Ifeoma Ozoma: My experience taught me that tech workers must be Silenced No More

After studying at Yale, Ifeoma Ozoma went to work at Google, Facebook, and Pinterest. But, in 2020, she quit her job in Pinterest’s public policy team after feeling underpaid and under-appreciated — claims she then took public after the company touted its support for racial equity.

Ozoma chose to break her non-disclosure agreement with the company to detail “the racism, gaslighting and disrespect” she felt from managers and HR leaders in a widely cited Twitter thread.

She used her profile as a whistleblower to campaign for the right to disclose harassment and discrimination at powerful tech companies. Ozoma’s three principal achievements, to date, have been: The Silenced No More Act, a new piece of legislation in California making it illegal for companies to bar employees from speaking out about harassment and discrimination; the Tech Worker Handbook, a free online resource for tech workers bringing workplace complaints; and successful campaigns to have companies adopt policies or language enabling workers to speak about discrimination, even if they have signed NDAs.

Ifeoma Ozoma © ADRIA MALCOLM/The New York Times / eyevine

In this exclusive interview with the FT’s San Francisco correspondent Patrick McGee, Ifeoma explains how her own experience in the US technology sector has influenced her work on behalf of others.

Patrick McGee: Can you describe why the Silenced No More law is so important? Why is it such a big victory?

Ifeoma Ozoma: In 2017/2018 after the Harvey Weinstein revelations [about his sexual abuse of women] and the beginning of the #MeToo movement, there was a lot of momentum behind changing the use of non-disclosure agreements in California, because so many of the celebrities and other women he had assaulted live in California and work in Hollywood. So California passed a bill that addresses the use of non-disclosure agreements.

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But it was not intersectional — it was driven mostly by the predominantly white women who were involved most visibly in the #MeToo movement. If you remember, at that time, there was a lot talked about how Tarana Burke had actually coined the phrase but the people who were front and centre were white women.

The same thing happened legislatively. The state passed this bill that focused on sexual harassment, when we know there are a number of other types of workplace harassment and abuse that take place. It didn’t cover race issues; it didn’t cover age discrimination, or many of the other categories that California law sees as clear forms of identity-based discrimination.

PM: Was that meaningful to you because you found yourself in a grey area when you wanted to speak up against Pinterest?

IO: In many cases, it was a “yes and . . . ” Yes, I was discriminated against based on gender and I filed claims based on that, but also race. It’s really hard to separate those two when you can’t separate that in your identity, and when the treatment you’re receiving is based on both. So what this bill does is address all of the many ways that people can be discriminated against, and it then opens up protections to people who aren’t discriminated against just on the basis of gender.


The population of California covered by the Silenced No More Act, which prevents the use of non-disclosure agreements to cover-up illegal workplace discrimination

That’s why it was so impactful in California, because it does reach all 40mn people now. And it was passed also in Washington state — a version of the bill — earlier this year, and went into effect on June 9. So it’s now in the two states that most broadly cover the tech industry. And my focus, of course, is tech because that’s the industry I’ve been in my entire career.

PM: Have there been any immediate implications, in terms of employees coming forward now that they feel the legal risks are clear?

IO: A number of employees have come forward, and a number of people have spoken to me directly, about their own situations and being able to sign agreements that they’re more comfortable with now. And that’s really what this is about. It’s not really about lawsuits. It is really about the majority of employment cases where you’re an individual who wants to leave and continue in your career, and you just want to be done with it. You should be entitled to the severance [pay], to the health insurance, whatever else it is that you have earned as a worker. But that’s usually what’s held over your head in order to get you to sign these types of [non-disclosure] agreements.

In my case, it was the same: I actually wrote an article two years ago about the issues with tying health insurance to employment — and how this plays into that, as well. Because breaking an agreement, or refusing to sign it, in my case would have meant not having the three extra months of covered Cobra [continuation of health insurance under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act]. At $1,200 or $1,000 for me a month as an individual . . . that would have been impossible. I have friends at Google, Facebook and other places who told me they stayed longer in situations where they were being discriminated against, [or] emotionally abused at work — absolutely miserable on antidepressants — because . . . with them being the primary breadwinner having two or three kids, Cobra would have been $4,000 a month. And they just can’t afford it. But, also, they can’t not have health insurance for their children.

