The reaction of Big Tech to the assault on the U.S. Capitol reinforces the longstanding need to address human rights risks

When hundreds of rioters assaulted the U.S. Capitol building in Washington on January 6, all fingers pointed to President Trump as the instigator. We can be sure that Trump’s role in this insurgence will be confirmed through history. Spoiler alert: it won’t be pretty. But for now, we should be looking at the role Big Tech played in facilitating these events not just in the preceding days and weeks, but throughout the Trump presidency.

As the New York Times noted in its Daily podcast the day after the insurgence, planning for this event began on Facebook. In the 48 hours that the company’s monitors debated whether this activity violated Facebook’s community guidelines, 320,000 people joined the group that was organizing the attack on the Capitol. By the time Facebook finally decided to remove the group from its platform, the damage had been done.

Delayed reaction? Or opportunistic About-Face?

In the wake of the attack, both Facebook and Twitter banned Trump from their platforms. Like the  sudden about-face of vice-president Mike Pence and a handful of other elected officials, it smacked of opportunism. Trump’s incendiary language has been populating both Facebook and Twitter for years, yet it took the live broadcast of an insurgence on what many Americans view of the bastion of democracy to inspire meaningful action.

We expect politicians to adopt malleable positions vulnerable to a change in wind direction, but that is no way for publicly traded companies to operate. Unless, of course, the only wind that counts is the one that blows dollars in the door: Twitter and Facebook respectively tripled and doubled their profits during the four years of Trump’s presidency. Now that he’s leaving, it may be easier to break ties.

At NEI Investments, we expect companies like Facebook and Twitter to lead with policies and protocols that recognize the potentially negative applications of their tools. With great power comes great responsibility – not just to shareholders but to all their stakeholders.

We also communicate those expectations in our active ownership work with companies such as Alphabet (the parent company of Google), which we’ve engaged on the topic of digital human rights, such as protecting the privacy of its users, and keeping its platform free of hate groups. And we’ve made it clear that corporate responsibility doesn’t just mean checking a box on the ESG factors of your choice, like commitments to net-zero carbon emissions. You must deal with the tough risks, too, like human rights abuses on your platform.

Digital rights should be a slam dunk 

This should be a slam dunk for technology companies that were founded with such noble intent. Google’s motto was once “Don’t be evil,” and the company promised to do “good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains.” And yet Alphabet is seen as having strayed so far from that purpose that it has fostered the Alphabet Workers Union, a group of more than 200 workers who have cited a litany of concerns about the company. These include everything from collaborating with repressive governments to developing AI technologies for use by the Department of Defense, to profiting from ads sponsored by hate groups.

It’s also worth remembering that Google has a Department of Justice-sponsored anti-trust lawsuit pending. And let’s not forget last summer’s boycott of Facebook by some major advertisers, which was ultimately symbolic. In future, the consequences may be far more detrimental to Facebook’s business.

Does it feel like the walls are closing in for tech companies? Moreover, does this narrative sound remarkably like the story of the end of the Trump presidency? Voters may hold all the power in a democracy, but in the corporate world, the power is no longer held exclusively by shareholders. Increasingly, a broader range of stakeholders  are having influence over how companies operate, too.

Companies that fail to recognize this fact do so at their peril. We asked Alphabet to put structures in place to address human rights risks in its business. And while that’s starting to happen, we’re not about to sit idly by and wait. First, that’s not what we do: we engage with companies to protect and enhance the value of our investors’ money. And second, there is much about Alphabet, Google, Facebook and the rest of Big Tech that is valuable.

It may sound trite, but we believe these companies can still be a force for good and, not coincidentally, also be profitable while they’re doing it. We’d prefer that it not take the kind of reckoning we witnessed on January 6 for everyone to realize that.