Silicon Valley likes to think it is an engine of progress, which in turn helps tech companies self-identify as standard-bearers of progressivism. And in many ways, Silicon Valley is progressive. Companies voiced opposition to President Trump’s bigoted executive order barring transgender people from serving in the military, and they stood up against the Trump administration’s Islamophobic travel ban. Many tech CEOs spoke out this month against the separation of families at the border. While long hours are de rigueur in Silicon Valley and the jobs are dominated by white males, many of these companies emphasize at least some progressive values in the workplace, hosting open forums for employees to discuss politics and internal dynamics, offering ample time off, and creating well-funded (if too frequently ineffective) diversity initiatives.
But simply being opposed to the most horrific actions of the federal government right now isn’t that hard, particularly if you’re already powerful. Which is why a growing number of employees of major American tech companies are starting to demand that their companies do more.
In recent weeks, workers at Google, Salesforce, Amazon, and Microsoft have all urged their employers to stop providing technology services to local and federal government agencies that engage in police surveillance, military work, and immigration enforcement and deportation. Some are being heard. At the beginning of the month, Google decided to stop building artificial intelligence services for a Pentagon drone program after thousands of employees signed a petition asking the company to end its Department of Defense contract. (Employee backlash to Project Maven, the code name for the initiative, was so strong that dozens of Google employees quit over the partnership in protest.) Last Tuesday, more than 100 employees of Microsoft wrote a letter to CEO Satya Nadella protesting a $19.4 million contract the company has with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to provide database and artificial intelligence services. Days later, Amazon employees sent an internal letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos demanding their employer stop selling its facial recognition technologies to law enforcement and stop providing digital infrastructure, like web hosting or cloud services, to Palantir and other companies that do surveillance work for ICE. “We refuse to build the platform that powers ICE, and we refuse to contribute to tools that violate human rights,” reads the letter, which the employees sent last Thursday.
Amazon didn’t even get the chance to act. On Monday, the police department of Orlando, Florida, announced it would stop using Rekognition, Amazon’s face-identification software. In May, the American Civil Liberties Union had released hundreds of pages of public records detailing the use of Amazon’s software in police departments in Orlando as well as Washington County, Oregon. The revelations prompted a response from civil-liberties and social-justice groups like the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, the Council on American–Islamic Relations, and others demanding Amazon stop selling its technology to law enforcement, which could use it to target communities of color. In order for facial recognition technologies to work, images captured have to get a match in a database, like one of mug shots, which typically have a disproportionate number of black people in them, thus compounding the effects of racial profiling by police departments. The Orlando police chief said in a statement that the contract had “expired,” but the bad press had been piling up. What was perhaps most unusual about it all was that critics of the technology included employees of the private company in question.
The tech-worker activism isn’t working everywhere, of course, at least not yet. After Microsoft employees sent their letter to Nadella asking the company to end its ICE contract, the CEO issued a statement calling the federal government’s immigration policy “simply cruel and abusive” but adding that “Microsoft is not working with the U.S. government on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border.” Nadella stressed that Microsoft’s cloud services are only used in mail, document management, and calendars for the agency, though he neglected to make the connection that the act of separating families wouldn’t have been possible without a vast bureaucratic and logistical machine behind it. Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, also wrote a blog post, titled “The Country Needs to Get Immigration Right,” detailing Microsoft’s support of more humane immigration policies. Still, the contract remains in place.
The recent surge of tech-employee protests isn’t a brand-new phenomenon. Since Donald Trump was elected president, they’ve agitated behind the scenes to push their bosses to resist the president’s agenda. At the end of 2016, employees of both IBM and Oracle left after their CEOs agreed to serve on White House advisory councils. At Uber, then-CEO Travis Kalanick, who also served on a Trump economic-advisory council, was asked by his employees in a late January 2017 meeting: “What would it take for you to quit the economic council?” Kalanick stepped down from the appointment later that week, though his resignation occurred amid a burgeoning PR crisis for his company, the #DeleteUber campaign, which emerged from the perception that Uber had bucked a New York taxi protest of the administration’s travel ban. Kalanick’s peers were making noise at the same time too. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos pledged to fight the travel ban in court, Google co-founder Sergey Brin went to San Francisco International Airport to join a protest, and companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook signed a legal brief calling the travel ban unlawful. On the Google campus, thousands of employees rallied to protest the travel ban.
And while the tech industry’s opposition to the young Trump administration’s immigration actions was loud and swift and an important show of industry leadership against a bigoted policy, it in part made good business sense. The tech industry relies on an immigration system that permits high-skilled immigrants to enter the U.S. for work—a system that was disrupted by the ban. Now, however, employees of tech companies are asking their companies to go further—not just protecting their own workforce or making simple statements of opposition to abuses of power, but to take a hit to their own coffers and stop providing technology services to the government agencies that realize the White House’s policies.
Employees are making a compelling case. By refusing to work on projects that they feel facilitate government abuses of power, tech workers are making what tech companies previously deemed innocuous business activities into acts of complicity. And that puts companies in a bind: Either they continue providing tech for street-level surveillance, Trump’s deportation agenda, and military drones—sending a signal that this work is worth doing, even while making public denouncements of Trump’s policies—or they square their words and their deeds and stop working with the government.
Organizing in Silicon Valley for ethical business practices didn’t start with Trump. The internet, after all, was originally a military project. Tech workers in the 1970s had Computer People for Peace, a group of anti-war activists that worked in the industry, warning in a 1971 ad that “Computers are at the heart of every military and police system,” are core to every major corporation, are “used to maximize profits with very little regard for human needs,” and that the industry is “overwhelmingly dominated by white males.” And it was Boeing’s technical staff and engineers with the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, who in 2000 organized the longest and biggest white-collar strike in American history. And then there are groups like the Tech Workers Coalition, which acts as a communications and resource hub for tech workers looking to link up with their peers and organize internally; the group started in 2014 as a way for technical employees to stand in solidarity with cafeteria and janitorial staff and security guards who work at tech companies and were trying to unionize. Members of Tech Workers Coalition have also organized on issues like pay inequity at technology companies along race and gender lines. The same loose community is now acting as a hub for employees of tech companies who want to push their employers to stop working with the military, on police surveillance, and with ICE.
Silicon Valley has long been anathema to collective organizing by employees, perhaps because of the area and the industry’s decadeslong emphasis on radical independence, or perhaps simply because workers there are paid well and given lots of perks to do what feels like good and important work. That work was—and still is—often defined as being inherently good for society. As Mark Zuckerberg put it in 2017, Facebook, for all its problems, ultimately aims to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Google’s mantra used to be “Don’t be evil.” If the mission of a company is going to make the world a better place, why doubt the particulars of the work it does? And besides, if tech workers weren’t happy, the thinking has long been that all they needed to do was walk down the street to find another six-figure job, and probably get a raise too.
But after the 2016 election—in which the social platforms made by some of the world’s biggest companies were infested with vitriol, division, and trolls and propagandists of foreign and domestic vintage—a lot of people, including the tech companies themselves, are right to wonder whether these products are necessarily making the world a better place. What we’re seeing now is that the leaders of these companies know what words to say—but it’s their employees who know what doing the right thing looks like.