Tech is getting more political. But is it all talk?
In the past week, companies including Apple, Google and Microsoft have expressed support for protests around the country sparked by the death of George Floyd. A bystander video depicting Floyd's final moments showed the 46-year-old black man warning police that he couldn't breathe and crying out for his mother as a white officer used a knee to pin him to the ground by his neck. The video went viral, shocking millions of people around the world, and leading to widespread condemnation of police tactics toward members of the African American community.
"George Floyd's death is shocking and tragic proof that we must aim far higher than a 'normal' future, and build one that lives up to the highest ideals of equality and justice," Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote in a letter posted to the front page of the company's website on June 4.
"Coming together as a community and showing support is important, but it isn't enough," Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in an open letter to his team on June 3, in which he pledged $12 million to organizations addressing racial inequalities.
The moves are just the latest way tech is speaking out on social issues. The trend began increasing in 2017, shortly after US President Donald Trump was inaugurated into office that January. Since then, the Trump administration has instituted orders banning travel from majority-Muslim countries, defended white supremacists and neo-Nazis marching in Virginia, and announced an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, which allowed people illegally brought into the country as children to remain in the states.
But the technology industry has struggled with diversity -- with opportunities for black men and women particularly limited. That's led to many tech companies releasing regular diversity reports, which have shown slow progress.
Here's what the tech industry is saying and doing about racial inequality in the US.
On June 4, the iPhone maker posted a letter to the top of its website, one of the most popular in the world, speaking out on racism and pledging donations to organizations challenging "racial injustice and mass incarceration." One of those organizations is the Equal Justice Initiative.
"While our laws have changed, the reality is that their protections are still not universally applied," Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote in the letter. "We've seen progress since the America I grew up in, but it is similarly true that communities of color continue to endure discrimination and trauma. To create change, we have to reexamine our own views and actions in light of a pain that is deeply felt but too often ignored. Issues of human dignity will not abide standing on the sidelines."
Apple, valued at more than $1.4 trillion and one of the richest companies in the world, didn't say how much it was donating.
Like most Silicon Valley companies, Apple's struggled to hire a proportionally significant number of minority staff into its ranks, particularly for leadership positions. Just 3% of leaders at Apple were black in 2018, and just 6% of its tech teams. It's been the target of shareholder proposals regarding the issue as recently as 2017. In 2019, executives heard from stockholders asking the company to by hiring more conservatives. Apple's voice transcription software reportedly struggles with black voices, as do other companies' technologies.
On May 31, Amazon said it will donate $10 million to racial justice initiatives, including the NAACP, Black Lives Matter, the Equal Justice Initiative and the United Negro College Fund. The company also posted a message saying that "the inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our community must stop."
"Together, we stand in solidarity with the Black community -- our employees, customers and partners -- in the fight against systemic racism and injustice," the company added.
But Amazon has been criticized for well over a year for its various ties to police, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the US Defense Department. The American Civil Liberties Union has often called out Amazon for its sale of facial recognition technology to law enforcement, which the nonprofit says could lead to excessive surveillance of the public. Immigration rights groups have protested on the streets against Amazon's alleged work providing tech to ICE, which the company hasn't confirmed.
Amazon's Ring video doorbell company has repeatedly been critiqued for its work sharing videos with hundreds of local police departments while not offering enough transparency about these partnerships.
Amazon, which didn't respond to a request for comment for this story, has been steadfast in its commitments to these organizations. And in 2018, CEO Jeff Bezos said Amazon will continue to work with the US Defense Department.
"If big tech companies are going to turn their backs on the Department of Defense, we are in big trouble," Bezos said at the time. "This is a great country, and it does need to be defended."
Ring also has added more disclosures about its work with law enforcement and now gives its users more control over sharing videos with police.
On June 3, Google said it's committing $12 million over two years to causes related to racial equity. Pichai, CEO of both Google and its parent company, Alphabet, said the tech giant would also hold an 8 minute and 46 second moment of silence -- the amount of time Floyd was restrained by the officer before his death -- to honor the memory of black people who'd lost their lives.
Earlier in the week, Google displayed a black ribbon on its homepage, with the caption: "We stand in support of racial equality, and all those who search for it." In a tweet announcing the homepage tweak, Pichai wrote, "For those feeling grief, anger, sadness & fear, you are not alone."
