Activist tech workers shaking up Silicon Valley - Activate World

Activist tech workers shaking up Silicon Valley

Storyline:

In December 2016, President-elect Donald Trump met with some of the tech world’s most prominent CEOs including Tim Cook of Apple, Larry Page of Alphabet, Satya Nadella of Microsoft, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. This meeting did not sit well with the rank and file tech community that are often recruited globally. Trump had alienated many with his anti-immigrant campaign promises and this gathering seemed like an endorsement of these views. 

Trump’s threats of mass deportations and a ban on Muslims caused additional concerns for some. These actions meant targeting activities that required databases and information collection on segments of the population. It was anticipated that Silicon Valley engineers would be asked to build such databases, and this made matters worse.

Tech workers looked for ways to make statements to the incoming administration and tech leadership that Silicon Valley’s tech workforce strongly opposed these policies. The result was the Never Again pledge, signed by 2,843 engineers, designers, and other workers at companies including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. Alluding to IBM’s punch-card technology used in Holocaust record-keeping, the workers vowed they would not be involved in the development of any targeted databases for the U.S. government. They also wrote a playbook for worker-led resistance: Confront leadership with issues, whistle-blow, protest, and as a last resort, resign.

This movement has gained traction in some of the country’s largest tech companies. At Google, workers organized to shut down Project Maven, a Pentagon project that uses machine learning to improve targeting for drone strikes – and won. In June, Amazon employees sent an open letter to Jeff Bezos demanding the company’s Rekognition face-identifying technology no longer be sold to law enforcement and other government agencies. They also wanted Amazon web services to stop hosting companies like Palantir, that service Immigration and Customs Enforcement agencies. 

That same month, Salesforce received a petition signed by 650 employees asking the company to stop providing recruiting software to Customs and Border Protection agencies. 500 employees at Microsoft reportedly signed a petition to convince management to no longer sell cloud services to ICE. 

Noteworthy:

  • Jack Poulson, a Google research scientist, quit the company when he learned his work would contribute to censorship and surveillance in China. 
  • Companies now have to be aware their strategies are subject to the judgment of their employees and that this could impact not only their image, but their ability to attract and retain talent.
  • Tech worker campaigns have been strengthened by alliances with scholars, community organizers, immigrant rights activists, and groups like the ACLU.

Quests and Actions (Q&A):

  • How can tech leaders balance their company’s financial interests with ethical considerations about the impact of the technologies they develop?
  • Tech workers are asking for transparency, a seat at the table, and a say in where the technology they develop is used. Are these reasonable and valid requests? How would you respond?
  • Human rights activists’ groups are skipping Washington and going directly to Silicon Valley with campaigns on issues such as social media and artificial intelligence. Will this strategy pay off since business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than elected officials?

Sources: CSMonitor, Fast CompanyForbesNYTimesThe Guardian

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash