Silicon Valley is in the middle of an awakening, the dawning but selective realization that their products can be used to achieve terrible ends.
In the past few months, this growing unease has bubbled up into outright rebellion from within the rank and file of some of the largest companies in the Valley, beginning in April when Google employees balked at the company’s involvement with a Pentagon artificial intelligence program called Project Maven. On Monday, Amazon shareholders sent an open letter asking CEO Jeff Bezos to halt a program developing facial recognition software for governments pending a review by the board of directors. Also this week, as general horror built up over the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which has led to the separation of more than 2,000 children from their parents, Microsoft employees objected to their company’s contract with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to use Microsoft’s Azure cloud services.
“We are part of a growing movement, comprised of many across the industry who recognize the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm,” reads an open letter posted to the company’s internal message board Tuesday.
That same day, Microsoft president Brad Smith published a blog post calling on the government to end the zero-tolerance policy. He also pointed out that Microsoft cofounded Kids in Need of Defense, one of the largest immigrant advocacy groups that is working to reconnect children and parents, and whose board Smith himself chairs. CEO Satya Nadella sent a company-wide memo Wednesday, which he also published online, assuring employees that Azure was not used to support ICE’s separation of families. Other Silicon Valley leaders have followed suit in publicly opposing Trump’s immigration policy: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is raising money for organizations working at the border, Apple’s Tim Cook called the policy inhumane, and Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins called on Trump to end the policy, among others.
The question now is whether this is the start of a larger reflection on the role technology plays not just in government work but in all aspects of life. Silicon Valley’s internal outrage can have the most power when it’s aimed at what’s broken about itself.
You have a lot of power in these companies. Don’t waste your opportunity. There are so many other things to change
Kathy Pham, Berkman Klein Center fellow
So far, the tech employee objections have mostly centered on their companies’ work with the government on high-profile military or law enforcement projects. The pushback is powerful: Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced he would not renew the contract with the Department of Defense. Though Microsoft hasn’t canceled its ICE contract, it immediately moved to address its employees’ concerns.
Yet, government contracts like these are a tiny part of the problems in tech. “It’s easy to stand up against DOD and drones or ICE using your cloud. These are certain really easy tangible things to stand up against, but meanwhile your company is doing all this other stuff that deserves deeper scrutiny,” says Kathy Pham, a former product manager at Google and founding product lead at the United States Digital Service. As a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, she is currently studying how to make tech a more ethical industry.
Where, she and others wonder, is this level of concern over policies and products that originate within these companies themselves and that can disenfranchise, divide, or otherwise harm people?
Everyday Ethical Concerns
When Pham first read the Google Maven news, she wondered why Googlers were only now realizing that the company’s products could be used in damaging ways. Where was the outcry over the ways Google Maps are used for surveillance? Her question echoes the thoughts of author Yasha Levine, who pointed to ICE’s use of Google Maps, telling my colleague Nitahsa Tiku on Monday, “Does that make Google complicit in Trump’s immigration policies? I say, yes.” Levine is concerned about all the many mundane ways tech is used by powerful interests, writing on Twitter today: “When everyone was freaking out over Cambridge Analytica I reminded people that powerful interests use tech like that all the time, including Charles Koch and Co.”
The problem goes beyond government integrations, and beyond any one tech company. Where is the public outcry over about biased search results? The mundane surveillance economy? Or racist facial recognition software? These issues have received sustained of attention from academia and the press, but haven’t stoked rebellion from inside the companies using and developing them.
We haven’t seen public criticism from Google employees over the ways Google Plus is being coopted by Nazis after they are kicked off of Twitter and Facebook, or the privacy nightmare of how it tracks people. We haven’t even seen much public criticism from within Facebook over the role its platform plays in the dissemination of false political propaganda, such as during the 2016 US election and around the world in places like Sri Lanka, despite facing so much external criticism.
Facebook was forced to respond in some way to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and has since taken steps to clean up fake news on the site. But those efforts seem to lack a wider self-awareness about the scope of the issues and the ways in which disinformation flourished on the site by taking advantage of features, not bugs, in the platform. Zuckerberg’s mealy-mouthed congressional testimony, and the subsequent silence in the valley, recently led longtime resident and management expert Tom Peters to tell Recode that Silicon Valley had become a “moral cesspool.”