Google also postponed a virtual event that would've taken place that week, where the company was set to unveil the next version of its Android mobile operating system. The event was delayed in light of the protests, with Google noting, "now is not the time to celebrate."
Meanwhile, at Alphabet's annual stockholder meeting on June 3, the company rejected a shareholder proposal that called for executives' pay packages to be tied to diversity and inclusion goals. The practice has been adopted by some other tech giants, including IBM and Intel. "We're asking Alphabet to put its money where its mouth is on inclusion, and drive improvement from the top," said Pat Miguel Tomaino, of Zevin Asset Management, who mentioned the George Floyd protests in his presentation to company leadership.
Google has also faced scrutiny for scaling back its diversity efforts, including cutting and outsourcing employee training sessions, according to a report by NBC News. Reportedly, one of the nixed initiatives was called Sojourn, a comprehensive program focused on race and implicit bias, and on navigating those kinds of conversations in the workplace. Google denied it was scaling back its efforts, and Pichai said earlier this month that diversity is a "foundational" value for Google.
It's not the first time Google has been criticized over diversity and culture. Last year, a memo circulated around the company's workforce, written by a black employee leaving the company. The employee called out the "burden of being black at Google." The author described feeling uncomfortable with his colleagues' insensitive comments about protests over the death of Eric Garner, who was killed by police in New York in 2014. Like Floyd, Garner also said the words "I can't breathe" while being restrained by police.
Reached for comment, Google didn't answer questions about how its diversity issues could potentially undermine its statements in response to the George Floyd protests.
Google's YouTube, the world's most widely used video service, said it will pledge $1 million to the Center for Policing Equity. The company has also spotlighted racial justice issues on its site.
"We stand in solidarity against racism and violence," the organization posted on its Twitter account. "When members of our community hurt, we all hurt."
But YouTube has been criticized in recent years for appearing to allow and promote harassing, racist and white supremacist videos, which have flourished on its site. Such videos have, for example, denied events like the Holocaust and the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, during which a shooter killed 20 children and 6 adult staff members.
Last year YouTube said recommendations for those and similar videos have dropped dramatically, but a CNET investigation found that harassing and hateful videos still thrive in subcultures on the site, including gaming.
The company also removed the ability for some controversial YouTubers who brush up against the harassment policy to make money from the company's advertising program.
The social networking company, which has long played second fiddle to larger rival Facebook, is the place where many activist groups have organized and communicated. The bystander video of Floyd spread via Twitter, and it's where reporters and protesters alike have posted about crowds, government response and police misconduct.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, as Black Lives Matter protests there grew in response to the shooting of Michael Brown, tweeted a statement on June 1 calling for "police policy reform now." He's also pledged money from his own fortune in Twitter stock to support various social justice causes, tweeting about the millions of dollars in grants he issued as protests flared across the country.
Twitter also posted a public statement in support of the protests, saying, "racism does not adhere to social distancing."
"Amid the already growing fear and uncertainty around the pandemic, this week has again brought attention to something perhaps more pervasive: the long-standing racism and injustices faced by Black and Brown people on a daily basis," the company added.
Twitter has long been a hotbed of racist rhetoric and trollish behavior that's made the social network off-putting for many people. Though the company doesn't allow racist content or language that incites violence, it's struggled with the volume of objectionable tweets. Dorsey has vowed on multiple occasions to do better.
Last month Twitter became a center of the political world when it added a fact-checking notice to one of Trump's tweets for the first time, with a link pointing to more information. The company did that again to a tweet from a Chinese official.
As protests began spreading around the country in response to Floyd's death, Twitter screened out a tweet by Trump that says, "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." The notice obscuring the tweet says the post violates Twitter's policy against glorifying violence. But it also says it's in the public's interest to be able to review the president's statements, and it provides a View button people can click to read the tweet.
The move infuriated Trump, who issued an executive order asking independent government agencies to reexamine speech laws that protect social media companies from lawsuits. He's also called for parts of those laws to be repealed.
As Floyd protests sprung up across the US, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to his Facebook account to voice support.
"The pain of the last week reminds us how far our country has to go to give every person the freedom to live with dignity and peace," Zuckerberg wrote. "It reminds us yet again that the violence Black people in America live with today is part of a long history of racism and injustice. We all have the responsibility to create change."
