There's a Growing Backlash Against Tech's Infamous Secrecy. Why Now?
from the the-time-has-come dept
“How Silicon Valley’s Tech Giants Use NDAs to Create a Culture of Silence,” stated a Business Insider piece on July 27, 2021. “To understand how Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) have come to form the backbone of Silicon Valley’s culture of secrecy,” explained Matt Drange, “Insider reviewed 36 agreements shared by tech workers.” It showed how management mistakes and misconduct hide in the silence of those NDAs. “The secrecy is by design … leaving the true extent of wrongdoing in the workplace a mystery.”
“The use of NDAs, including in trivial or routine circumstances like visiting a tech office, is ironic in an industry that praises openness and transparency,” elaborated Shira Ovide in her New York Times newsletter. She called it an unnecessary “exercise of power.”
Yael Eisenstat, a former Facebook employee, criticized this power in a Washington Post OpEd on August 3, 2021. “A handful of technology companies have unprecedented – and unchecked – power over our daily interactions and lives. Their ability to silence employees exacerbates that problem, depriving the public and regulators of a means to analyze actions that affect our public health, our public square, and our democracy.”
This recent backlash against tech’s infamous secrecy is long overdue. It became possible as a result of a broader uprising against Big Tech, AKA the Techlash (tech-backlash). But for decades, it wasn’t the case. In the power relations between the tech giants and the media, journalists’ access to sources within those companies was tightly controlled, and “access has always been a bargaining chip.”
The Roots of Tech’s Secrecy Culture
In the mid-1990s, when the dot-com boom started to gather steam, Silicon Valley went from semiconductor fab plants in South San Jose to an industry of hot technologies. The tech coverage focused on the brilliance of the tech CEOs who were daring to take on established industries and old hierarchies. The consumers wanted a ‘backstage pass’ to those rock stars. It was also all that the tech reporters wanted, access.
But the common experience for tech journalists was that if their coverage were critical or hard on the companies, their level of access would either go on hiatus or disappear altogether. Many of them complied with this tradeoff.
The most secretive company was always Apple. Tim Cook once said, “One of the great things about Apple is: We probably have more secrecy here than the CIA.”
By keeping the communication channels closed, the companies had leverage over those to whom they give access. “If you want access to Apple, you can’t upset them,” a Gizmodo reporter described. “Apple and Google are masters of grooming reporters to do what they want and provide access only to folks they think will make them look good,” the freelancer journalist Rose Eveleth explained.
The companies also increased their tendency to brief reporters “on background.” In this method, the tech PR teams and companies’ employees agree to talk, but the reporter cannot quote anything said in the conversation. Thus, the information cannot be transmitted to the readers. The experience can be infuriating, as Adrienne LaFrance from The Atlantic described: “I got through an entire interview with a product manager at Apple, only to be told, after the fact, that it was presumed to be ‘on background.’ ‘Everyone knows this is how we do things,’ a spokesman explained apologetically.”
Tech journalists and bloggers acknowledged getting used to “not having an oppositional journalistic culture.” Those who were asking the tough questions had to walk a tight rope when the combination of access and unfavorable coverage was quite rare.
The Intensifying Revolt During the Techlash
The turning point in tech journalism followed Donald Trump’s victory in November 2016. According to research about the emerging tech-backlash, the pivotal year was 2017 as a result of various tech scandals, including foreign election meddling; disinformation wars; extremist content, and hate speech; privacy violations; allegations of an anti-diversity, sexual harassment, and discrimination culture. The accumulation of those issues created a profound sense of concern around content moderation, algorithmic accountability, and monopoly power. The companies’ secrecy became a means of evading responsibility.
“Corporations such as Apple, Google, and Uber have become infamous for their secrecy and unwillingness to comment on most matters on-the-record. Tech reporters, myself very much included, have not done enough to push them to do otherwise,” claimed Brian Merchant from Vice. He called his fellow journalists to push back against these ossified norms: “I am no longer going to listen to a public relations representative try to change my mind ‘on background’ with unquotable statements attributable to no one. No reporter should, not when the stakes are as high as they are.”
His article, from July 2019, generated a ‘call to arms’ by leading journalists, unwilling to propagate it any longer. It reflected a more profound change in the power dynamics between Big Tech and the journalists, who had enough. Later on, the Covid-19 pandemic acted as an accelerator, and the Tech vs. Journalism battle intensified into a full-blown “cold war.” The stakes were even higher than before.
In June 2021, a Mother Jones piece took the allegations against the PR tactics to the next level. It focused on Amazon and described how it “bullies, manipulated and lies to reporters.” Amazon’s press team was accused of engaging in deceitful behavior. The tech reporters also pointed out that “Amazon has recently begun providing more access before a story is published,” but complained it is done “in limited and often unhelpful or unrelated ways, by offering things like off-the-record or background interviews with the press team or approved employees.”
It is often the case that the more important stories are coming from “un-approved” employees. This is how Casey Newton revealed Facebook’s content moderators’ working conditions in The Trauma Floor or Bodies in Seats exposés. The workers openly described how they developed severe anxiety while still in training and struggled with trauma symptoms long after they left.
Other tech employees, who experienced a reckoning around their companies’ role in society, also started approaching the reporters with allegations of corporate misdeeds. Some of them didn’t speak anonymously but instead put their name on it, agreeing to full exposure. The fact that whistleblowers experienced legal risks, retaliation, and emotional scars did not stop additional workers from joining their colleagues. Breaking their NDAs or handing them to a reporter are parts of this growing trend of employee activism.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Scott Thurm from Wired explained in an interview. “If you don’t give us access, then, of course, we are going to rely on other people to tell the story.” The current story is not the one the tech companies want the media to tell. However, in the Techlash, it is precisely what the media is doing.
Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt is the author of The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communication