LONDON—A four-woman technology-advocacy group that forced the British government to scrap a controversial algorithm for processing visas and led a public backlash over a tool for predicting high-school grades now is taking on
Uber Technologies Inc.
over worker rights.
The group, named Foxglove after the European flower that, the founders note, can act as both poison or cure, has become a sudden force in the continent’s tech circles. Its recent high-profile success in the U.K. over the past year and a half has given it a global platform unusual for such a small group.
Similar groups have sprung up in Europe and the U.S. to challenge what they view as the rising power of Silicon Valley, with the advocacy largely centered on privacy issues. Foxglove has cut a different path, taking aim at government-created algorithms that increasingly make decisions in civic areas like education and immigration.
“There was almost nobody in civil society doing anything about that,” said one of Foxglove’s founders, Cori Crider, a 39-year-old Texan. “What we’re interested in is this change in the way power has been exercised, almost hiding a bunch of contestable policy judgments behind a technical veneer.”
A nonprofit with a budget this year of just over a half-million dollars, Foxglove is now looking into tech-worker rights. Its founders came together in 2019 over weekend brunches at their homes across London. Along with Ms. Crider, the group’s leaders are Rosa Curling, a 42-year-old British attorney, 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.
One of Foxglove’s biggest actions came last year, after the pandemic forced the cancellation of Britain’s nationwide high-school exams, which are key to securing places at the country’s best universities. The U.K. government devised an algorithm to predict the grades students would have achieved, based on elements such as past performance and their school’s track record.
Foxglove represented Curtis Parfitt-Ford, a straight-A student in London who said the algorithm might rank some state-funded schools lower than the country’s private schools. As opposition to the plan mounted, Foxglove launched its first legal challenge on Mr. Parfitt-Ford’s behalf, steered him to press interviews and suggested he set up a petition which collected roughly 250,000 signatories.
The government dropped its plan. Ofqual, the regulatory body that presides over the testing and devised the algorithm, declined to comment. At the time, it defended the tool as fair, but later apologized for causing distress. Instead, it allowed teachers to provide predictive grades.
Foxglove previously had targeted another government-created algorithm, which decided whether certain immigrants could enter the country. In its most decisive win, the group sued the government, alleging the tool used the nationality of applicants to unfairly assess the merits of their applications.
The challenge represented the first attempt to subject an automated system to judicial review in Britain, Foxglove said. Before the case made it to court, the government said it would halt use of the algorithm and review its visa-filtering systems for bias. In its legal response to Foxglove, the British government said the changes didn’t necessarily mean it accepted allegations of bias.
Ms. Crider said that in some cases, powerful algorithmic tools are technologically unsophisticated. “The visa algorithm we knocked over was one step up from a spreadsheet,” she said.
The group’s work has caught the eye of industry leaders. “The Foxglove team have shown that a few fearless, nimble lawyers can have outsized impact in challenging tech giants,” said Harry Briggs, a managing partner at Omers Ventures, the technology investing arm of Canadian pension fund Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System.
Foxglove’s work on rights issues for tech workers is garnering attention outside its home turf.
The group has built a network of current and former Facebook contract workers with whom it discusses potential legal action, lobbying, unionizing, or provides legal advice and support.
Many of those workers allege their content-review work for the social-media platform has caused psychological injury. Their work involves reviewing content that might be considered harmful or inappropriate, like terror propaganda or pornography. Eight of those workers have started legal proceedings against Facebook in Ireland, alleging inadequate support and psychological injuries.
Ms Crider said the workers weren’t given adequate break time and were pressured into making hasty decisions about content.
A Facebook spokeswoman said that its content reviewers could take breaks when needed, with no time limits, and weren’t pressured to make hasty decisions.
Foxglove arranged for two content reviewers to meet Ireland’s deputy prime minister, who pledged a review of the issue. It also successfully petitioned the Irish government to hold a parliamentary hearing about the issue in Dublin. That hearing took place Wednesday.
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The group also is working with Uber drivers in London, where a Supreme Court ruling recently entitled them to minimum wage. Uber has said it would pay minimum wage for drivers who take fares, but not while they await fares, an interpretation Foxglove says is too narrow. The group set up a drivers petition and is laying the groundwork for a potential lawsuit over the enforcement of the Supreme Court ruling.
An Uber spokesman said Foxglove’s interpretation of the minimum-wage ruling could require it to ask drivers to work in shifts. It would also leave Uber open to abuse, the spokesman said, if drivers simply keep their app open for potential fares while not working.
Chi Onwurah, a member of Parliament overseeing science and technology for Britain’s opposition Labour Party, said Foxglove was helping fill a gap. “Having sat in many meetings with technology companies, I know they have lots of lawyers,” she said. “Ordinary people need lawyers, too.”
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