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Human Rights Groups Call on Facebook to Drop ‘Racist’ Attempt to Silence Whistleblower

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Updated: | Originally published:

Facebook’s parent company Meta is facing strong pushback from human rights groups over its handling of a whistleblower who alleges in a Kenyan court case that the company benefits from exploitative working conditions and has engaged in human trafficking, forced labor and union-busting.

In an open letter published late Wednesday, more than 80 human rights groups, activists, and tech industry luminaries called on Facebook to drop its attempt to impose a gag order against South African whistleblower Daniel Motaung.

In late June, lawyers for Facebook and Sama had called for a gag order on Motaung at a court hearing, arguing that he risked prejudicing the case by speaking to the press. In response, the judge declined to impose an immediate gag order but told lawyers for Facebook and Sama to bring contempt of court proceedings against Motaung if they believed they had evidence to support them.

In emails to TIME after this story was published, Meta and Sama said that they do not plan to formally file such proceedings. “We have not filed nor do we plan to file a ‘gag order’ against Daniel Motaung,” said Sama’s chief marketing officer Suzin Wold in an email.

“We have not issued contempt of court proceedings against Daniel Motaung,” said Meta spokesperson Ben Walters in an email. Meta told TIME that it would not issue such proceedings in the future either.

Motaung was paid $2.20 per hour as a content moderator for Sama, an outsourcing firm contracted by Facebook to screen posts from across sub-Saharan Africa for harmful content. He was fired in 2019 after attempting to start a union. Motaung accuses both Sama and Meta of union-busting and human trafficking, among other charges. He’s now suing both companies in a Nairobi court.

The open letter called on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Sama CEO Wendy Gonzalez to “respect Daniel’s right to speak his truth” and “immediately cease your attempts to impose a gag order.” It also calls on both Facebook and Sama to support unionization in their content moderation workforces.

Facebook argues that it never employed Motaung and that it should therefore be struck as a defendant from the case. Sama denies mistreating workers and says it supports unionization.

Mercy Mutemi, Motaung’s lawyer, argued in court that Motaung and his legal team were already complying with Kenya’s rules about discussing ongoing court cases. She said that any gag order would be a violation of Motaung’s right to freedom of expression.

Read More: Facebook Asks Judge to ‘Crack the Whip’ in Attempt to Silence a Black Whistleblower

The open letter’s signatories hail from the U.S., Africa, Asia, and Europe. They include the rights groups Global Witness, the Kenya Human Rights Commission, Free Press, and SumOfUs. Individuals who signed the letter include professor Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the author and internet freedom activist Cory Doctorow, and Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.

“Meta and Sama publicly claim to champion freedom of expression, and to support global movements fighting for equality and racial justice,” the letter says. “It is impossible to square such statements with your actions in Kenya and with your treatment of content moderation workers globally.”

“It appears Meta and Sama would rather shut Daniel up than meaningfully address his allegations,” the letter says.

The letter also argues that there is a discrepancy between how Facebook has treated Motaung, who is Black, and how it has treated white people seeking accountability in the past. It notes that Haugen, who leaked thousands of pages of company documents last year, and who is white, has been left to speak freely. “It appears to us that [Facebook] is making a racist calculation that it can safely seek to silence Daniel without causing itself a PR crisis,” the letter says.

The letter adds that Sama, which calls itself an “ethical AI” company and claims to have lifted more than 50,000 people out of poverty, “professes to champion dignified work for all but has instead treated its own workers with callous disdain. […] It couldn’t be clearer that both Facebook and Sama view Daniel, and workers like him, as expendable.”

Motaung first blew the whistle in a TIME investigation in February where he described how he was fired after leading an effort to unionize his colleagues, some of whom earned as little as $1.50 per hour. Their jobs include watching videos of murders, rapes, and child abuse. Motaung has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of his work.

Read More: Inside Facebook’s African Sweatshop

“Daniel and the hundreds of colleagues who he is standing up for are an integral part of Facebook’s global workforce,” the letter says. “Their relentless work sifting through the most toxic and harmful content on the platform, including beheadings and child abuse, hour after hour, day upon day, is what keeps the company in business. Their experiences should be taken seriously and they should be encouraged and supported to speak up—not fired from their jobs and gagged.”

The next hearing in Motaung’s case is scheduled for July 27. At that hearing, the judge is expected to rule on whether Facebook should be struck from the case or remain as a defendant. He may also decide whether four other content moderators, who are seeking permission to testify anonymously in support of Motaung, should be allowed to do so.

Update, July 26:

After this story was published, Meta and Sama said in statements to TIME that neither company plans to formally seek gag orders against Motaung in court. This story has been updated to reflect those comments.

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Write to Billy Perrigo at billy.perrigo@time.com