How Tech Giants Became a Leading Civil-Rights Voice

In the tech industry, civil-rights activism is simultaneously considered a responsibility and just good business.

Once the disruptive, gangly adolescents of the business world, tech companies are now one of the most effective civil-rights voices in the U.S., and they're increasingly unafraid to throw their weight around.

Based largely in liberal West Coast cities and hungry for a young, diverse workforce, tech giants such as Apple, Google, and Microsoft routinely speak out on civil-rights issues—most notably, LGBT rights and immigration.

Over the past week, the leaders of two tech giants denounced an Indiana "religious freedom" law that they called discriminatory. Apple CEO Tim Cook, who is openly gay, published an op-ed on Sunday condemning the law for "rationaliz[ing] injustice." And Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, threatened to use his company's economic clout in Indiana to impose "economic sanctions" if the law is not repealed.

On Wednesday, the leaders of dozens of prominent tech companies—including Twitter, Yelp, eBay, and PayPal—chimed in, signing a joint statement condemning Indiana's law and similar measures in other states.

Max Levchin, who cofounded PayPal and helped launch Yelp, organized the joint statement. In an email, he described the tech industry as innately progressive. "The younger generation is drawn to work and live in places that respect everyone regardless of who they love, what they look like, or who they pray to," Levchin said.

That means that tech companies have a special stake in supporting a diverse workforce and keeping it happy, says Fred Sainz, a vice president at the Human Rights Campaign. "It doesn't surprise us when we see the technology industry on the leading edge of opposing these kinds of laws, because they are completely anathema to their work environment," Sainz said.

When it comes to civil-rights activism, tech companies are ahead of the curve, says Sainz. "They live it and breathe it in a way that other industries might not," he said.

On LGBT issues especially, Apple and Google have consistently been loud activists. For the past 14 years, the Human Rights Campaign has published a scorecard that rates companies based on their commitment to LGBT rights. Apple is among the 13 companies that have gotten the top rating in every year.

"In the tech corridor, there is absolutely no doubt that Apple has always been on the leading edge of advocating for LGBT people," Sainz said. The company was one of the few that publicly came out in opposition to Proposition 8, a 2008 California state constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage. (The amendment was later overturned.)

And in 2012, Google launched a campaign called "Legalize Love" that pushed back against countries with anti-homosexuality laws. The campaign initially focused on Singapore, a wealthy tech hub that has strict laws forbidding homosexual acts, and Poland, where same-sex couples lack certain legal protections.

Apple and Google, along with 377 other companies, signed a brief last month in support of same-sex marriage in a case before the Supreme Court.

Tech companies have also gotten involved in immigration policy, most notably through Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's, a lobbying group that advocates for changes to the U.S. high-skilled visa program. A list of the group's major funders includes the leaders of such tech giants as AOL, Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo.

"I think that technology companies are recognizing that they are a vitally important force not only in the economy but also in our culture," said Abdi Soltani, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Northern California branch. "Their ability to speak out for civil rights and equality really helps move the conversation on these issues forward."

Supporting civil rights can also be a smart economic move for these companies.

"Tech companies also realized very quickly that discrimination was bad for business and the best way to attract the best talent was to ensure their policies and culture reflected a welcoming environment," Levchin said.

Although tech companies are often effective advocates for civil rights at home and abroad, some have caught a fair amount of criticism for their own business practices. There's room to improve "in terms of their supply chain, both domestically and internationally," Soltani said, "as well as ensuring equal opportunity based on race and gender."

"We still have a lot of work to do," said Levchin, "to ensure women receive a fair shot in this industry."