PM: Are there people who signed NDAs in the last decade and now feel “I can talk about my current or former employer because of the new California law”?

IO: Yes, and they absolutely should if they feel comfortable doing it and have their own legal representation. One of the reasons why I am so happy about this bill and the one in Washington state, which is actually retroactive, is that companies will have a harder time going after people — even those with older agreements. But I just want to be super clear that the California bill is not retroactive. It wouldn’t have passed in California. Folks think “oh, California, so liberal, so many Democrats”. But a big block of the assembly — where the majority of the votes for any bill are — is moderate and business-aligned, and aligned with the organisations that were working both in front and behind the scenes to kill the bill. So retroactive [legislation] would have been a poison pill.

PM: More workers these days seem to be trying to unionise. What’s happened in the past few years that’s giving rise to this momentum, and shifting the power balance towards workers?

IO: People are fucking miserable!

PM: Because of Covid?

IO: Because of everything. Because of Covid. Because of the economy. People are miserable and people are dying. And when you’re in a situation where you have to work in order to have health insurance, in order to maybe get care if you get long Covid — which you probably got because you were forced into work — the little that you can do is organise with other workers [and] speak up about your own personal situation. The people who can do that, I think, are privileged.

I want to be careful in the way that’s taken because I don’t think that if you are a low-wage worker, you are in a position of privilege. But there are many people who are low-wage workers who can’t speak up because their immigration status would be at risk. There are many people who work in the tech industry who can speak up for that exact same reason. And there’s a lot pointing to the use of H-1B visas [for foreign workers in speciality occupations] as exactly that sort of blackmail.

So, for the folks who have the ability to connect with other workers and to speak up and to get some form of protection, that’s literally the only power that they have in a system where you have to work to eat, you have to work for your housing, you have to work for your healthcare — and, even when you have a job, none of those things are secure.

PM: At what stage did you even see that there was an NDA in your Pinterest contract? Presumably, that’s not one of the first things they highlight . . . then you sit there on day one going over your health benefits and you see the NDA. You are tied in, so how do you speak up?

IO: Well, there are different NDAs. There are some that companies require at the start of employment. There are some that are introduced for continuing employment — so you get a bonus and a condition of the bonus, because they know that you’ve raised concerns, is signing an NDA. In my case at Pinterest, it was part of pushing me out. So the agreement that we came to in mediation when I was leaving [was] used, in essence, to keep me from filing a lawsuit. And think of the timing. This was beginning of 2020. The day of my mediation was the exact same week when everything was shutting down.

So the calculus that I had was “OK, if I move forward and file this lawsuit, I have no income because they’ve made clear they’re gonna fire me. I’m gonna have no health insurance at the beginning of a pandemic when the courts are also closing. And I may not even get a court date until the end of this year if we’re lucky”.

So I was in a no-win position and it was a multi-page document of several clauses that were both non-disclosure and non-disparagement related.

The non-disparagement . . . language was shockingly similar to what was reported from the Harvey Weinstein non-disclosure and non-disparagement [agreements, used to silence the convicted sex offender’s victims]. It was actual individuals listed that I could not speak about who worked at the company at the time, some who don’t anymore like the CEO who recently was transitioned out. It was as egregious as it gets. And that’s standard fare for these companies because they’re using the same lawyers that the Weinstein Company and others use.

The lawyer that Pinterest hired to represent the company against me, my former colleague and others, including [former chief operating officer] Françoise Brougher is the exact same lawyer who [venture capital firm] Kleiner Perkins hired to go against Ellen Pao [in a gender discrimination lawsuit in 2012]. And it’s always a woman who they hire as lead counsel, especially when it’s a discrimination case. She stated on the record that she didn’t believe that there’s any sexism in Silicon Valley and [Meta executive] Sheryl Sandberg was the example of that. That’s an interview that’s still online. That was her in her capacity representing a law firm that Pinterest then went on to hire. This is someone who I’m sure is still working cases on behalf of companies against women who have been discriminated.

