Over the last few years, Public Knowledge has hosted various iterations of Emerging Tech DC (#ETDC). This event has served as a platform for tech policy advocates and tech entrepreneurs to have fruitful discussions about artificial intelligence, virtual reality, internet of things, and 3D printing. This year, in recognition of the diversity of thought, experiences, and needs of people who use this technology, Public Knowledge will host this event with a twist — Emerging Tech for Social Change. At Public Knowledge, we understand that tech policy impacts communities, specifically marginalized communities, in different ways and there must be debates now and in the future that actively include those communities. Our goal for Emerging Tech for Social Change is to center voices at the margins in hopes that policy debates and panelist participation in said debates reflect our values as an organization and the public interest community as a whole.
The idea for Emerging Tech for Social Change originated from my experiences in various meetings and events related to digital inclusion, artificial intelligence, content moderation, privacy, and intellectual property. I often think to myself, “#TechPolicySoWhite.” (I must thank April Reign for developing the language for me to capture my thoughts and feelings on this subject.) In many of these spaces there is almost always someone from a non-marginalized background who speaks with authority about how a certain policy has or will impact communities of color. At this point, this has become normalized behavior within the Beltway.
The lack of diversity in tech policy means that regulators and lawmakers make policy decisions that impact marginalized groups from a perspective that is not inclusive of the viewpoints of these communities. Thus, on the first day of my favorite month, Black History Month, I thought it was important to bring these thoughts to the forefront and also identify some solutions for resolving this diversity issue so we can make a transition from #TechPolicySoWhite to #TechPolicyKindaWhite to #TechPolicySoDiverse.
Why it’s important to, in the words of the Notorious B.I.G., “pass the microphone” in tech policy debates:
First of all, shout-out to all of those who immediately knew that reference without typing it in on your search engine. I found it necessary to merge a little Black pop culture in this conversation since it is Black History Month — rest in power, Biggie.
While we are on the subject of Black History Month, let me say that no matter how much James Baldwin one has read or how many times they visited the Blacksonian (National Museum of African American History and Culture), if someone is not a person of color, they are likely to lack the experience to find policy solutions that positively impact communities of color. Therefore, I believe it is important to get in the practice of passing the microphone to individuals who can accurately identify the issues and subsequent solutions that will benefit these communities. The same applies to people who attempt to speak on behalf of women, low-income communities, disabled communities, or the LGBTQ community…pass the mic. It is important to recognize that there are gaps in the knowledge of every well-intentioned, non-marginalized ally. Thus, it is important to identify those gaps in one’s knowledge, speak with the affected parties to gain more understanding, and subsequently uplift their voices during these important debates.
It also just makes logical sense for people of color to be actively involved in policy debates because, in the words of Yo Gotti, “women lie/men lie/numbers just don’t lie.” According to Nielsen, the Black community over-indexes on household device ownership, meaning Black people own more of these devices — which includes smartphones, smart speaker devices, smart televisions, tablets — than other racial groups. Because the Black community owns more of these devices that are dependent on the internet to operate, there should be more Black people in policy debates about digital redlining, digital literacy, rural broadband infrastructure, and mergers.
Black people in the United States also over-index on device usage, including messaging websites, digital wallets, and video streaming services. The Black community uses platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix as a way to highlight social injustices, mobilize and organize to combat systemic discrimination, or simply to share our unique cultural experiences. Therefore, Black people should be similarly over-indexed in policy debates about media ownership, consumer protection, privacy, and antitrust.
Solutions to remedy the lack of diversity in tech policy
Diversify Tech Policy Panels and Events
People of color should be transversally incorporated in all tech policy discussions. Panel organizers should be more thoughtful about including people of color who are government officials, entrepreneurs, civil rights organizers, consumer advocates, and academics in panel discussions. People at the margins have a vested interest in tech policy debates for issues such as privacy, broadband connectivity, and artificial intelligence; thus, that should be shown in panel makeup. As is commonly said on Twitter pages run by people of color, “#RepresentationMatters.”
Make Diverse Hires
It is imperative that public interest organizations, public policy departments for companies and trade associations, and the staff of members of Congress and committee of jurisdiction make diverse hires. Hire people who challenge the status quo and people who move your offices forward. These hires should come from various demographic backgrounds and various parts of the country and the world. Additionally, these hires should come from various educational institutions. For example, at Public Knowledge, we are working to build relationships with a wide variety of schools, including HBCUs. When we make hires at PK, we value all of a person’s experiences, including personal experiences and passions that inform policy making and bring new perspectives.
Create Fellowship Programs With Meaningful Pay
At Public Knowledge, we have hosted fellows for the last five years and a large majority of the fellowship recipients are women, 60 percent of our fellows have been people of color, and many have at least one parent who was born outside of the United States. Also, we try to ensure that our fellows are paid a competitive wage so that people from diverse backgrounds can afford to work in DC. Fellows should not have to struggle to pay rent in one of the most expensive cities in the nation. It must also be noted that before someone becomes a fellow, this usually requires that they have meaningful internship experiences. This is why I also encourage people who work in leadership in the policy space to make the decision to pay their interns; this will ensure students from all socioeconomic backgrounds can afford a summer learning about tech policy.
Public Knowledge to host Emerging Tech for Social Change
At Public Knowledge, we have proven we are committed to diversifying the tech policy space through our fellowship program. We would also like to commit to diversifying policy perspectives with Emerging Tech for Social Change. This year we seek to expand these discussions to include panelists who can effectively speak from a position as a person who experiences the world in a different way than many of those who currently work in this space. Our goal is to elevate the dialogue and provide guidance to members of Congress and their staffs, business leaders, and members of the public on the effects of this technology on people at the margins. You can follow us on Twitter @publicknowledge for more updates.