For Big Tech, Neutrality Is Not an Option — and Never Really WasFor Big Tech, Neutrality Is Not an Option — and Never Really Was
Tech companies play a vital role in global communication, which has profound effects on how politics, policies, and human rights issues play out.
August 1, 2022
The idea of mixing work and politics has always been a fraught topic, and understandably so. Most companies have customers — and employees — on both ends of the political spectrum, and remaining neutral is often the only way to make sure all parties feel respected and comfortable. They say never to discuss religion or politics at a dinner party; well, the same rule could be applied to the marketplace or workplace.
The problem is, "politics" is a word that covers a vast expanse of topics, and at some point everyone — even company leaders — need to draw a line. Neutrality isn't always an option.
Consider, for example, a hypothetical infrastructure bill making its way through Congress. This is politics we likely wouldn't discuss at work for a number of reasons. It might be a sensitive topic; there will likely be extreme positions on both sides of the aisle about whether the bill should be passed, adjusted, or blocked completely. Is it essential for a business to take a public stance on this? Except for a few niche businesses, probably not. Companies can (and often should) remain neutral.
But what about when it's an issue of human rights? Of war? Genocide? These topics, on a global stage, are often considered politics, but they likely affect a huge percentage of customers in much more profound ways than other issues we consider politics. The decision of whether to remain neutral, therefore, is much more complicated. Some companies choose to take a political stance; others insist on "staying in their lane" and focusing only on their products or services.
But there, of course, is the rub: the products and services. What if a company's product or service directly affects, benefits, or connects to the issue at hand? Is a neutral stance really possible at that point? Or does neutral mean complicit?
Tech companies, in particular, must reckon with this question. We can't pretend the products we create aren't used on a global stage, for all kinds of uses — some positive and some downright nefarious. But if our tools are used by, say, governments to commit war crimes, can we really say we're neutral?
How Are Your Tools Being Used?
We must do more. Some of the behemoths of the tech industry have obscene amounts of power over culture, communications, laws, and policies worldwide. With that kind of power, neutrality is impossible. But what exactly does this mean? It means tech companies need to take more ownership of how their tools are being used.
That could start with something as simple as withdrawing business. If a company is selling products or services to an entity that is knowingly committing harm — and, worse, using those products or services to do so — that company has chosen a side. They are not neutral. Tech companies need to recognize this and make the hard decisions to pull out of these kinds of business relationships.
My own company recently did just this. We believe we have a responsibility to stand with the people of Ukraine, against Russia, and we have taken steps accordingly. We no longer do business with companies in support of Russia, and we offer our services for free for those actively supporting, or on the ground in, Ukraine. To do otherwise would be tantamount to supporting the Russian invasion; there simply is no neutral option.
Why do business leaders seem to think that if profit is involved, morality ceases to exist? That mentality belies the real reasoning behind so-called neutrality: If profit is involved, many leaders simply don't care about anything else. It also reveals a certain short-sightedness because, let's be honest, losing profit in the short term for a reason like this will often actually help your business in the long term. Customers care about these things, and they don't take kindly to businesses supporting egregious acts of violence.
But the imperative goes further than this. So many tech companies today play a vital role in global communication, which has profound effects on how politics, policies, and real human rights issues play out. And yet these companies — social media companies, content platforms, and the like — all still seem to want to remain as neutral as possible. We can't have it both ways. Neutrality inevitably will favor one side or another. As the writer, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel summed up so succinctly: "Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim."
We are living in the age of all things digital, in the transformation of every aspect of global society at the hands of technical innovation. This is powerful — thrilling, even — and can truly make this world a better place. That's why so many of us got into tech in the first place, isn’t it? For that hope. That thrill. But it will matter little, or not at all, if the technological advances we make just add fuel to a fire of hate, authoritarianism, or war. We must take responsibility for the technology we're creating; companies must do more. We must use the incredible tools at our disposal to help the oppressed and give up this fruitless quest to be forever "neutral." Neutrality is cowardice.
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