“Sorry, that’s a trade secret”

This is some kind of a record. The very name of this blog reflects its new role as my personal soapbox, and regular readers are no doubt familiar with my fearless style. In short, I’m willing to call out anyone or anything, but usually only one or two companies or agencies at a time. For this post, I’m not stopping at two, three, four, or even five companies. No, this post calls out no less than six companies for doing something incredibly brazen–and the shocking thing is that five of them get away with it!

ReadWriteWeb reported on a case involving the San Jose Mercury News. The Mercury News itself ran its own story about the case.

In essence, six companies fought the release of the race and gender of their respective work forces. From the Mercury News article:

[The companies] waged an 18-month Freedom of Information battle with the Mercury News, convincing federal regulators who collect the data that its release would cause “commercial harm” by potentially revealing the companies’ business strategy to competitors.

And further down:

Experts in the area of equal employment law scoffed at the idea that public disclosure of race and gender data — for example, the number of black men or Asian women in job categories such as “professionals,” “officials & managers” and “service workers” — could really allow competitors to discern a big tech company’s business strategy. A bigger issue, they said, is the social cost of allowing large, influential corporations to hide their race and gender data.

The six companies (which I’ll call the “Sneaky Six”) are:

  • Google
  • Yahoo
  • Oracle
  • Apple
  • Applied Materials
  • Hewlett-Packard

Hewlett-Packard lost its fight, while a federal judge upheld the trade secret restriction for the other five.

Thankfully, nine other companies were willing to share the information; these include eBay, Intel, AMD, and Sun Microsystems. (Note that Oracle, named in the first list, completed its acquisition of Sun recently; this may well be the only glimpse at this kind of information for Sun that we’ll ever get.) The article does not list all nine companies, but does mention these are the 15 largest companies in Silicon Valley, so a little detective work should uncover the companies not named.

I’m particularly disappointed that Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard are on this list. I had a higher opinion of Yahoo than most of the other companies named on this list. The same for HP; their products (particularly printers and scanners) have a better track record of free software friendliness as of last time I checked.

I’m assuming most people know who Google, Apple, and Oracle are. It may surprise some of you that I, personally, did not know much about Applied Materials until I looked them up for this post; they aren’t exactly a household name. I’ve linked to the Wikipedia articles for each company for those that might need it.

In closing, I certainly hope that federal judges don’t continue to make horrible mistakes like this. The first step to countering racial or gender bias is to know that it exists: the “Sneaky Six” would just as soon keep us in the dark about it. That is, quite honestly, conduct unbecoming of companies in a leadership position.