Tech Companies Should Speak Up for Refugees, Not Only High-Skilled Immigrants

Mark Latonero at Harvard Business Review: “The Trump administration’s latest travel ban is back in U.S. federal court. The Fourth Circuit, based in Virginia, and Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, are hearing cases challenging the latest executive order banning immigrants and refugees from six Muslim majority countries from entering the United States. Joining the fray are 162 technology companies, whose lawyers collectively filed an amicus brief to both courts. Amazon, eBay, Google, Facebook, Netflix, and Uber are among the companies urging federal judges to rule against the executive order, detailing why it is unjust and how it would hurt their businesses.

While the 40-page brief is filled with arguments in support of immigration, it hardly speaks about refugees, except to note that those seeking protection should be welcomed. Any multinational company with a diverse workforce would be concerned about limits to international hiring and employee travel. But tech companies should also be concerned about the refugee populations that depend on their digital services for safety and survival.

In researching migration and the refugee crisis in Europe, my team and I interviewed over 140 refugees from Syria, and I’ve learned that technology has been crucial to those fleeing war and violence across the Middle East and North Africa. Services like Google Maps, Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, and Western Union have helped refugees find missing loved ones or locate safe places to sleep. Mobile phones have been essential — refugees have even used them on sinking boats to call rescue officials patrolling the Mediterranean.

Refugees’ reliance on these platforms demonstrates what tech companies often profess: that innovation can empower people to improve their lives and society. Tech companies did not intend for their tools to facilitate one of the largest mass movements of refugees in history, but they have a responsibility to look out for the safety and security of the vulnerable consumers using their products.

Some tech companies have intervened directly in the refugee crisis. Google has created apps to help refugees in Greece find medical facilities and other services; Facebook promised to provide free Wi-Fi in U.N. refugee camps. A day after President Trump issued the first travel ban, which initially suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, Airbnb announced it would provide free housing to refugees left stranded….

The sector should extend these efforts by making sure its technologies aren’t used to target broad groups of people based on nationality or religion. Already the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) is asking for the social media accounts — even passwords — of visitors from other counties. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has filed complaints against the CPB, stating that Muslim American citizens have been subjected to enhanced screening that includes scrutiny of their social media accounts and cell phones.

Trump has talked about creating a database to identify and register Muslims in America, including refugees. A number of companies, including IBM, Microsoft, and Salesforce, have stated they will not help build a Muslim registry if asked by the government. In addition, a group of nearly 3,000 American tech employees signed an online pledge promising they would not develop data processing systems to help the U.S. government target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin….(More)”.