Internet Ethics: Views From Silicon Valley
Privacy and Diversity
Teams that work on privacy-protective features for our online lives are much more likely to be effective if those teams are diverse, in as many ways as possible.
Here is what led me to this (maybe glaringly obvious) insight:
First, an event that I attended at Facebook’s headquarters, called “Privacy@Scale,” which brought together academics, privacy practitioners (from both the legal and the tech sides), regulators, and product managers. (We had some great conversations.)
Second, a study that was recently published with much fanfare (and quite a bit of tech media coverage) by the International Association of Privacy Professionals, showing that careers in privacy are much more likely than others to provide gender pay parity—and including the observation that there are more women than men in the ranks of Chief Privacy Officers.
Third, a story from a law student who had interned on the privacy team of a large Silicon Valley company, who mentioned sitting in a meeting and thinking to herself that something being proposed as a feature would never have been accepted in the culture that she came from—would in fact have been somewhat taboo, and might have upset people if it were broadly implemented, rather than offered as an opt-in—and realizing that none of the other members of the team understood this.
And fourth, a question that several commenters asked earlier this year when Facebook experienced its “It’s Been a Great Year” PR disaster (after a developer wrote about the experience of seeing his daughter’s face auto-inserted by Facebook algorithms under a banner reading “It’s Been a Great Year!” when in fact his daughter had died that year): Had there been any older folks on the team that released that feature? If not, would the perspective of some older team members have tempered the roll-out, provided a word of caution?
Much has been said, for a long time, about how it’s hard to “get privacy right” because privacy is all about nuance and gray areas, and conceptions of privacy vary so much among individuals, cultures, contexts, etc. Given that, it makes sense that diverse teams working on privacy-enhancing features would be better able to anticipate and address problems. Not all problems, of course—diversity would not be a magic solution. It would, however, help.
Various studies have recently shown that diversity on research teams leads to better science, that cultural diversity on global virtual teams has a positive effect on decision-making, that meaningful gender diversity in the workplace improves companies’ bottom line, and that “teams do better when they are composed of people with the widest possible range of personalities, even though it takes longer for such psychologically diverse teams to achieve good cooperation.”
In Silicon Valley, the talk about team building tends to be about “culture fit” (or, more sharply critical, about “broculture”). As it turns out, though, the right “culture fit” for a privacy team should probably include diversity (of background, gender, age, skills, and even personality), combined with an understanding that one’s own perspectives are not universal; the ability to listen; and curiosity about and respect for difference.
Photo by Sean MacEntee, used without modification under a Creative Commons liccense.