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Relying on Silicon Valley to organize makes some protesters uneasy

Google and Facebook have made it easier to organize and attend protests, but using their tools comes with trade-offs.

Protesters use Google Maps and other apps to organize.
Angela Lang/CNET

For Erin Feher, protesting systemic racism after the death of George Floyd meant relying heavily on one app: Google Maps. 

Feher, a magazine editor in San Francisco, organized a caravan of automobiles to drive through some of the city's sleepier neighborhoods earlier this month, in order to bring the protest to places other than downtown centers. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, it was also a way for families with elderly members and young kids to get involved, while minimizing the risk of the virus.

The nature of the event meant Feher and her husband took to Google Maps to plan the 17-mile route. It was difficult to create a detailed route with specific streets they wanted to hit because the app can be finicky. And they had a hard time sharing a link from Google Maps that contained the directions, so they created a PDF image to send to participants. Another hurdle was vaguer, but nonetheless present: The uncomfortable feeling that the protest was relying on tools from companies with shaky records on privacy and diversity. 

"It's completely ironic," Feher said in an interview. "Using Instagram to spread our message and Google to create our map. I totally see the contradiction of these things we're protesting about, with the hiring, diversity statistics and privacy issues."

Feher isn't alone. She's one of the millions of grassroots organizers around the world who use Silicon Valley's services as they advocate for social change. People have used digital tools, like Twitter and TikTok, to speak out against police brutality since Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed black man in Minnesota, was killed in police custody. Marches have been planned using Google Maps, and rally invites sent from Facebook event tools. Demonstrations are streamed on Facebook Live, and Instagram posts have served as digital fliers.

Now playing: Watch this: How to protect your phone (and your privacy) at a protest

Giant tech companies like Google and Facebook, which owns Instagram, have made it easier than ever to communicate and assemble. But that convenience comes with privacy trade-offs, which could be especially sensitive for protesters. Location data from phones could potentially be given to law enforcement or political campaigns. Some activists also reckon with the companies' shortcomings when it comes to diversity. Black and Latino employees only make up single-digit percentages of the workforces at Google and Facebook. And Google has been accused of scaling back its diversity training efforts. 

"It's tricky," said Jen King, director of consumer privacy at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, noting how ubiquitous Big Tech's tools have become. "When you're sharing information, you have to expect that anyone else is going to be able to access it. Whether that's the police or counterprotesters, you can't just assume it will only be the people who are interested in your cause."

Google and Facebook didn't respond to requests for comment.

Data concerns

Google has been criticized for its location data policies for years. Last month, the search giant was hit by a consumer fraud lawsuit filed by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, alleging the search giant deceives its users in order to collect location data from their phones. The complaint came two years after an investigation by the Associated Press, which scrutinized Google's location data practices on phones running Android, the company's mobile operating system. The news outlet reported that Google still tracks people's whereabouts even if they turn off a setting called Location History. 

Even with that setting paused, the company tracks where users go, though the app won't record the places they've been in their Google Maps timelines, the report said. Users could, however, pause location tracking by turning off another setting, called Web and Apps Activity, which could let protesters' phones give away their presence at rallies.

Google regularly gives police location details that it's collected in Sensorvault, the company's massive database. The repository is meant to collect information on the users of Google's products so the company can better target them with ads.

But law enforcement can also request the data for so-called "geofence" warrants for investigations. With the warrants, police can carve out a specific area and time period, and Google gathers anonymized information from Sensorvault about the devices that were present during that window. When asked by CNET, Google didn't comment on whether it would comply with a geofence warrant related to protests.

See also: Protesting tips: What to bring, what not to bring and how to protect yourself

The data could also be used by political campaigns to get a better understanding of the preferences of the protesters. Geofencing is already popular in politics, as political organizations and voting groups try to target people with ads that will resonate with them. The protests have given political operatives a heat map of sorts on how they can reach particular types of voters. 

King, from Stanford Law School, says there are ways protesters can protect their privacy, including communicating on encrypted apps like Signal. IPhone users can make sure they're signed out of Google Maps while they're protesting, she says, though Android users still face more onerous privacy controls. People can also choose to leave their phones at home or buy cheap burner phones to take with them. 

'It is what it is'

Aside from privacy questions, organizers might be dismayed by the companies' shortcomings when it comes to racial equity efforts and other social issues. 

Earlier this month, Google said it's committing $12 million over two years to causes related to racial equity. But at its shareholder meeting the same day, 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. 

Facebook, too, has faced blowback. In the days after Floyd's death, President Donald Trump took to Twitter and seemed to reference comments that helped spark Miami race riots in the 1960s, warning protesters in Minneapolis that looters might be shot. Twitter said the tweet violated its community standards against "glorifying violence" and obscured it with a label. 

Trump posted the same message, which suggested the military would take control of the situation, on Facebook. But CEO Mark Zuckerberg let the post stand. In the aftermath, some of Facebook's normally staid workers reportedly revolted. Dozens of employees, most of whom are working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic, staged a virtual "walkout" by logging out of the company's internal systems.

Organizers, though, are left in a bind. Google's and Facebook's services have billions of users. And if they want people to show up to fight for change, that's how they'll reach them. 

"It's a less than ideal circumstance we're in with social media," said Charlotte Hryse, an organizer with East Bay Bike Party, which puts on community bike rides two times a month. Earlier in June, the group held a solidarity ride for Black Lives Matter. Organizers plan the routes with Google Maps and promote their events using Facebook and Instagram. Even if you worry about a tech company's actions or policies, Hryse said, they have a "monopoly" on users. "It's a double edge there."

Feher is in the same boat. She's planned another caravan protest in San Francisco for Wednesday evening. She considered using another mapping service, but ultimately went with Google Maps again. 

"It is what it is," she said. But the issues "don't go unnoticed."