Shareholder activists demand reforms from Amazon, Google, and Facebook

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Investors and activists are presenting Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter with a list of shareholder resolutions this week that call for investigations into alleged racial bias in Amazon’s facial recognition software and other surveillance products, stronger safeguards against the spread of disinformation on Facebook, and the establishment of stronger worker and human rights protections at all four companies.

Shareholder advocates and activist allies held a press conference on Monday detailing several resolutions being presented this week and next to the boards of Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. While the advocates didn’t expect the resolutions to pass — some of the company boards have reportedly already advised shareholders to vote against them — an Alphabet union representative said her union might organize walkouts if Alphabet doesn’t adopt the worker protection and civil and human rights reforms being presented to its board next month.

Shareholder advocates like Natasha Lamb of Arjuna Capital and Mary Beth Gallagher of Investor Advocates for Social Justice stressed that the various resolutions were being presented to company boards not just as socially responsible actions but also as reforms with fiduciary benefits, such as better protecting investors from possible liabilities and loss of business resulting from inaction on these issues.

Advocates were pessimistic about all or even any of the resolutions passing. Similar proposals to these companies had failed in the past, they said, but it was still worthwhile to present them to the boards as a way to determine shareholder sentiment. Jonas Kron of Trillium Asset Management noted, for example, that Mark Zuckerberg controls more than 60% of Facebook’s shareholder vote, so it should be possible to determine from SEC filings how the other 40% of investors voted on the Facebook resolutions.

Targeting disinformation and misuse of facial recognition

Shareholders are pressing the Facebook board to better curtail the spread of disinformation on its platform, while a pair of resolutions for Amazon ask for assurances that the company’s Rekognition facial recognition software and other products do not violate privacy, civil, or human rights.

Facebook and other social media platforms came under heightened scrutiny in the United States during the 2016 presidential election campaign as observers grew concerned that the spread of false information about the candidates threatened to undermine election integrity. Shareholder advocates claim “the Facebook brand has been diminished in recent years due to the platform’s use as a tool for gross disinformation, hate speech, and to incite racial violence.”

During Wednesday’s annual shareholder meeting, these advocates proposed a study “investigating whether Facebook should take extraordinary measures ‘to reduce the platform’s amplification of false and divisive information.’”

Amazon’s Rekognition software has come under fire from human rights advocates and Amazon investors who claim the technology disproportionately misidentifies women and people with dark skin, making them more vulnerable to law enforcement abuse. Harrington Investments, an Amazon investor, wants Amazon’s board to commission an independent study to determine “the extent to which this facial recognition technology threatens or violates the privacy or civil rights of people all around the world.”

“Face surveillance dramatically expands law enforcement’s power and threatens rights including privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and due process for everyone. But the threats are greatest for Black and Brown communities, Muslim communities, immigrant communities, Indigenous communities, and other people historically and currently marginalized and targeted by policing,” Michael Connor, executive director of Open MIC, a nonprofit advocating for Harrington, said in a statement.

He cited a 2019 MIT Media Lab study that “found that Amazon’s system, Rekognition, had much more difficulty in telling the gender of female faces and of darker-skinned faces in photos than similar services from IBM and Microsoft.”

Amazon announced last June that it had stopped selling Rekognition to law enforcement customers. Earlier this month, the company said it was extending that moratorium for an indefinite amount of time.

Alphabet could face worker strike, other union protests

Alphabet workers could strike if the tech giant doesn’t adopt the worker protection and civil and human rights reforms being presented to the company’s board at its June 2 shareholder meeting. The Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) is prepared to do “anything and everything in our power as a collective of workers” to protest a failure to enact those resolutions, union representative Raksha Muthukumar said on Monday.

The Alphabet shareholder resolutions include new protections for whistleblowers, a call to nominate an independent board member with human rights and civil rights experience, and a demand to disclose all Alphabet censorship actions performed at the request of governments.

“[Actions] could include walkouts, petitions, and speaking publicly about our issues,” Muthukumar said, answering a VentureBeat question about possible union responses to the board declining to take up the reforms.

The Alphabet Workers Union comprises more than 800 full-time employees, temporary employees, vendors, and contractors working for Google, YouTube, and other Alphabet subsidiaries. It was formed in January as a minority union that lacks the power to force collective bargaining for compensation. AWU members are members of the 700,000-member strong Communications Workers of America’s CWA Local 1600 chapter.

While it is a new union with limited power, Muthukumar said the AWU had already secured some victories in the Alphabet workplace.

“We’ve provided legal services to employees who have faced retaliation [for speaking out] so they don’t have to take on a billion-dollar corporation on their own,” she said. “Some of our recent campaigns include getting Google to post around our datacenter offices what employee rights are, so employees are better informed and able to organize and exercise freedom of speech in discussing pay and other issues.”

Unionizing in big tech moves forward in fits and starts

Labor organizing at big tech companies is a fairly new phenomenon, and so far, it’s produced mixed results. An effort by Amazon workers last month to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama failed, despite national attention and encouragement from President Joe Biden. That election result has been challenged by union organizers.

Last year, gig employers like Uber and Lyft successfully backed legislation in California that lets them circumvent labor laws for contractors. But this week, Uber officially recognized GMB, a drivers union in the United Kingdom, possibly paving the way for collective bargaining by drivers with the rideshare giant.

Union activity in the tech sector shows promising signs, but without major reforms to labor law, organizers will continue to face difficult, uphill battles to form strong unions, said Erik Loomis, an associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island and author of A History of America in Ten Strikes.

“It’s an objective fact that union membership in the U.S. has been declining for decades. But at the same time, we see high support in polling for unions and a whole bunch of grassroots organizing that’s taking place with things like journalist unions, graduate student unions, and even the move towards more labor-friendly policy by the Democratic Party,” he told VentureBeat.

“But the biggest problem is that, while there is reason for hope, there’s also this giant barrier that is our non-functioning labor law. As it stands, companies can engage in enormous levels of worker intimidation when workers try to organize. They can pretty easily cause unions to lose elections, and even when the unions win, companies can delay [union certification] so as to force another election, with different workers voting.”

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