Sep 9, 2019

Big Tech's moral compass remains glitchy

Ina Fried

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

More than 2 years after Susan Fowler's account of sexual harassment at Uber kicked off a wave of reckoning inside tech companies, the industry is still more reactive than forward-looking in handling the ethical issues raised by sexual misconduct.

Why it matters: By waiting for media exposure before taking principled action against sexual harassment and related misdeeds, some tech leaders are still sending a message of "get away with it as long as you can" rather than "do what's right."

Driving the news: Over the weekend, MIT Media Lab head Joi Ito resigned after revelations that he and others allowed convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein to play a prominent role in donating and soliciting donations for the institution.

  • A wave of news coverage this summer chronicled Epstein's role as a funder of research scientists and the Media Lab — long after his conviction for soliciting prostitution from a minor in 2008. That prompted a public apology from Ito, but also a letter in his defense from dozens of his associates and friends.
  • Women inside the institution raised questions to Ito about the issue at the time that he did not pursue.
  • It took a Ronan Farrow exposé in the New Yorker, detailing that Ito and the Media Lab knew there was a problem and took pains to try to keep Epstein's donations anonymous.
  • And as recently as this past week, according to reports, the lab's founder Nicholas Negroponte was arguing that it was fine to take the money and he'd advise doing it again.

The big picture: It's clear that there has been progress over the last 30 months, with some changes in both personnel and policy at a number of major tech companies.

  • Uber has replaced its CEO, ousted some others and revised some policies, including an end to confidentiality agreements and forced arbitration for those making sexual misconduct allegations.
  • Under pressure, Google agreed to stop forcing arbitration on those alleging sexual harassment.
  • A number of tech venture capital firms, including 500 Startups and Binary Capital, have made leadership changes amid sexual misconduct allegations.

Yes, but: Too often, companies are still either covering up problems that are likely to become public knowledge eventually, or responding only after the press turns a spotlight on a problem that they've long known about.

What they're saying: Kara Swisher in the New York Times: "Corner-cutting ethics have too often become part and parcel to the way business is done in the top echelons of tech, allowing those who violate clear rules and flout decent behavior to thrive and those who object to such behavior to endure exhausting pushback."

What's next: Look for more fallout from Epstein's tech connections, as well as closer scrutiny of contributions and investments from other potentially tainted sources, like Saudi money tied to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Go deeper: Sexual harassment remains rampant in tech

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