US tech whistleblower helping others speak out

Being a whistleblower comes down to careful preparation but also an eye trained for dirty tricks, said Ifeoma Ozoma, an ex-employee of several Silicon Valley giants turned revealer of tech world wrongdoing.

“I planned it like a program or product launch. Obviously the experience is something very personal, but I approached it like work,” she told AFP.

While Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has become a figurehead for the fight against social media’s faults, there are others in the tech world, like Ozoma, who have also taken big risks to stand up.

An African-American, former policymaker relations specialist for Google, Pinterest and Facebook, she continues to work for ethics in tech, but from the outside, via her consulting firm Earthseed.

She has marked a first big success via the recent adoption in California of a law she co-sponsored, called “Silenced No More.”

Starting in January, this law will prohibit employers from using confidentiality clauses to prevent victims of harassment or discrimination in the workplace from speaking out.

In mid-October, she posted online a guide for whistleblowers.

“The difference with tech companies and other industries is on the power that they wield, but also they pretend they’re better for workers, consumers, society than more traditional industries,” she told AFP. “That’s just not borne out in reality.”

– Keep the emails –

A Yale University graduate in political science, the 29-year-old was born in Alaska to Nigerian immigrants.

She left Pinterest at the end of May 2020, with six months of salary, after months of making complaints internally and also to the state of California, accusing the social network of discrimination and racist retaliation.

She said the company paid her less than if she had been a man, but she also complained about their lack of action after a colleague posted her personal details online to expose her to anonymous harassment.

In mid-June 2020, as the Black Lives Matter anti-racism movements were in full swing in the United States, her damning account on Twitter of her experience sparked a scandal for the company that had largely avoided controversy.

“Pinterest, told a number of reporters that the CEO had no knowledge of me being doxxed… and I was essentially making up a story about him being aware,” Ozoma said.

“I knew that it was something that would probably come up later. And so I had the emails,” she added.

The accused firms try to discredit whistleblowers by many means, said Libby Liu, the director of Whistleblower Aid which is working with Haugen.

“They will throw up against the wall every discrediting thing they can think of, through like every media organization on the face of the Earth,” she added.

– Losing their health insurance –

The whistleblowers that come forward often have a lot to lose.

“Just one example here in the United States — because our health care is tied to our employment — when you decide to whistle blow, you’re also making a decision for yourself and for your family to lose access to your health insurance,” Ozoma said.

“That is not a small thing to ask of people,” she added.

Whistleblower leaks and damning media reports have tarnished Big Tech’s image, but they have had limited tangible consequences for Silicon Valley.

In fact, Haugen’s oft-repeated accusation that Facebook puts profits over safety is not entirely new.

“There are countless nonprofit organizations and reporters, who reported on the exact same thing for years,” said Ozoma. “It remains to be seen whether anything fruitful will come of it.”

But from anti-sexism protests at Google in 2018 to warnings from former top Facebook officials, the pressure for change is steady.

After Ozoma spoke out at Pinterest, other female workers did too.

The company paid $22 million in December 2020 to Francoise Brougher, its white, former COO to settle a gender discrimination lawsuit.