Why Tech Worker Dissent Is Going Viral

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Silicon Valley has a long and secretive history of building hardware and software for the military and law enforcement. In contrast, a recent wave of employee protests against some of those government contracts has been short, fast, and surprisingly public—tearing through corporate campuses, mailing lists, and message boards inside some of the world’s most powerful companies.

The revolt is part of a growing political awakening among some tech employees about the uses of the products they build. What began as concern inside Google about a Pentagon contract to tap the company’s artificial-intelligence smarts was catalyzed by outrage over Trump administration immigration policies. Now, it seems to be spreading quickly.

Within a few days in late June, employees from Microsoft, Amazon, and Salesforce publicized petitions urging their CEOs to cancel or rethink lucrative contracts with US Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and local police departments.

Airing a company’s dirty laundry is new. Historically, tech workers have rarely peeked out from under the industry’s cone of silence—a cultural norm often invoked as a sign of trust in leadership but enforced by a layer of nondisclosure agreements and investigations into leaks.

At Google in particular, managers have encouraged internal debate—and employees have bought into the system. But earlier this year, internal efforts broke down over Google’s role in Project Maven, which applies AI to interpret camera footage from drones. Employees adopted other tactics when they felt executives were downplaying the size and scope of the Pentagon contract. Thousands, including senior engineers, signed a petition asking CEO Sundar Pichai to cancel the contract. Some workers claimed to quit over the relationship. A group of engineers refused to build a security tool necessary for Maven. “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” the petition said, warning Pichai that the company’s involvement in Maven would “irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent.” Earlier this month, Google said it would not renew the Pentagon contract when it expires next year. A few days later, Pichai released a code of ethics to govern Google’s use of AI, which said Google would not develop the technology for use in weapons, but will continue “our work with governments and the military in many other areas.”

'People who signed up to be tech heroes don’t want to be implicated in human rights abuses.'

The changes emboldened workers at other companies. A petition that started with seven Microsoft employees has gained 457 signers asking the company to drop its contract with ICE. “We are part of a growing movement, 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,” the petition says. Two days later, Amazon workers publicized a letter that seeks to halt sales of the company’s facial-recognition services to law enforcement; that has 400 signers. More than 650 Salesforce workers want the company to rethink its relationship with the Customs agency, because “our core value of Equality is at stake.” Each of the companies employs tens of thousands of workers across the globe, so it’s hard to measure the level of internal support for their efforts.

But the protests also drew support from influential academics and researchers, who drafted their own petitions around government contracts at Google and Microsoft, which became a touchstone for anxious employees.

The fledgling movement marks an evolution in the consciousness of tech employees; last year, employees at several companies asked their CEOs to drop out of President Trump’s advisory council and oppose a ban on visitors from predominantly Muslim countries. But asking a company to forgo the revenue of a government contract is a different kind of tradeoff. “One is about the politics, the other is about the core business, what is this company in the business of doing or not in the business of doing,” says Liz Fong-Jones, a site reliability engineer at Google known for her advocacy work.

Such stands against a company’s financial interests are unusual inside private firms, but not unheard of, says Forrest Briscoe, a professor at Penn State’s business school, who has studied internal and external corporate activists. He cites efforts beginning in the late 1980s by environmental scientists employed by Dupont and General Motors to alter those companies’ positions on climate change.

Silicon Valley’s recruiting pitch has long been: Work with us to change the world. Employees are encouraged to make their work life synonymous with their social identity, and many internalize those utopian ideals. “People who signed up to be tech heroes don’t want to be implicated in human rights abuses,” says a senior Google employee involved in the protest against Project Maven.

Tech workers may feel freer to challenge their employers in part because they have marketable skills at a time of great demand, says Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara. “Why don’t you find this among the people wiring the circuit boards together in China? Because there they are much more vulnerable,” he says.

'I’m pretty sure that no one who took a job at Google thought, "I’m going to work for a defense contractor." Lockheed Martin is down the road, they could have gone to work there.'

Lichtenstein compares the tech workers to recent activism by teachers in several states seeking better funding for schools. “The teacher strikes of the last few months were about re-funding public education in austerity states, a political as well as financial shift,” he says. “That has very large consequences for public policy as well as corporate policy.” One Google employee says tech workers benefited from the momentum of the teacher strikes.

But why now? Employees say their companies have grown so big that workers weren’t aware of the extent of their employers’ government contracts.

The shift caught companies accustomed to controlling the narrative flat-footed. They scrambled to downplay blog posts from sales teams just months earlier crowing about contracts with government agencies that are now in the spotlight for harsh treatment of immigrants or invading people’s privacy.

But Stephanie Parker, a policy specialist at YouTube, says the changes have been building. “From the outside, it looks like there’s been an 180-degree change from last month to this month,” she says. In reality, she says, the 2016 election and internal disputes over diversity at Google have awakened employees to “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.”

One reason for the unrest is that the projects involved have very real consequences, says Erica Joy Baker, a former Google engineer and well-known activist within the industry who’s now an engineering manager at Patreon. “Now we’re talking about life and death decisions for a lot of folks,” Baker says. “I’m pretty sure that no one who took a job at Google thought, ‘I’m going to work for a defense contractor.’ Lockheed Martin is down the road, they could have gone to work there.”

The disputed projects span a range, from building facial-recognition technology that could be deployed on unsuspecting people in public to providing computer services that a few years ago would have been run on a machine inside the Pentagon.

Moreover, in each case, there may be ethical considerations on the other side. Matt Zeiler, CEO of Clarifai, an artificial-intelligence company also working on Project Maven, said in a recent blog post that deploying the technology could save lives. Microsoft policy managers told employees in an internal online discussion that the company was in contact with immigration advocacy groups, who said canceling Microsoft’s contract could harm kids and families.

Still, some workers see a common thread through projects with the Pentagon, the immigration services, and the more tenuous connection between the software company Palantir, which works with ICE and uses Amazon’s AWS service. “This is not a hair we can split and say 'actually we didn’t built the jails, we just allowed them to more quickly itemize the invoices for the jails,'” says the senior Google employee involved in the effort to shut down Maven. “This is an ethical question and it’s a question lot of people are asking.”

For now, the movement’s message is not a finely drawn policy position on what kind of government work is acceptable but rather a plea for transparency and a seat at the table, so that employees have a say in where such technology is used.

Some tech workers involved in the protests invoke IBM’s work for Nazi Germany in the years leading up to World War II. Edwin Black, author of IBM and the Holocaust, says the current wave of dissidents is atypical for the tech industry. “You wouldn’t have even asked me this question a year ago. Now we have to ask, is it a political revolt, or is a revolt of consciousness about the capabilities of the technologies being implemented?” In a statement, an IBM spokesperson said, “As with other foreign-owned companies that did business in Germany at that time, IBM's German operations came under the control of Nazi authorities prior to and during World War II.”

Employees are aware this will be a long slog and have been skeptical of the lawyered-up, press-friendly but vague responses. In Google's new AI principles, Pichai said the company will not pursue “technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights,” according to the blog post. “Who says that?” another Google employee involved in the Maven protest asked WIRED. “Either you support human rights or you don’t.”


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