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Tech Industry GCs See Civil Rights As Key Responsibility

By Kelcee Griffis for

Modern general counsel are taking on more responsibilities than ever before, stepping up as the “moral backbone” for their companies while maintaining more traditional compliance roles, said attorneys for FacebookCox Communications and the Motion Picture Association.

Speaking at the Technology Policy Institute’s Aspen Forum, Facebook general counsel Jennifer Newstead said her peers used to be lawyers running small internal teams while outside counsel handled the bulk of the company’s legal issues. Then came the first shift, in which general counsel focused more heavily on compliance and integrity in-house. Now, in-house attorneys are entering a new wave in which social and personal values are merging with more traditional legal responsibilities.

“There’s almost a different expectation of corporate responsibility that’s taken hold. A lot of stakeholders that companies interact with have higher expectations than ever for how companies will show up on policy issues,” Newstead said. “It fuses a bit of the pure legal and the nonlegal aspects of corporate responsibility in a way I don’t think existed 20 years ago.”

To that end, Facebook has implemented a company-wide civil rights task force that seeks to apply equitable approaches to “content policy, fairness in artificial intelligence, privacy, and elections,” according to a company blog post. Facebook also adopted a human rights policy that “is more expressly committing us to human rights principles in the way we operate internationally,” Newstead said.

“That’s a shared responsibility. It’s not just legal,” she added.

Karyn Temple, general counsel for the Motion Picture Association, agreed that her peers are beginning to function as the “moral backbone” of their companies — a role in which individuals can “bring in [their] experiences and values” and make sure their companies meet those standards.

“Increasingly, I think you’ll see the general counsel being an integral part of those conversations from a legal perspective, a moral perspective and just a personal perspective,” said Temple, who has presented congressional testimony on diversity in Hollywood.

At Cox, general counsel Jennifer Hightower said her company is working to prioritize environmental sustainability as well. The Cox Conserves program has committed to “send zero waste to landfill by 2024, and to be carbon and water neutral by 2034,” according to the company’s website.

“That’s become a very, very strong core value that we are championing. It’s a constant mindset [and] we have to make sure we’re doing the right thing in that space,” Hightower said. “It’s the right time for all of us to lean in on these issues.”