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In tech worker dissent, signs of a broader shift

Why We Wrote This

Big tech has come under fire in recent months following breaches of public trust. But the industry is also feeling pressure from within, as workers press their bosses to take a moral stand on human rights.

Courtesy of Color of Change
Activists outside Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash., protest the firm’s contract with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

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A successful revolt led by workers at Google to get the company to end its contract with the Pentagon to develop surveillance software for drones has spawned similar uprisings at other tech companies. At Microsoft and the cloud computing company Salesforce, workers are petitioning the companies to cancel contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At Amazon, workers are demanding the company stop marketing face-recognition software to law enforcement. The worker mobilization comes amid a growing awareness of technology’s potential to spy on people and manipulate them psychologically. “We’re at a moment of reckoning for the entire tech industry right now,” says Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a Boston-based internet advocacy nonprofit. “As the industry matures and some of these companies get very, very large, people are starting to see the profound power that this technology has to be used to violate human rights.”

Google is no stranger to petitions, like the ones asking the company to let users customize the Chrome browser, to put Palestine on Google Maps, or to honor Muddy Waters with a Doodle.

But there was something different about the April 4 open letter to Google chief executive officer Sundar Pichai, which now bears more than 4,000 signatures. This one, which asked Google to immediately cancel a contract with the Pentagon for a drone surveillance program and to promise never again to build technology for war, was signed by the company’s own workers.

Google agreed to not to renew its contract with the Defense Department next year, and, in the weeks and months that followed, workers at other tech giants began staging similar rebellions. A June letter by workers to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, asked the company to cancel all contracts with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and with any clients who support the agency. Comparable protests have arisen at Amazon, where workers demanded the company stop marketing its face-recognition software to police departments, and the cloud computing company Salesforce, where workers protested the company’s contracts with ICE. 

“We’re at a moment of reckoning for the entire tech industry right now,” says Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a Boston-based internet advocacy nonprofit. “As the industry matures and some of these companies get very, very large, people are starting to see the profound power that this technology has to be used to violate human rights.”

The revolt came as a surprise to tech companies, who not long ago were touting ICE contracts in press releases. Technologists, workers known more for radical libertarianism than solidarity with the oppressed, are suddenly organizing. 

“There is a sort of political agnosticism that goes on in a lot of the tech industry,” says Jessa Lingel, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “But however true that was as a general norm has become harder and harder to swallow the in wake of certain geopolitical events.”

Chief among those events, observers say, was the election of Donald Trump and the federal policies that ensued.

The Trump administration has woken up a lot of different people in a lot of different areas of the economy,” says Kade Crockford, the director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, citing the Trump’s campaign promise to assassinate members of terrorists’ families and his administration’s attempts to deter migrants by forcibly separating young children from their parents. “It’s policies like that,” says Mx. Crockford, “that have driven many people including people in the tech sector to organizing when those folks have not been so political before.” 

A moral awakening?

The worker rebellions also reflect a broader public shift in our moral reasoning about technology over the past five years. From the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013 to the Cambridge Analytica scandal this year, individual whistleblowers within tech companies have revealed how the internet, envisioned early on as way to help people around the world share knowledge and culture, can be easily repurposed as a tool for surveillance, psychological manipulation, social fragmentation, and addiction. 

This shift has prompted some companies and trade groups to update their ethical guidelines. In June, the Association for Computing Machinery, the world’s largest computing society, updated its code of ethics for the first time since 1992. Last month, a number of tech leaders, including Elon Musk and the three co-founders of Google’s AI subsidiary, DeepMind, signed a pledge agreeing not to develop lethal autonomous weapons. Last week, a proposal appeared in the eminent science journal Nature proposing that computer scientists should have to disclose “any possible negative societal consequences” in order to have their research be considered for peer review.

“The level of specificity of knowledge that technologists have about the ways that the internet can be used for a profoundly negative effects on our society is part of why this movement is arising,” says Ms. Greer, whose organization last week helped deliver an anti-ICE petition bearing more than 300,000 signatures to Microsoft offices around the country. “These are people that really understand the direction that we could end up going in.” 

Professor Lingel suspects that tech workers’ real power lies in influencing public behavior.  “If customers were willing to say, ‘Well we’re not going to buy from these companies unless they reject all government contracts,’ ” she says, “that may actually be more powerful than the programmers saying it.”

But Crockford suggests that some tech workers, thanks to their highly specialized skills, may wield more power over their employers than traditional workers. “This isn’t the kind of scenario where cafeteria workers or janitorial staff are organizing to form a union, and the big boss just fired everybody and hires a bunch of new people,” Crockford says. “They’re not easily replaceable.”

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