Google fired four employees last week for what it said were data-security violations, but internal critics blamed backlash against workers protesting the web giant’s work with government agencies and engaging in other activism.
“Let me be clear. Google just fired 4 of my coworkers for daring to ask the question ‘is Google helping separate families or cage children at the border?’ After finding openly accessible information, they alerted coworkers of the horrifying news. Yes. Google is working with CBP,” tweeted software engineer Amr Gaber.
“Instead of taking steps to reverse course on child abuse and human rights violations, Google has chosen to punish the brave people who are standing up for themselves and others,” he added. “I, and several others, are not willing to accept this.”
In August, Google employees circulated a petition calling on the company to pledge to not work with Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Office of Refugee Resettlement in terms of “any infrastructure, funding, or engineering resources, directly or indirectly, until they stop engaging in human rights abuses.”
“In working with CBP, ICE, or ORR, Google would be trading its integrity for a bit of profit, and joining a shameful lineage,” stated the petition, which was signed by 1,495 employees. “We have only to look to IBM’s role working with the Nazis during the Holocaust to understand the role that technology can play in automating mass atrocity.”
Last year, Microsoft employees began protesting a company blog post that said Microsoft was “proud to support” ICE’s “transformative technologies for homeland security and public safety” with “our mission-critical cloud.”
“As the people who build the technologies that Microsoft profits from, we refuse to be complicit,” a few hundred employees replied in a letter asking that the company cancel ICE contracts. This fall, GitHub employees demanded that ICE contracts be nixed, and some employees of parent company Microsoft issued a letter of support for their GitHub colleagues: “Through our technology, we’ve been contributing to the terrorism of ICE agents on our country’s immigrant population and other people of color,” they wrote.
GitHub CEO Nate Friedman explained to employees that ICE “is responsible for both enforcing the US immigration policies with which we passionately disagree, as well as policies that are critical to our society, such as fighting human trafficking” and “attempting to cancel a purchase will not convince the current administration to alter immigration policy.” He announced a donation of $500,000 — more than the value of their ICE contract — “to nonprofit organizations working to support immigrant communities targeted by the current administration.” Still, several staffers have quit in protest.
Over the summer, Amazon and Whole Foods employees protested Amazon Web Services customer Palantir, which provides software to ICE used in raids and deportation proceedings. Since then, more than a thousand musical acts have vowed to not perform at Amazon-sponsored events and some are now demanding that their music be removed from Amazon.
In September, Chef, an open-source software company, announced it would “not renew our current contracts with ICE and CBP when they expire over the next year” and planned to donate a sum equivalent to 2019 revenue from the contracts to charities supporting immigrants impacted by family separation and detention.
“We began our work with the U.S. Government in earnest in 2014 and 2015,” CEO Barry Crist wrote to employees, stressing that “deep introspection” drove the company’s reticence to continue. “This included DHS and its various departments under a different set of circumstances than exists today. The overarching goal was to help them modernize their computing infrastructure and create a cooperative community of IT professionals inside the government that could share practices and approaches in a similar way to many open source communities. Policies such as family separation and detention did not yet exist.”
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, though, decided to keep the company’s CBP contract last year despite protests. At the company’s annual conference this month, he gave a protester 30 seconds to speak during his keynote address.
A Fishbowl survey conducted by BuzzFeed in September with employees of five major CBP and/or ICE contractors — Guidehouse, Deloitte, McKinsey & Co., Grant Thornton, and Accenture — found about a third of employees disagreeing with their company’s work with border security agencies, while another third approved and another third had no opinion.
In June, hundreds of employees from online housewares retailer Wayfair walked out of the company’s Boston headquarters to protest the company’s sale of bedroom furniture to a contractor overseeing border detention facilities.
The company reportedly opened a dialogue with unhappy employees about the sale, and CEO Niraj Shah told investors in an August call that they were still in that process. “We’re committed to constructively working together with Wayfairians all over the world, to internally navigate this and other important topics that may arise in the future,” he said.
Wayfair has not said it will no longer work with the government regarding border needs. “Those who are protesting Wayfair’s sale of beds for unaccompanied alien children need to ask themselves what the alternative should be to keep the children comfortable,” said Evelyn Stauffer, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, at the time of the walkout.