I’ve had to deal with consulting with tech companies or even working inside of one is to always make it clear if you don’t care about anything else, you care about your revenue, you care about what that stock price is looking like, or if you’re not public yet, you care very deeply about what investors think of you in order to discern if you’re ready for an IPO. And if you don’t have any of those things, you don’t have anything. And that’s something that a lot of social networks are dealing with now, particularly Facebook is, you know, what are you doing in terms of engagement? And if you’re going to continue to lose people off of the platform or if they stay on the platform, just never delete their account, but they’re not on there. So you have to think about that. And I understand that everyone’s like, Oh, Metaverse is next. Metaverse is next, is it? That’s number one. But two, like, what are you going to be able to do in the metaverse? Like, if this is supposed to be the next big thing, shouldn’t you be using that as a bully pulpit in order to fight for the rights that pertain to not just your employees, but the engine that drives your company, which are your actual users and customers? So for me, it’s if you’re not actively thinking about that, you’re doing it wrong.

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S1: What would you say to somebody right now? There’s somebody who is listening to this podcast and they’re like, All right, look, what could I be doing right now as far as changing my social media use or consumption habits to make me less likely to be targeted by a new sort of anti-abortion regime? Let’s say we don’t even have to stereotype. We’re not even talking about Mississippi. Right? We’re not talking about Alabama. Let’s say I’m in Georgia. Let’s say I’m in Florida. You know, should I not be tweeting about a. Caution because that would make me a higher target. Should I be going back in a racing old Facebook post? What are some social media habit changes that people can be engaging in right now in anticipation of a changing law?

S2: Yeah, I would say it’s again, to go back to what I said previously and to think about it from a standpoint of the Internet is written in pen, not pencil. So if you put it out there, it’s fair game. People should just be more cognizant of what they put out there generally. And I say this as somebody who tweets incessantly and a lot of stuff, just like my mom would be like, Why are you doing this? But, you know, I also don’t fear things as much. But also that’s probably because I live in California. So I think that people need to be aware of anything that you put out there. If you’re social media, if it’s not lockdown, people are going to find it. People will do with that what they will. So make sure that you’re saying something that you would be fine, seeing as a headline in The New York Times. And if you are, then go ahead and present. And if you’re not, maybe just put it in your group text.

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S1: Attorney Barry Williams is an expert on diversity in tech and A.I.. She’s also the CEO of Bandwagon Fan Club Inc, a data and identity analytics tech company focused on sports and entertainment. Thank you very much, Barry Williams.

S2: Thank you.

S1: And that’s the word for this week. The show’s e-mail is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Jasmine Ellis. Alicia montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for Word.