Is Silicon Valley developing a “conscience?” It would appear so, judging by the series of employee protests at Google, Microsoft and Amazon in recent months. Across these and other companies, tech employees have been vocal about holding their employers to account. More such protests may be in the works.
Historically known for lax activism, tech workers are organizing on an unprecedented scale for the industry, and inspiring others to do the same. According to Vox, several “employees of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and other tech giants are in regular contact, sharing strategies and blueprints.”
“Silicon Valley has long been anathema to collective organizing by employees, perhaps because of the area and the industry’s decades-long emphasis on radical independence, or perhaps simply because workers there are paid well and given lots of perks to do what feels like good and important work,” wrote April Glaser for Slate.
But now tech workers may be questioning the nature of their own work, and products they’ve helped create that have changed the world.
“After the 2016 election … a lot of people, including the tech companies themselves, are right to wonder whether these products are necessarily making the world a better place,” wrote Glaser.
It started with Google
The wave started in June, when Google employees began protesting the company’s partnership with the Pentagon. Project Maven, a controversial Google-contracted program, was meant to improve the Pentagon’s artificial intelligence capabilities. More than 4,000 employees signed a petition demanding Google remove itself from “the business of war.” About a dozen workers resigned in protest. Google decided not to renew the contract.
Following the lead of Google workers, in late June Microsoft employees raised concerns over a partnership between the company’s Azure Government cloud computing arm and the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE). Under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, ICE has come under fire for unethical treatment of immigrants and violation of human rights, including forcibly separating children from their parents and holding them under living conditions criticized as inhumane.
“We owe a huge debt to the Google employees who were able to get Project Maven not renewed by standing up,” a senior engineer at Microsoft told Vox. “I don’t know if this would have happened if they hadn’t acted first, as it provided a very good blueprint for us.”
In fact, lots of tech companies are working with ICE, according to a public records search conducted by NBC. These companies include Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Motorola Solutions and Thomson Reuters.
Also in June, Amazon workers wrote an open letter to company CEO Jeff Bezos, protesting the sale of Amazon Web Services Rekognition – a facial recognition software – to the the U.S. government and police groups. The letter cited “historic militarization of police, renewed targeting of Black activists, and the growth of a federal deportation force currently engaged in human rights abuses.” Following the letter, the city of Orlando, Florida, announced it had ended its police department’s pilot program with Rekognition on June 26.
Soon after, more than 650 employees at Salesforce, a cloud-computing company, signed a petition asking their employer to cancel a contract with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
“We are particularly concerned about the use of Service Cloud to manage border activities,” the letter read. “Given the inhumane separation of children from their parents currently taking place at the border, we believe that our core value of Equality is at stake and that Salesforce should reexamine our contractual relationship with CBP and speak out against its practices.”
So far, only the Google protest has led to a change in company policy. Nonetheless, that action has opened doors for tech workers elsewhere to speak out against what they consider unethical work with the U.S. government.
Trump’s politicization of tech
The 2016 presidential election was an inflection point for tech workers, according to Stephanie Parker, a policy specialist at YouTube.
“The connections between the technology we’re building, issues in the workplace, and what impact that has had on our communities and on our world have made tech workers more socially conscious,” Parker told Wired.
At the end of 2016, two employees, one each at IBM and Oracle, quit their jobs and posted open letters to their company’s CEOs criticizing those executives’ decision to serve on Trump’s business advisory council.
In 2017, the #DeleteUber campaign, a protest against Trump’s newly instituted travel ban, was ignited by the interpretation the ride-hailing company capitalized on a New York taxi protest against the travel ban by halting its surge pricing for riders going to and from JFK International Airport. Combined with other pressures, the campaign in part led to then-CEO Travis Kalanick’s resignation from the council.
Trump’s travel ban prompted companies, including Microsoft, Google and Apple, to file a legal brief, arguing the ban gave companies incentive to move jobs outside of the United States.
Silicon Valley’s anger over Trump’s travel ban dovetails with recent protests against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), whose policies often anger foreign-born nationals, an essential part of the tech economy in the United States. Whereas at one time tech companies might have spoken out against these policies, now their employees are rallying against their own companies, demanding they be more ethical with their ties to the U.S. government.
ICE anathema to tech industry
Immigration is a major point of contention between the Trump administration and big tech companies. Trump espouses “America First,” while big tech acknowledges that immigrants, including founders, make up a large part of its workforce – 60 percent of STEM employees in Silicon Valley are foreign-born.
In January, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced it would become more restrictive in issuing H-1B visas, which American tech companies use to hire highly skilled foreign workers, such as engineers and IT specialists, which companies say are in short supply in the United States.
H-1B visas are coveted by foreign-born tech workers hoping to find employment in the United States.
“Critics of the visas – 85,000 of which are issued every year – say American workers are aced out of competition with workers who can be paid less,” according to NPR.
Concerns over harmful use of AI
Tech workers have also publicly expressed growing concerns over artificial intelligence technology, fearing the technology they’re helping develop could be used for unethical purposes. Outspoken critics, including Elon Musk, have previously voiced concern over AI’s potential threat. A growing number of research organizations, such as OpenAI and the Future of Humanity Institute, are now studying the ethical use of AI.
The campaign against Project Maven prompted Google CEO Sundar Pichar to release new AI guidelines, pledging not to use its technology for weapons or illegal surveillance. However, the company said it will keep working with the military in other areas.
Then there’s Microsoft’s $19.4 million contract with ICE involving data processing and artificial intelligence capabilities, which employees were “dismayed to learn” about. In a June letter to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, employees cited features such as “deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification,” claiming the immense power of such capabilities meant they did not belong “in the hands of an agency that has shown repeated willingness to enact inhumane and cruel policies.”
Amazon faced criticism not only from its employees, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Both have demanded Amazon stop selling its facial Rekognition software tools to police and other government bodies, saying they could be used to unfairly target immigrants. The ACLU noted such powerful surveillance tools could easily be misused and its investigation revealed Amazon was primarily targeting sales and development of Rekognition to law enforcement and other government bodies.
‘A growing movement’
Silicon Valley has a long history of creating technologies for the U.S. military and government. Tech workers are drawing lessons from that history.
In their letter to Bezos, Amazon employees directly referenced IBM’s work for Nazi Germany that eventually facilitated genocide.
“IBM did not take responsibility then, and by the time their role was understood, it was too late. We will not let that happen again. The time to act is now,” said the letter.
“We are part of a growing movement,” said the letter from Microsoft employees, “comprised of many across the industry who recognize the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm.”