June 13, 2022

Joe Miller: Let's Talk About 'Tech Transparency

I decided to do a solo episode this week because I think it’s really sort of super important to highlight bias in the public policy profession – because it is a profession. Because over the last 17 years that I have been working on tech and media...

I decided to do a solo episode this week because I think it’s really sort of super important to highlight bias in the public policy profession – because it is a profession. Because over the last 17 years that I have been working on tech and media public policymaking, majority-white organizations have always seemed to think it’s totally fine to attack organizations founded and led by people of color, orgs like this one, to pursue their status ambitions. So, let’s be transparent, shall we?

Just to give you some background – when I started working in this space – there was one organization in Washington – the Multicultural Media & Telecom Council (MMTC) – that focused specifically on telecommunications and media policymaking as they relate to underserved and underrepresented communities. This is where I cut my teeth as a young lawyer, in the ONLY fellowship in town for somebody like me who went to law school at night.  Their members are, and continue to be, some of the finest minds in the business – folks like Ari Fitzgerald, a partner at Hogan Lovells who was on the show last week. 

These are lawyers of color primarily, who are at the top of this craft.

And let me interject something here – this isn’t Oakland. We are not Color of Change. 

This is DC, it’s a political town, it’s buttoned-up, and comparing orgs of color in this town to orgs like Color of Change – is really just not a relevant comparison. A better comparison would be to an organization like NAACP or the National Urban League – both of which have local chapters but they’re based in DC.

Donations come from 2 primary categories here in DC – corporations and foundations – that’s it. If you’ve been around a long time – like the NAACP, NUL, or AARP – you have members. You can raise money from them, in addition to seeking other forms of support. That is the way this market works. 

Back around 2011 and 2012 it was organizations like Public Knowledge and Free Press calling out MMTC for accepting donations from Comcast. Again, one of the worst companies in the world for customer service. But they are internet service providers. It didn’t matter if larger, huge nonprofits worked with these same companies – all that mattered was that Free Press and Public Knowledge needed someone to pick on when they were advocating for net neutrality. MMTC opposed net neutrality, which didn’t make sense to me, which is why I started this organization when I was laid off from the Joint Center, where I co-led an institute along with Nicol Turner-Lee, which was also focused on telecommunications and media policy at the intersection of communities of color.

So-called progressives with super-deep pockets didn’t like orgs like MMTC because they were the only game in town – they had too much credibility – and they opposed net neutrality ( for reasons, by the way, I continue to be baffled by – but, in any case, they opposed it). So orgs like Public Knowledge and Free Press called them out – and I called out Public Knowledge and Free Press for having ZERO people of color working there but somehow having the audacity to try to drag MMTC. 

And as a result of my advocacy – at least I like to think it was – since no one else was pushing back – Public Knowledge is led by the great Chris Lewis and Free Press, by Jessica Gonazlez, who serves co-president along with Craig Aaron. 

These orgs now actively recruit diverse talent – they have changed drastically – and I’m proud of them. Jessica, Craig and Chris are my colleagues – just like you have colleagues in any profession – they fixed their model and stopped attacking MMTC. We’ll see what happens when and if the net neutrality debate starts up again. But, for now, we’re good. Joe Torres is at Free Press who wrote the book on diversity in the news profession. 

SO LET’S forward to 2016. In 2016, when this organization – WashingTech – was still an LLC, for profit, Chanelle Hardy, someone I’ve known since I first moved to DC in 2005 – who had worked at the National Urban League, on the Hill, and the FCC – joined Google. And, again, as a result of my advocacy, since I was vocal about it, as I am now – one of our taglines then and now – is the Inclusive Voice of Tech Policy, since nobody else cared about that until George Floyd. In 2016, Google started a cohort of folks called Next Gen Policy Leaders – the only PROGRAM IN TOWN AT THE TIME – to engage and involve people of color in tech policy. I continue to participate in the program because it is educational, offers great networking, and, again, continues to fill a need that everyone else just woke up to a couple years ago: the lack of diversity on panels, at networking events, on faculties, you name it, related to tech policy issues. 

Google was a first mover, while the rest of these tech companies, and nonprofits, were asleep. 

So, whose fault is that? Whose fault is it that they’ve built loyalty by investing in us.

Now, fast forward to today – here comes another organization – the so-called ‘Tech Transparency Project,’ which, again, isn’t a racially and ethnically diverse organization, attacking Google Next Gen in a mediocre paper suggesting that Google had bought out people of color so they wouldn’t speak out about Timnit Gebru’s firing – again Dr. Gebru is an engineer whom Google fired for speaking up about bias in one of Google’s algorithms. 

First, I OPPOSED her firing, and vocally, on a listserv read by many Next Gens and other people of color in this space. I blasted Google for it. I was livid. I was so vocal, no one else in the Next Gen cohort needed to be – which is always the case in this town – and let me tell you something, we get PENNIES compared to some of these larger organizations.

Do you know what Google donated to us last year? $35,000. The rest of our funding came from Foundation support. But let’s take a look at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), which published their annual report  last week. Let’s see what Google donated to CDT. And CDT is a partner of ours. I’m on their advisory council. Many of their fine scholars have been on this show. But let’s take a look – How much did Google donate to CDT in 2021? Wait for it! Over $500,000. Two other donors gave that much – the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Knight Foundation.

Now, let’s use CDT’s search feature on its website to see how much work they’ve done on  “Timnit Gebru.” How many times did CDT so much as mention Dr. Gebru’s name, much less call out Google for firing her?  ZERO. How many times has the Tech Transparency Project called out CDT for failing to discuss Timnit Gebru? ZERO. 

So come on, let’s talk about ‘Tech Transparency,’ everybody. I guarantee I’ve made more sacrifices in the cause of inclusion and so-called “transparency” in this space than most of Washington. Let’s talk about it.