Zuckerberg added that "to help in this fight, I know Facebook needs to do more to support equality and safety for the Black community through our platforms."
Facebook also pledged $10 million to groups working on racial justice.
Like Twitter, Facebook has long struggled with trollish and racist behavior. Late last year, Reveal by the Center for Investigative Reporting published details about hundreds of cops who participated in extremist Facebook groups that promoted Islamophobic, misogynistic or anti-government militia messages. Only one of the 150 law enforcement departments took definitive action, firing the detective involved. Facebook, for its part, told Reveal it doesn't tolerate such behavior, but its programs still kept recommending new hate groups to Reveal's reporters.
Hate speech and harassment aren't the only problems Facebook struggles with. The company grappled with the same "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" remark Trump made on Twitter. Facebook chose to allow Trump's remark to remain untouched on its namesake site and on its Instagram photo sharing service, even though Twitter had flagged it with an advisory notice about violence.
Zuckerberg insisted those Facebook and Instagram posts would remain, leading employees to publicly speak out in rare criticism of the company and its CEO.
But on late Friday, Zuckerberg publicly shared a note to employees, saying he , including the ones involving Trump.
Microsoft, known for speaking out on social issues through its president, Brad Smith, posted a series of personal stories from its African American employees, supported by tweets from Nadella, the CEO.
"I personally don't want the flashy signs or symbols of allyship, I'm not looking for the buttons and t-shirts and hashtags," wrote Microsoft's Megan Carpenter in one of the statements. "I want an ally who pays attention to what is happening outside their own community or perspective. I want an ally who knows that these things are happening to people like me, without me needing to tell them that they are happening to people like me."
And late Friday, the official Microsoft blog published an email that Nadella sent to employees, titled United for Change. "We cannot episodically wake up when a new tragedy occurs," Nadella says in the email. "A systemic problem requires a holistic response."
Nadella mentions his personal responsibility as an individual and as leader of the company: "Listening and learning from my Black and African American colleagues is helping me develop a better understanding of their experience," he says. "And I take accountability for my own continued learning on the realities of privilege, inequity and race and modeling the behavior I want to see in the world."
He also says Microsoft must "do more and do it faster" when it comes to diversity and inclusion at the company: "We have to embrace the same speed and mindset that we do in anticipating and building for future technological shifts," he says.
Nadella mentions existing company programs like Microsoft's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative, its Supplier Diversity program and its Blacks at Microsoft employee resource group, and he says the company has expanded its connections with historically black colleges and universities.
The CEO also says Microsoft will donate $250,000 each to six social justice organizations: the Black Lives Matter Foundation, Equal Justice Initiative, Innocence Project, Leadership Conference, Minnesota Freedom Fund and the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund.
Microsoft released its first diversity report in November, which showed that the software giant had made some progress in its efforts to be more inclusive, but like other companies, it's failed to make meaningful gains. Just 4.4% of its 2019 workforce was black. Only 2.7% of its executives were black too. Like Apple, Microsoft's voice recognition software has misidentified black voices, and its facial recognition reportedly misidentified women of color at a rate 10 times higher than for men of color. Google and Facebook meanwhile have their facial recognition technologies to better identify a more diverse set of faces.
Bill Gates, the company's co-founder, tweeted that the protests sparked by the "horrifying" killings of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others are highlighting "the brutal injustices" faced by black people each day.
"I am committed to listening and learning more about systemic racism and what I can do with my actions and words to help create a more equal and just future. Black lives matter," he wrote on Tuesday.
His wife, Melinda, with whom he runs the philanthropic Gates Foundation, echoed his sentiments.
"I don't have all the answers about how I can use my voice and my philanthropy to be part of the solution," she wrote. "I will continue to deepen my understanding and to stand with people and organizations working toward a future centered on gender and racial equity."
Uber has donated $1 million to two organizations working for criminal justice in the US, Equal Justice Initiative and Policing Equity. It's also working to promote black-owned restaurants by not charging them delivery fees through Uber Eats for the rest of the year. Additionally, Uber is now linking its senior executives' pay to their "measurable progress" on diversity goals.