PM: So that’s the tech version of “there’s no racism because Obama was president”.

IO: Correct. And the same sort of legal position that Bill Cosby’s lawyer used, that Harvey Weinstein’s lawyer used — and I believe the lead counsel was a woman as well.

PM: Are NDAs uniquely ubiquitous among tech companies? And when did companies start abusing them by extending the shroud of secrecy from intellectual property into issues like workplace culture?

IO: They are ubiquitous, particularly in the US and in places outside of the US where US companies operate — which I think says everything about where they started from and how they’re used, though they are not a uniquely American thing: the Catholic Church and many other institutions have used NDAs for years.

So they are not particular to the tech industry. The reason why they have been especially abusive within the tech industry is because of the power that industry has not only on the job market, but in all of our lives. When you are working on a product or working in a company where the company has power and it has a presence within almost everyone’s home, it’s now a public issue when there are data privacy crimes going on within the company — and in the US there is now a public issue when there is “pervasive” discrimination. And companies have understood that and have used the same laws and the same language that was created to protect intellectual property to extend that to keeping secrecy over everything.

As a reporter, I’m sure you’ve been asked to sign NDAs if you’ve gone into Facebook’s office, or Google’s office. It’s part of the sign-in process when you’re just walking into the building. The whole cover is about intellectual property and confidentiality, and there is merit to some of that. But not when what you’re trying to cover up is illegal conduct. That’s been going on for decades now.

Pinterest whistleblower Ifeoma Ozoma
Pinterest whistleblower Ifeoma Ozoma has written a step-by-step guide for those considering speaking out about issues in the tech sector © Adria Malcolm/New York Times/Redux/eyevine

PM: Another project you’re behind is the Tech Worker Handbook: a collection of resources for would-be whistleblowers. It includes knowing your rights, tips on working with the media, and getting legal assistance. Can you tell me a bit about it?

IO: That description is partially correct: it is a resource for all tech workers whether or not you end up whistleblowing. Because a big part of my focus was determining whether whistleblowing is the right thing for you. I don’t actually think it’s the right thing for everyone. I’ve written and spoken publicly about how, if I had kids when I was leaving Pinterest, I probably wouldn’t have even hired a lawyer let alone have whistleblown because, as we went into the pandemic I could not have afforded to support anyone else on Cobra [health insurance] or any other of the many needs that you have when you’re running a household without income and without health insurance.

So, what I think is most important — and why preparedness is power — is: understanding your position; understanding the information ecosystem that you’re working in; and understanding first and foremost, no matter how much wool was pulled over your eyes when you first started — particularly for people like me who started in the industry right out of college — you are working for a surveillance company, for the most part, when you think of the large ones at least. They’re surveilling their customers. They’re surveilling people who aren’t even their customers, if you’re thinking about [Amazon’s connected doorbell] Ring and many other examples.

So, what do you think you are under as an employee? One of the things that I was really focused on when putting together the resources for the cyber security section, was getting another device. If you have information that you believe is in the public interest, and you are certain that you want to share this information, are you collecting this and are you making plans on a device that isn’t owned by the company? When I worked at Facebook, I had a phone that Facebook owned and I had a personal phone. Pinterest did not provide phones to workers when I was there so what we were given was an $80 cell phone bill rebate but, in exchange, you had to have the company’s device software on your phone, which meant that at any point in time, they could look at basically anything that was on your personal phone. There are so many ways that they insert themselves into our lives.

So what I want people to think about is whether or not it’s the right decision for you and if it’s the right time to make that decision. If so, then here’s all the info you need to get started. And, if not, then think about what’s best for you and your family because in many cases, your family is implicated in the decisions that you make.

