Dems put spotlight on diversity in tech

Dems put spotlight on diversity in tech
© Greg Nash

Democrats are planning to turn up the spotlight on issues involving race and Silicon Valley.

A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Wednesday will hold a hearing about diversity in the tech industry, giving Democrats a forum to air their broader concerns about the role companies can play in perpetuating racial and even gender discrimination.


Lawmakers have expressed concerns about the lack of diversity at tech companies, the use of facial recognition technology, discriminatory ads, the lack of rules for handling sensitive race data and how biased algorithms can lead to discrimination.

“Tools like algorithms are being used to make decisions, like who gets a job or a loan, that deeply affect people’s lives,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneHouse Democrats urge Amazon to investigate, recall 'defective' products Asbestos ban stalls in Congress amid partisan fight Pharma execs say FDA will not lower standards for coronavirus vaccine MORE (D-N.J.) and Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee Chairwoman Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyFeinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight Pelosi, Mnuchin continue COVID-19 talks amid dwindling odds for deal Pocan won't seek another term as Progressive Caucus co-chair MORE (D-Ill.), who is chairing the hearing, said in a joint statement.

“Yet designers of these technologies often don’t take into consideration the full diversity of America,” they said. “As a result, their products often have biased results that lead to discriminatory outcomes.”

It’s only the latest front on which lawmakers are vowing to take a closer look at Silicon Valley’s practices.,

While it is the first hearing on these issues since House Democrats took the majority, lawmakers have been grappling with issues around technology and discrimination for years.

Recently, Democrats demanded answers from Amazon over its contracts to provide law enforcement agencies with facial recognition technology. Lawmakers noted that Amazon’s Rekognition technology has misidentified people of color and, during one test, wrongly identified members of Congress as criminals.

Pallone in a memo to the committee this week raised concerns that algorithms — the guidelines computers use to perform certain tasks — can “perpetuate historic bias.”

Progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezModerate Democrats: Everyone's older siblings Ocasio-Cortez raises 0K to fight food and housing insecurity during video game battle Club for Growth to launch ad blitz in Georgia to juice GOP turnout MORE (D-N.Y.) at an event last month also highlighted concerns about bias in algorithms and tech products, saying “if you don’t fix the bias, then you are just automating the bias.”

One of the witnesses at the hearing intends to discuss how facial recognition technology has been shown to misidentify women of color at higher rates than white men. 

“Now companies such as Microsoft and Amazon have begun engaging government entities on the sale of such products,” Jiny Kim, vice president of policy and programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, will say, according to her written testimony. “The most alarming practice by technology companies is commercializing products that have clear algorithmic bias.”

The focus on race and tech also comes as lawmakers begin the work of writing a federal data privacy bill that would give users more control over their data. There is growing pressure to address some issues of bias through the privacy bill.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC was one of more than 40 advocacy groups that recently signed onto a letter urging Congress to prioritize civil rights in the privacy bill debate.

“As a civil rights organization ... our perspective on the digital world is that the bias and the hate that we’re fighting in real life is living in the digital space, if not in a more magnified way,” K.J. Bagchi, the organization’s senior staff attorney for telecom, tech and media, told The Hill.

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has long led Democrats on the issue of diversity in tech, launching four years ago the Tech 2020 Initiative urging tech companies to hire more people of color. CBC lawmakers during a 2017 trip to Silicon Valley pressed Twitter, Apple and other tech leaders to also bring more African-Americans into executive positions.

After Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg met with the CBC that year, the company hired its first black board member, former American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault. The Internet Association, a tech industry group representing more than 40 companies including Amazon, Google and Facebook, at CBC’s urging also hired a director of diversity and inclusion last year.

For many critics, improving diversity in the industry workplace is the first step to insuring tech products don’t further discrimination.

Former Facebook manager Mark Luckie, who last year slammed the company for its treatment of black employees, is slated to testify about the effect a “homogenous” workforce can have on tech products.

“In my time inside of tech companies, I’ve seen firsthand the issues around diversity that continue to plague the industry,” Luckie, who has also worked as a manager at Twitter, says in his written testimony. “Underrepresented groups find themselves shut out of the development of products they use every day.”

Other witnesses at the hearing will discuss cases in which online advertisers offered worse deals to minorities based on where they lived.

Democrats have already offered some legislation to address the issues that will be raised at Wednesday’s hearing.

Sen. Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoHispanic leaders coalesce in support of Lujan Grisham as HHS secretary Favorites emerge as Latino leaders press Biden to appoint 5 Hispanics to Cabinet Senate Democrats reelect Schumer as leader by acclamation  MORE (D-Nev.) last week introduced legislation that would prohibit companies from using data collected on users to discriminate based on race, religion, political affiliation or gender. Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeBiden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Top contender for Biden Defense chief would be historic pick MORE (D-Calif.) on Tuesday reintroduced legislation to help increase diversity in the tech industry and expand opportunities for engineering and tech education.

“One of the things that we’re starting to see in the wake of Cambridge Analytica is that there’s a need for an overall cultural shift in these tech companies,” Bagchi, from Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, told The Hill.

He praised Congress for looking at the issue “from multiple angles.”

“The way we collect data is one issue, but now they’re also looking at the products that are created [and asking], ‘Who are the folks in these companies that are creating these programs in the first place?’ ” Bagchi added.