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Silicon Valley can’t ignore the gun control debate after the YouTube shooting

Some tech CEOs are starting to take overt stances on gun control, and that could impact products

by David Gilbert
Apr 4 2018, 5:35pm

Silicon Valley has typically been reticent to take political stands on issues, particularly anything that could alienate large swaths of their U.S. user base. But the shooting Tuesday at YouTube headquarters is bringing the gun control debate to the tech industry's front door.

Police confirmed Tuesday night that 38-year-old vegan activist Nasim Aghdam shot and injured three employees in the San Bruno, Calif., building, before killing herself. Aghdam had expressed anger and hatred toward YouTube after “closed-minded employees” censored her content, which ranged from graphic animal abuse videos to fitness routines.

While tech companies have been slow to fully engage in the wider debate on gun control in the U.S. — even in the wake of the Las Vegas and Parkland mass shootings — it looks like that attitude might soon change.

“I think that what you often see is when an incident of gun violence touches home for a particular community, that is often what it takes for that community to get engaged on that issue, so I'm not surprised to see some of the CEOs after the shooting yesterday speak out about gun violence,” said Chelsea Parsons, vp for gun violence prevention at the Center for American Progress.

Read: Police talked to YouTube shooter hours before the shooting

The tech platforms have been struggling with gun violence playing out across their networks for years. On Tuesday, Facebook was dealing with the death of a Detroit teenager live on Instagram, which came just three days after a man in Houston was killed on Facebook Live as he and two friends played with guns while sitting in a vehicle.

But having it occur at a major campus in Silicon Valley is raising the temperature considerably.

“The reality is that communities do not get vocal on issues until they directly affect them,” said Margot Hirsch, president of the Smart Tech Foundation, a group that funds the development of innovating products in smart-gun technology.

On Tuesday, several high-profile leaders in the tech industry publicly advocated for greater gun control, aligning themselves with a political stance that is controversial in America.

Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey, reacting to Donald Trump’s tweet saying his “thoughts and prayers” were with the victims, said: “We can’t keep being reactive to this, thinking and praying it won’t happen again at our schools, jobs, or our community spots. It’s beyond time to evolve our policies.”

Dorsey linked to a post by the student activist group March for Our Lives that lists five suggestions for stopping the problem.

Read: The YouTube shooter was "angry" at the company for censoring her videos

Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, also tweeted his condolences to Google and YouTube, but added the line: “Another tragedy that should push us again to #EndGunViolence”

Aaron Levie, the CEO of cloud storage company Box, used the hashtag #NeverAgain in his message of condolence to the victims, who are in the hospital.

Other, higher-profile tech CEOs, however, continued to duck the gun control debate in their reactions to the shooting. Apple CEO Tim Cook, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos all expressed condolences without referring to gun violence.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki were similarly reticent to enter the gun control debate in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

Google and YouTube did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether the companies or their leaders held strong opinions on the gun control debate.

However, YouTube last month tacitly entered the debate when it drew the ire of the National Rifle Association for banning videos promoting the sale of firearms or detailing how to assemble them.

Some believe Google’s lack of comment in relation to gun violence is simply a smart PR strategy.

“Google and YouTube may be seen by some as being conspicuous in their lack of comment about gun control, but this is actually a PR101 approach to crisis communications in that they are not saying anything rash or knee-jerk that could come back to haunt them in the future,” said Andy Barr, founder of U.K.-based 10 Yetis, a digital media agency.

Read: The NRA had lots to say about building security after the YouTube shootings

Barr points out that Google and YouTube are still in shock following Tuesday’s shooting and their lack of comment should not be read as a sign of support for either side of the debate.

“This isn't a brand move, this isn't a marketing communications move. It is a ‘behaving like a kind human’ move,” Barr said.

But in the wake of mass shootings in Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, and Parkland, there appears to be a shift in attitude among business leaders.

We saw it last month when retailers like Dick's Sporting Goods and Walmart changed their gun sale policies, and companies including Delta, United Airlines, MetLife, and Avis cut their ties with the NRA.

Read: Facebook tried to sell me a bump stock like the Las Vegas gunman used

“In this post-Parkland moment, we have seen a lot more willingness from parts of the business community to start speaking out about this issue,” Parson said.

While outrage has tended to fade in the days and weeks after high-profile shootings, the back-to-back shootings in the last year, together with the attention-grabbing advocacy we have seen from the Parkland student survivors, may help change attitudes for good.

“It is starting to feel like these massive incidents of gun violence is something we are dealing with so regularly, and people are really feeling frustrated by it,” Parson said. “We are entering a new phase of the debate about guns in this country, where we won't so quickly revert to the status quo.”

Cover image: Police search a building at YouTube's corporate headquarters as an active shooter situation was underway in San Bruno, California, on April 3, 2018. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)