Silicon Valley employees increasingly push companies on ethics

Tech employees are flexing new political muscle with the support of nonprofits including newly established organizations and other longstanding groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters, File
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sits surrounded by media to testify before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the Facebook's use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, on April 10, 2018. In recent months, political activism among Silicon Valley tech workers has accelerated.

Employees at several of the world’s biggest technology companies have been exercising newfound political power where they work, pushing their bosses on business ethics with help from established and fledgling nonprofit groups.

Most of the highly paid professional workers at Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and other tech companies have little experience with labor unions, and many have avoided other civil movements. But several organizations such as Tech Workers Coalition and coworker.org are helping techies learn new skills like building consensus across workgroups, drafting effective petitions, and protecting themselves under labor law.

More established groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are also growing more active in Silicon Valley, engaging companies on more topics and helping workers who want to raise issues with management.

Political concern grew following the 2016 presidential campaign. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified in April before Congress about concerns ranging from lack of data protection to Russian agents using Facebook to influence US elections. Recently, activism among Silicon Valley employees has accelerated.

Last month, workers and rights groups persuaded Google not to renew a contract to supply artificial intelligence tools to help the Pentagon analyze footage from drone aircraft. More than 4,000 employees signed the petition which argued that the project could lead to more automated killing.

“We have all this power, and we’re learning to recognize that and apply it, because we are the ones actually building stuff,” said coalition member Tyler Breisacher, who helped spread word on issues within Google before joining a smaller company in May.

In what has become a regular ritual, more than 50 tech workers shared an evening meeting last week in San Francisco’s Mission District. Attendees said they traded stories about accomplishments and tips on sounding out potentially sympathetic coworkers while reducing the risk of termination.

The event was one of a series in the tech hubs of San Francisco and Seattle held by volunteers in the loosely structured Tech Workers Coalition. Formed in 2015, its membership has surged since the 2016 election.

“We have a broad network of community groups, unions, and nonprofits that we collaborate with, but the best education comes from other workers and their past struggles,” the coalition wrote in response to emailed questions. Another relative newcomer, coworker.org, coaches on campaign strategy and media relations.

After the petition drive, Google employees are debating whether, when and how to go public in the future. Many said they would rather be heard internally, earlier in the product cycle.

As Google engineer and activist Liz Fong-Jones put it in a recent talk to software developers: “Ethics crises are a process failure.”

While Google has always prided itself on an open and freewheeling corporate culture, activism is newer to other big tech employers.

Amazon and Microsoft 

Amazon employees wrote a letter protesting the company’s sale of facial-recognition technology to law enforcement agencies, noting the software can make errors and infringe on privacy and due process rights.

At Microsoft, more than 300 workers complained about contracts with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that had been separating families on the US-Mexico border and rounding up longtime residents for deportation.

Longtime activists said they sense a golden opportunity with Silicon Valley employees who often had more experience as the subject of protests. San Francisco residents, for instance, have frequently thrown rocks at company buses they viewed as symbols of gentrification driving out longtime city dwellers.

Activists said tech executives who provide those buses, along with massages and gourmet chefs to workers, are eager not to alienate those same employees with company policies.

“If the morale goes down the tubes and the employee base is not with you, you are going to have a tough time,” said Lynn Fox, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Center for Humane Technology, begun by former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris.

Election was a catalyst 

Many liberal-leaning tech employees became more politically active out of concern that Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter had helped elect President Trump, if only through inaction over incendiary posts and gamed algorithms. Others are growing more concerned about industry issues such as addictive products.

Meanwhile, activists with human rights groups said they are frustrated at fruitless efforts to influence Washington. They are going directly to Silicon Valley with campaigns involving issues such as social media and artificial intelligence.

“It is more important than ever that technologists, engineers, and leadership of tech companies incorporate a human rights-based approach into the design of their products,” said Scott Campbell, a staffer for the United Nation's permanent human rights office.

Mr. Campbell moved to California in hopes of setting up a permanent outpost there. Amnesty International started an area branch in November, and Human Rights Watch opened a Silicon Valley office in 2016.

In February, Amnesty convened a session about the implications of artificial intelligence, with engineers and policy experts from Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and IBM Corp. The result was the Toronto Declaration, which says companies need to make sure that machine learning does not extend discrimination.

The statement was formally released at a May conference in Toronto run by digital rights group Access Now. Advance participation by engineers helped keep the language practical and improves the odds their companies will sign, people familiar with the process said.

The interplay among internal pressure and outside pressure is complex, activists said. For instance, top executives who want to take an ethical stand may find it more convenient to have employees take the lead, said Patrick Ball, director of research at Human Rights Data Analysis Group and adviser to many larger rights groups.

He explained that executives at publicly traded corporations "can’t do anything that takes them away from an obvious sale without an obviously countervailing force” such as employees leaving or public embarrassment. 

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

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