"I wish that the lives of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless others weren't so violently cut short. I wish that institutional racism, and the police violence it gives rise to, didn't cause their deaths. I wish that all members of our Black community felt safe enough to move around their cities without fear," CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wrote in a Thursday note to all customers. "But I've been given hope this week by hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters demanding change. I am committed to being part of that change."
Like most Silicon Valley companies, Uber doesn't have a very diverse workforce. In the US, just 9% of its employees are black, according to its latest diversity report. And in leadership roles, those numbers get even lower, with only 3% of black staff in those positions globally.
Uber has also been criticized for not providing a living wage and labor rights to its drivers, many of whom are people of color. The company has battled state and city laws that aim to make drivers employees, which would then afford drivers more benefits, like a minimum wage, sick time and health care.
During the protests, Uber also partnered with the city of Chicago to offer a promo code to get $5 off a ride between 10 p.m. Sunday night and 6 a.m. Monday morning. Though Uber said it was to help transport essential workers while mass transit was shut down, the move was seen as opportunistic and taking advantage of the situation. Uber also followed curfew orders in cities that mandated such shutdowns, making its service unavailable during those nighttime hours.
Lyft's CEO and president sent a note to the company's employees on Sunday to address the inflection point happening across the country right now. It's a "call to action for each and every one of us to do better, to speak up, and to be part of the solution," it said.
The company started an internal livestream conversation with its employees and plans to figure out ways to use the Lyft platform to create more inclusive experiences for employees, riders and drivers. Lyft also said it's "doubling down" on the hiring, retention and promotion of black, Latinx and female employees.
Lyft is additionally donating $500,000 in ride credits to several civil rights organizations, including the National Urban League, NAACP, National Action Network, Black Women's Roundtable and National Bail Fund Network. In Minneapolis specifically, Lyft is donating ride credits to Lake Street Council volunteers who are helping rebuild small businesses destroyed in the protests. Lyft also signed the Silicon Valley Leadership Group's statement on standing up for racial justice.
But like Uber, Lyft has long fought with regulators to keep its drivers from becoming employees. Lyft says 24% of its drivers identify as black. If reclassified as employees, drivers could get basic labor rights, like a minimum wage, sick leave and health care benefits. As for its employees, Lyft also has low numbers of black staff. In its latest diversity report, 9% of Lyft employees were black and 4.8% of leadership roles were filled by black personnel.
Lyft also has long ties to the venture capital firm co-founded by Peter Thiel, who's also the co-founder of PayPal and Palantir and an ardent Trump supporter. The firm, Founders Fund, was an early major investor in Lyft. A Lyft spokeswoman said Thiel wasn't "directly involved" with Lyft; instead it said, another firm partner, Geoff Lewis, led the investment.
Like Uber, Lyft also followed curfew orders during the protests over the past few days and made its service unavailable in several cities. In New York, it also suspended its bike rental service, CitiBike, to be in line with city orders. "In some areas, we have been asked by regulators or government officials to temporarily pause operations while curfews are in place," a Lyft spokeswoman said. The company has created a site with real-time updates on suspended service.
Airbnb has donated $500,000 to the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter Foundation and is matching employee donations to both of the groups. It also sent an anti-racism and allyship resources guide to its hosts and guests this week. Company CEO Brian Chesky tweeted support of the Black Lives Matter movement last Sunday, saying, "We stand with those using their voices and peacefully calling for justice, fairness and racial equality."
An Airbnb spokeswoman added that "discrimination and bias have no place in the Airbnb community and stand in the way of our mission to create a world where anyone can belong." She said the company has removed 1.3 million users from its platform after they declined to agree to its "community commitment and nondiscrimination policy."
But Airbnb has reported a lack of diversity among its employees. In its latest diversity report, the company said just 3.5% of employees are black and only 6% of leadership roles are filled by black staff.
Like Lyft, Airbnb also has ties to Peter Thiel, who's the co-founder of PayPal and Palantir and is an ardent Trump supporter. Thiel's venture capital firm, Founders Fund, was an early investor in Airbnb and reportedly put $150 million into the company in 2012.
Airbnb has also been blamed for increasing gentrification in black neighborhoods throughout the US. That's because its business model encourages people to rent out their homes to travelers on a short-term basis, rather than have permanent renters. A 2018 study on New York City found that Airbnb rentals in predominantly black neighborhoods are five times more likely to be listed by white hosts. The study concluded that the "loss of housing and neighborhood disruption due to Airbnb" is six times more likely to affect black residents.
