Group of four women who have fought British algorithms are mobilizing for technicians’ rights
LONDON – A four-woman tech advocacy group that forced the UK government to abandon controversial visa processing algorithm and led a public backlash against a high school grade prediction tool is being launched .
Uber Technologies Inc.
on workers’ rights.
The group, named Foxglove after the European flower which the founders note can act both as a poison or as a remedy, has become a sudden force in tech circles on the continent. Its recent high-profile UK success over the past year and a half has given it an unusual global platform for such a small group.
Similar groups have sprung up in Europe and the United States to challenge what they see as the rising power of Silicon Valley, with the advocacy largely focused on privacy issues. Foxglove has charted a different course, targeting government-created algorithms that increasingly make decisions in civic areas such as education and immigration.
“There was hardly anyone in civil society doing anything about it,” said one of Foxglove’s founders, Cori Crider, a 39-year-old Texan. “What interests us is this change in the way power has been exercised, almost hiding a bunch of questionable political judgments behind a technical veneer.”
A nonprofit with a budget this year of just over half a million dollars, Foxglove is now focusing on the rights of tech workers. Its founders met in 2019 for weekend brunches at their homes in London. Along with Ms Crider, the group’s leaders are Rosa Curling, a 42-year-old British lawyer, and Martha Dark, a 33-year-old operations manager for human rights groups. All three had worked on broader human rights issues. Last year, Hiba Ahmad, 27, a researcher, joined us.
One of Foxglove’s biggest actions came last year, after the pandemic forced the cancellation of high school exams across the country, which are essential for securing places at the country’s top universities. The UK government has developed an algorithm to predict what grades students would get, based on things like past performance and their school’s track record.
Foxglove represented Curtis Parfitt-Ford, a straight-A student in London who said the algorithm could rank some state-funded schools lower than private schools in the country. As opposition to the plan mounted, Foxglove launched its first legal challenge on behalf of Mr Parfitt-Ford, directed him to press interviews and suggested he set up a petition that gathered around 250,000 signatories.
The government abandoned its plan. Ofqual, the regulatory body that chairs the tests and designed the algorithm, declined to comment. At the time, he defended the tool as fair, but later apologized for causing distress. Instead, it allowed teachers to provide predictive grades.
Foxglove previously targeted another government-created algorithm, which decided whether certain immigrants could enter the country. In its most decisive victory, the group sued the government, alleging that the tool used the nationality of candidates to unfairly assess the merits of their candidacy.
The challenge represented the first attempt to subject an automated system to judicial review in Britain, Foxglove said. Before the case went to court, the government said it would stop using the algorithm and review its visa screening systems for bias. In its legal response to Foxglove, the UK government said the changes did not necessarily mean it accepted the allegations of bias.
Ms Crider said that in some cases, powerful algorithmic tools are technologically unsophisticated. “The visa algorithm that we reversed was a step up from a spreadsheet,” she says.
The group’s work has caught the attention of industry leaders. “The Foxglove team has shown that a few intrepid and nimble lawyers can have a disproportionate impact on tough tech giants,” said Harry Briggs, Managing Partner at Omers Ventures, the tech investment arm of Canadian pension fund Ontario Municipal. Employees Retirement System.
Foxglove’s work on tech worker rights issues is drawing attention outside its own territory.
The group has built a network of current and former Facebook contractors with whom it discusses possible lawsuits, lobbying, organizing or providing legal advice and support.
Many of these workers claim that their job editing content for the social media platform has caused psychological injuries. Their job is to review content that could be viewed as harmful or inappropriate, such as terrorist propaganda or pornography. Eight of those workers have taken legal action against Facebook in Ireland, alleging insufficient support and psychological injuries.
Ms Crider said workers did not get enough break time and were forced to make hasty decisions on content.
A spokesperson for Facebook said its content reviewers can take breaks when needed, with no time limits, and don’t have to make hasty decisions.
Foxglove arranged for two content reviewers to meet with the Irish Deputy Prime Minister, who pledged to look into the matter. He also called on the Irish government to hold a parliamentary hearing on the issue in Dublin. This hearing took place on Wednesday.
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The group is also working with Uber drivers in London, where a Supreme Court ruling recently gave them the right to minimum wage. Uber has said it will pay minimum wage for drivers taking fares, but not while they wait for fares, an interpretation according to Foxglove is too narrow. The group has set up a petition for the drivers and is preparing the ground for a possible trial regarding the application of the Supreme Court ruling.
A spokesperson for Uber said Foxglove’s interpretation of the minimum wage decision could force it to ask drivers to work in shifts. It would also leave Uber exposed to abuse, the spokesperson said, if drivers simply kept their app open at potential rates while not working.
Chi Onwurah, Member of Parliament responsible for science and technology for the UK Labor Party, said Foxglove was helping fill a gap. “Having been to a lot of meetings with tech companies, I know they have a lot of lawyers,” she said. “Ordinary people also need lawyers.”
Write to Parmy Olson at [email protected]
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