In April 2019, Google dismantled its brand-new ethics board for development of artificial intelligence (AI) after just one week. The announcement followed an employee protest staged by thousands of Google staffers who were outraged that the board included members accused of discrimination against transgender people, climate change skepticism and the use of artificial intelligence in warfare.
Since early 2017, internal protests like these at Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and other tech companies have spilled into public view. Software engineers, researchers and others with ties to these companies have emerged as a force to help hold them ethically accountable.
#TechWontBuildIt has been a rallying hashtag on Twitter.
As tech companies race to build artificial intelligence for facial recognition and other software and services that may be used by military, immigration and law enforcement authorities, many engineers are keen to ensure that privacy, equality, and safety are part of the equation. As a result, tech companies are beginning to see the loyalty of their employees tested.
At Microsoft and Salesforce, hundreds of employees campaigned in June for a stop on sales of AI to immigration authorities after the children of immigrants were forcibly removed from their parents. Thousands of Amazon employees have called on the company to adopt a more aggressive plan to confront climate change, following another internal protest demanding the company stop selling its racially biased facial recognition software to the US government’s immigration department.
For anyone hoping to push the tech giants into alignment on human rights, labor rights, and other common good agreements, tech employees protesting is an exciting development.
But it’s a precarious approach for those involved. There’s discord among employees, the threat of reprisals from superiors, and the risk of public exposure and harassment.
Even if a majority of employees were to agree on an issue, companies don’t operate like democracies. Still, a growing number of people are feeling the urgency to raise their voices and have also seen clear results from their organizing.
One of those (now former) employees is Liz Fong-Jones, who left Google in early 2019. She’d joined the company at the beginning of 2008, inspired by their mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally useful and accessible. Over the years, she helped employees hone in on a playbook for how to turn outrage over ethically questionable practices into an organized counterposition, for instance in 2010 on the “real name” policy for Google Plus.
Using the company’s own flagship communication tools, employee-organizers inside Google have repeatedly managed to rally their colleagues to stand up for the company’s ideals when management has failed to. “You have to be 120% good at your day job to defend yourself against blowback, or to generate the room in your schedule to work on it,” Fong-Jones says.
Their largest action yet came in October 2018, when employees of Google led a 20,000-employee-strong “Walkout for Real Change” to protest the company’s misconducts on sexual harassment. The action generated awareness and a wave of headlines. Employees won a partial victory within a week of the walkout, which resonated further when Facebook, eBay and Airbnb immediately followed Google’s lead in ending the contractual practice of “forced arbitration” and opening up for the possibility of lawsuits from employees for discrimination or wrongful termination.
And yet, in Fong-Jones’s view, Google didn’t seriously consider the walkout’s core demands. The arbitration victory only applies to current full-time employees, not temps, vendors, and contractors. Most critically, in Fong-Jones’s view, management sidestepped their demand for an employee board seat. She left the company after fighting for 9 years, but still advocates that tech employees will find more leverage in broad collective action, like a strike, than via a smaller number of resignations.
For her part, Fong-Jones is continuing to build power for tech employees. When news leaked that Google is building a censored search engine in China, she launched (and matched donations to) a strike fund that has raised over $200,000. The fund intends to support economically vulnerable Google staff (like those on work visas) who join a strike, or resign, in an organized response to perceived concerns with the company’s conduct.
Software and algorithms reflect the biases of their creators, which is one reason why diversity and equality among the people who work for the biggest internet companies matters to internet health. With new technologies, including AI, having an even greater impact on our lives and carrying even bigger risks for vulnerable populations, it’s important for companies to hear from a diverse employee base –– and listen when they sound the alarm. As advocates for a healthier internet grapple with how to push for change, it appears many tech employees are ready allies.