When I was doxxed at Pinterest [having private personal information put online], my biggest concern was my sister. I have a very unique name; it’s not hard to find me; it’s not hard to find where I live. It’s not hard to find my sister’s information and where she lives. And that was my primary concern. If a company like Uber, if a company like Theranos when it existed, if a company like Google wanted to go after you, it’s not hard for them to do it. They often hire private investigators to make sure they can find everything about you online that they don’t already have because they’re your employer; or to actually go to your home, or to your family members’ homes and physically harass them.

PM: You worked at [Facebook owner] Meta and Google — the poster children for surveillance capitalism. What is your take on their business model of tracking you around the internet?

IO: It’s entirely extractive — there’s no other way to describe it. That’s just what the model is: you are the subject of their interest because there are a lot of points of information that they can gather to then sell to people to sell you things. That is the whole way that the business works. And, yes, there are benefits that are provided in addition, but nothing that’s provided as a benefit outweighs the benefit that the company has in you providing information — or in just sucking it up and selling it to others.

PM: Did you have that view when you worked there? Or did that come later?

IO: I sure did. Before I started at Google, I was a political science major at Yale. My focus was on the Fourth Amendment and on privacy rights and on the intersection between privacy and the digital world. And my calculus was: where can I actually learn this? I’m not going to learn this in law school with professors who don’t even understand the tech industry, let alone have ever worked in it. Am I not going to understand this better actually working in the companies and understanding the ways that they then influence policy? I don’t regret the decision to do that because I honestly don’t think I would have considered working on The Silenced No More Act, or had the ability to understand the way that the companies work and the way they influence policy if I hadn’t had the experience of working at Google and Facebook.

PM: You’ve worked with multiple media outlets and helped others speak to media outlets. How do you think we’re doing? What could we be doing better?

IO: It’s actually an interesting conversation now, two years into this period. There’s more reporting on whistleblowers and there’s more reporting on issues within the industry. For a while, there was much fanboying and hero worship — particularly of the figures within the industry, the Marks, the Elons. A little bit of the rose [tint] has been removed from the glasses of reporters, I think.

For so long, whistleblowers were seen as malcontents . . . a company would describe someone as a “leaker”, and language would be used as if you’re talking about illegal behaviour, about something that harms consumers . . . So even the terminology that was used was really skewed in order to demonise the individuals who are working within the industry to make it better. People who whistleblow, for the most part, I think care about the issue and care about changing things.

There’s been better coverage and more balanced coverage in the last two years. And so I have a lot less to complain about there.

PM: You’ve successfully lobbied for change, and changing language — which means policy — at Expensify, Twilio, IBM, Twitter, Microsoft, (Google parent) Alphabet and Salesforce.

IO: Salesforce was the big one. Salesforce was one of the ones that I’m most proud of because they really operated in the way that you’d hope a company would: where the company’s stated values meet the actual bureaucracy of moving something within the company. And they did that in good faith and operated in good faith with us the entire way.

PM: Is there any reason why Apple, Meta, Amazon and Tesla have somehow escaped your wrath?

IO: Oh, they haven’t escaped it! Tesla’s Tesla, and is run by and owned by, in large part, Elon — so with his own personal and work issues, and there seems to be a lot of crossover there. There was a [shareholder] proposal that was brought on arbitration at Tesla, that won the majority of non-Elon votes, which is not the majority of votes at Tesla, unfortunately.

Meta is another company where the structure has been designed such that if you are not Mark [Zuckerberg] or the small number of people who own the majority of shares, and you don’t support it, it’s a no-go. But we did get, I believe the majority of the nine non-executive shares on the Meta vote.

Then Amazon was obstinate and difficult in every way and hired an outside firm to write 40 pages stating all of the many ways in which they respect their workers’ rights and why there’s absolutely no reason for a proposal like this to be on the ballot . . . The vote still was not successful because Amazon shareholders do not care yet enough about this issue.

PM: You are one woman somehow taking on the biggest companies in the world, getting them to tweak their policies and language. So I have to ask: what’s next? Of course, you’ve founded [consultancy firm] Earthseed. What else are you thinking?

IO: I really am focused right now on my garden and my livestock. I want to get goats. That is what is immediately next: getting goats!

The above transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity

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