In regard to this report, the Airbnb spokeswoman said, "Airbnb is an important economic empowerment tool that helps many hosts afford to stay in their homes, while bringing visitor spending to neighborhoods that don't typically benefit from tourism dollars."
Racial discrimination has also been an issue on the platform. Early on in Airbnb's history, a Harvard study found widespread discrimination among hosts against possible renters with "black-sounding" names and based on their profile photos. Since then, Airbnb has formed an anti-discrimination product team, stopped showing profile photos before bookings and has added Instant Book, which lets travelers book a room without prior approval. Still, discriminatory incidents have continued to pop up. Last summer a host was captured on video using a racial slur against a group of five black men who rented his Airbnb. He then kicked them out at 2 a.m.
"The language used in this video is unacceptable and has no place in the Airbnb community," the Airbnb spokeswoman said. "We removed the host from our platform for violating our strict nondiscrimination policy."
Earlier in the week, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman wrote a letter expressing the company's support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
"We do not tolerate hate, racism, and violence, and while we have work to do to fight these on our platform, our values are clear," he said.
But that caused former CEO Ellen Pao to call Huffman out, saying the social network has long fostered racist content with its subreddits.
"So much of what is happening now lies at your feet," Pao tweeted. "You don't get to say BLM when reddit nurtures and monetizes white supremacy and hate all day long."
Reddit didn't have an immediate response. But on Friday, Huffman added a new statement on the site, saying he intends to change the content policy to explicitly address hate.
"I want to take responsibility for the history of our policies over the years that got us here, and we still have work to do," he said.
Also on Friday, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian said he was resigning from the company's board and that he'd asked that his seat be filled by a black candidate.
"I believe resignation can actually be an act of leadership from people in power right now," Ohanian said in a message posted on Twitter and his website. "To everyone fighting to fix our broken nation: do not stop."
The music streaming service created a new program offering up to $10 million globally through an employee donation matching program, according to an internal memo seen by CNET. The company has also promised a new set of initiatives to increase representation of black employees at the company.
Publicly, the company has created a Black Lives Matter playlist since the protests began, which so far has over 450,000 followers and almost 6 million daily active listeners.
The video-streaming service posted a note, saying that "to be silent is to be complicit."
"We have a platform and we have a duty to our Black members, employees, creators and talent to speak up," the company added.
The company's CEO, Reed Hastings, has also donated $1 million to the Center for Policing Equality.
Beyond that, Netflix is known for backing programs with diverse casts and stories, including its hit prison comedy Orange Is the New Black. Analyst firm Morning Consult also noted that 13% of Netflix's English-language features in 2019 were helmed by black directors, compared with less than 6% of Hollywood movies.
TikTok, the fast-growing social network popular among teens, said it's donating $3 million to nonprofits supporting the black community, "which has been disproportionately affected by the effects of ." The company said it's also pledging $1 million "toward fighting the racial injustice and inequality that we are witnessing in this country."
The phone carrier, which merged with Sprint earlier this year, posted a message saying "racism, hatred, inequality must have no place in our world."
The phone, internet and entertainment conglomerate will donate $10 million to various groups, CEO Hans Vestberg said in a livestreamed address Monday, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Urban League.
Disney on Wednesday pledged $5 million to support organizations that advance social justice, beginning with a $2 million donation to the NAACP. "We stand against racism," the entertainment company said.
The mobile carrier said in a message shared on Twitter that its "advocacy toward equality and inclusivity continues today and will for the future."
The subscription video company, which is owned by AT&T's Warner Media, posted a message in support of the protests, saying: "We stand with our Black colleagues, employees, fans, actors, storytellers -- and all affected by senseless violence."
The crowdfunding company added a statement to its typical email advertisement letter, saying that any revenue that came from it would go to support various organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, The Bail Project and Black Lives Matter organizations.
"The recent senseless killings of members of the Black community have made it clear that our society, and its many social safety nets, is broken," the company said.
CNET's Ian Sherr, Richard Nieva, Dara Kerr, Ben Fox Rubin, Queenie Wong, Joan E. Solsman, Sean Keane and Edward Moyer contributed to this report.