The tech industry and human rights - Activate World

The tech industry and human rights

Dr. Jack Poulson is a former research scientist at Google and recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on American companies building surveillance tools used to violate human rights. In his op-ed, Dr. Poulson makes the case that tech workers who refuse to comply with their employers deserve adequate protections. 

Dr. Poulson left Google due to the company’s work on Project Dragonfly, the effort to modify search to meet the censorship and surveillance requirements of the Chinese Communist Party. 

Lunchtime Conversations:

  • If development projects are morally defensible, should tech companies openly discuss the human rights implications of their work for the sake of transparency?
  • Collective worker action is particularly effective in companies whose bottom lines rely on their ability to retain highly skilled computer scientists. Do they have more power than individual consumers to push companies to be responsible corporate citizens?


  • “We can forgive your politics and focus on your technical contributions as long as you don’t do something unforgivable, like speaking to the press,” parting advice given to Dr. Poulson during his Google exit interview after a month of requesting the company clarify its ethical red lines around Project Dragonfly. 
  • Internal turmoil at Google led to the creation of Google’s AI Principles, which committed the company to not “design or deploy” technologies that violate “widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.”
  • Earlier this year, Thermo Fisher was selling DNA analyzers to aid in the current large-scale domestic surveillance and internment of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group, in the region of Xinjiang. This ended after the story broke in the New York Times. 


Almost a decade ago, Cisco Systems was sued in federal court on behalf of 11 members of the Falun Gong organization, who claimed that the company built a nationwide video surveillance and “forced conversion” profiling system (now considered artificial intelligence) for the Chinese government that was tailored to help Beijing crackdown on the group.

Even though the court acknowledged that Cisco built “individual features customized and designed specifically to find, track and suppress Falun Gong,” early rulings went against the plaintiffs, and the case is still pending. Many believe this failure to hold Cisco accountable set a precedent for American companies to build artificial intelligence for foreign governments to use for political oppression. 

Tech companies are spending record amounts on lobbying and trying to limit employees’ legal protections for organizing. Legislators should be responsive to human rights organizations and research institutions by guaranteeing explicit whistle-blower protections similar to those recently passed by the European Union. 

Across the technology industry, rank-and-file employees are demanding greater insight into how their companies are deploying the technology they build. At Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Salesforce, as well as at tech start-ups, engineers and technologists are increasingly asking whether the products they are working on are being used for surveillance in places like China or military projects in the United States or elsewhere.

Engineers are asking questions about ethics, and this is likely to continue. Some engineering students have said they are demanding more answers and are asking similar questions, even before they move into the workforce.

Sources:  Carnegie Endowment,The GuardianThe New York Times

Photo by Victor Garcia on Unsplash