Former Facebook employee Sandy Parakilas wrote on Twitter Tuesday, “To the tech execs who made the bad decisions that got us here, and who are tweeting their horror at the child separation policy: THIS IS YOUR FAULT! Don’t ever forget that.” In a follow-up with WIRED, he explained he was specifically upset that tech leaders, like Zuckerberg, whose design and product choices helped get Donald Trump elected, would now come out against his policies without any acknowledgment of their own culpability.
To make it worse, he says, “so few of them have called Trump out by name. I think it’s cowardly to express outrage at the policy while continuing to do business with the administration, without even naming the person directly responsible.”
So why does the tech industry have a louder voice speaking out about government contracts than work cooked up in its own kitchens?
Silicon Valley workers see themselves as part of the solution to society’s ills, not the problem. And the history of government-tech partnerships is not all bad. After all, the world wide web itself was a government-funded project. The early days of the valley were nurtured by US government support. And many tech-government partnerships have admirable intentions. Take the USDS, which tries act like a startup to solve technical problems more nimbly than government bureaucracy usually allows.
But the extreme polarization of American politics has seeped into everyday life. Everything feels political now, even tech. And because the Trump administration has been so defined by controversy and policies many people find objectionable, any government-tech alliance has become suspect. That, combined with the cacophony on social media, creates an environment where people feel obligated to speak out about whatever outrage is dominating the news cycle. We saw the same thing last year after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville: Google and GoDaddy refused to host Nazi websites, and AirBnB closed white supremacist accounts. (Though even here there are limits—the gun control debate, for instance, hasn’t received the same attention from the tech world.)
Pham points out that there were problematic policies under President Barack Obama, too. She remembers when she worked at USDS that her team had to write Obama a letter explaining why a security improvement he wanted to make was a very bad idea. “We probably should have scrutinized things then, too, but because he was a much more palatable president we ignored certain contracts more,” she says.
Silicon Valley analyst and writer Ben Thompson, who last year had argued that tech CEOs can’t just refuse to work with Trump, says the zero-tolerance policy crosses a moral line that necessitates tech leaders to take action. Writing in his widely influential daily newsletter Wednesday, he concludes that “preserving – or, as has often been the case, pushing for – the fundamental human rights that underly those liberties is not just a civil responsibility but the ultimate fiduciary duty as well.”
Complicity with immoral government policies is an easy way for techies to draw a line in the sand. These contracts are clearly defined and publicized by the press. We’re familiar with the story of companies being complicit in immoral government actions—people remember how IBM worked directly with Nazi Germany, for instance. It can be harder to pinpoint how algorithms are eroding society, or what to do about it.
And while they are vocal, the employees speaking up about their companies’ cooperation with government agencies are still a minority. More than 4,000 Google employees signed a petition to cancel the Project Maven contract, but there are more than 85,000 employees at the company. As of Tuesday night more than 100 people signed the open letter at Microsoft—a company of more than 124,000.
Where Your Voice Is Loudest
Many employees are reluctant to speak out about policies within their own company even if they want to because doing so could get them fired or sued. In some cases, employees do post to internal message boards like the one used by Microsoft employees to voice their concerns, and those don’t always leak out to the press. Former employees are in a better position to speak out.
Additionally, taking a stand against something you or team created is very hard, even if you’re watching that thing be abused or misused. “Google Maps and Google tracking are people’s babies, their hearts and souls are in them,” says Pham, picking an example at random. The same is true for Newsfeed at Facebook, the very product that Russia used to sow discord during the election.
Tech leaders are increasingly taking their cues from their employees. But even they can do more than talk. Zuckerberg’s Facebook post asking people to raise money for immigration advocates, for instance, rings a little hollow to some considering his own vast personal wealth.
For the ethical awakening in Silicon Valley to be real, it needs to go beyond bandwagoning and turn its critical eye back on itself.
“Engineers have the loudest voices in companies. In my experience when engineers really rally around something the leadership really changes it,” says Pham. “You have a lot of power in these companies. Don’t waste your opportunity. There are so many other things to change… Many of these tools exacerbate injustices, many of these tools are not being used for good and it’s important to speak up.”