The Tech Revolt
A sometimes pointed, sometimes resigned conversation with engineers, designers, research scientists, and job candidates who are pushing for a more ethical Silicon Valley
January 23, 2019
The Tech Revolt
A sometimes pointed, sometimes resigned conversation with engineers, designers, research scientists, and job candidates who are pushing for a more ethical Silicon Valley
They Slacked. They messaged on Signal. They circulated pledges on Google Docs. They talked on the phone. They spoke quietly to one another in the cafeteria and spoke up at company-wide meetings. Whether it was protesting projects with ICE and the Chinese government or walking out to demand better treatment of women, political activism has entered tech with a force that the industry has never experienced.
Interviews by Cameron Bird, Sean Captain, Elise Craig,
Haley Cohen Gilliland, and Joy Shan
Illustrations by Tim Peacock
The Slack engineer who got thousands of tech workers to pledge not to build tools that target Muslims and immigrants
The election happens. The next day at the Slack office, people were quite literally sobbing in the cafeteria. I was mostly keeping my shit together until my parents called from Canada. I went into one of the little phone booths and just sobbed on the phone. It took a bit of time to grieve, but then you also have to act. The space that Maciej created in Tech Solidarity was incredibly important. To show up at that first meeting at the Stripe offices and see hundreds of other people who are figuring out what the hell to do next was incredibly gratifying. “Oh, Joe who works over at the security team at a text-editor company actually cares about the fate of Muslim people in America.” There were lots of pleasant surprises like that.
I think one of the things that Tech Solidarity got really right was: “Don’t show up at these organizations offering to make an app for them that you’re going to abandon. Show up and help them fix their printer. Show up and just give them money. You’re a bunch of tech workers making six-plus figures. You made a lot of money on the IPO or whatever. Just give them your money.”It was after the first meeting that I thought about the pledge. While I’m the one who started the Google Doc, a lot of other people were involved in those early conversations about what does it actually mean to take a stand. What ended up becoming the catalyst was the December 14 meeting between Trump and all the tech CEOs. The attitude was: “We need to get this done before this date so that it’s not just going to be that he shows up, and there’s fanfare. It’s like he shows up, and there are 3,000 people who said, ‘Hell no.’ ”
I put the pledge together in less than a month. I wrote the first draft but quickly pulled in other people. Once we had that deadline, building the website came easily. Imagine a bunch of programmers scattered around San Francisco and around the country working together to get this piece of writing out. Everybody was texting their friends on Signal, sliding into Twitter DMs, getting the names together, so it wouldn’t just be a few of us standing alone. We were blown away by the speed of it. There’s this idea that, “Oh, well, if so-and-so doesn’t do the work for ICE or whatever then some other contractor will step up and do it.” I mean, maybe, but that doesn’t mean you should be the one doing it. You might as well be the squeaky wheel, be the wrench in the machinery. We were just really excited to meet so many other wrenches.
— leigh honeywell, former security engineer at slack, ceo and co-founder of tall poppy
The developer who tried, and failed, to get Microsoft to cut ties with ICE
I’ve been contributing to open-source projects for more than a decade. Open-source software was developed because large corporations like Microsoft were charging ungodly sums for software and making it inaccessible for people who needed basic tools to function in the world. The primary value of open source is the notion of sharing. Closing our borders is about our desire to not share our wealth as a nation with those in need.
Last June 4, Microsoft announced it was acquiring GitHub . Microsoft has major contracts with ICE and other Homeland Security divisions that are engaged in what I consider civil- and human-rights abuses. There isn’t a single tech company with a platform that doesn’t have a military client somewhere, so I’m not going to target, say, GitLab because the Department of Defense bought a license to use their software. But I will target Microsoft for actively working with ICE to develop technologies to target immigrants and minorities and refugees. My parents are the children of Holocaust survivors. My father was born in a displaced-persons camp in Germany in 1947. My mother was born in America to two people who snuck in on tourist visas and overstayed and got citizenship that way. I am the child of a refugee.
It was the slowest-moving petition I’ve ever made on the internet. GitHub is so ubiquitous, and saying you’re not going to use it is like saying you’re not going to breathe air. The way websites are built today, everything has become dependent on these open-source packages developed and maintained by one person. If those people moved their code, it’d break something. In a month and a half, we got 300 signers but never got any response from Microsoft. I canceled my paid account, then removed my open-source software from GitHub and moved to Bitbucket . The merger between GitHub and Microsoft went through in October. I don’t know what kind of impact the petition has had. Was it all for show?
— daniel sieradski, open-source developer
The software engineer who refuses to work at Amazon, even though it tried to hire her
As a software engineer and especially as a woman, I get a ton of recruiting emails. There’s almost no emphasis on, “What is the impact of this company?” Instead they talk about, “We just got funding. Look at this cool tech stack you’ll be working with.” At Stanford, there was only one ethics class that was a requirement for all computer science majors. There was this sense of, “Oh, if you’re going into tech, it’s not evil like investment banking. It’s a more ethically safe route.” Last August, this Amazon Web Services recruiter emails me. I had recently found out that Palantir, which works directly with ICE, was running on Amazon Web Services, and I was talking about it with a friend who was working with a Latinx political organization called Mijente. They had just initiated a campaign to try to cut ICE from the tech that supports it. In my email to the recruiter — it was a spur-of-the-moment thing — I wanted someone to understand that I’m paying attention to what their company is doing, that I’m not just going to sign on because of the cool tech I might get to work with. Palantir doesn’t have a gigantic contract with Amazon Web Services, and it wouldn’t be financially difficult for Amazon to cancel its contract.
Three weeks later, I get an email from the manager at Amazon that said, “My recruiting partner reached out to you and brought your profile to my attention.” I think my email got pulled up in some filter that says, “Good candidate. Respond to recruiter: yes or no. If they responded, then forward to the manager.” This manager had not seen the email I had written. We spoke on the phone, and it was clear that he thought he was going to be talking to me about working at Amazon. I pretty quickly hijacked the conversation and said, “Did you read the email?” He’s like, “No.” I said, “OK, instead of you trying to sell me, I’m going to tell you why I wouldn’t work for Amazon, and can you tell it to your boss?” He seemed caught off guard and was probably being polite until he could get off the phone.
— anna geiduschek, software engineer at dropbox
The senior engineer who quit Google in protest of its relationship with China
I found out about Project Dragonfly on August 1, 2018, when The Intercept report came out, as did most engineers. Pretty much immediately afterwards, two engineers, who had already transferred off the project because of human-rights disagreements, posted internally that they could finally talk about it. One ended up quitting. That was when my alarm went off. Over the next few days, I asked everyone if they knew more, if there was some explanation for the project. Everyone said to just wait for the next company-wide meeting.
Either once a week or once every two weeks on a Thursday, there’s a meeting, called TGIF, with Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Sundar Pichai. People go up to the microphone and ask them questions. There’s a culture that if there’s something contentious, management should respond to it. But it’s also a great way to delay people. The next meeting didn’t happen, so it was two weeks after the news broke that we had the next TGIF.
By that point, I had already submitted a conditional resignation letter to my manager. Engineers were discovering more and more disturbing details about Dragonfly. We found code that was explicitly preventing air-quality data from being reported if it didn’t come from Beijing. I was able to find a list associated with the project and look through thousands of blacklisted terms — anything related to Xi Jinping, the Nobel Prize, or critical of the Chinese government. After Dragonfly was public, there was an engineer who realized that he had been misled about a piece of code he had approved. He had been told that the code did not affect user data. If it was a critical component for the surveillance of a billion people, to imply no impact on user data is maybe an understatement. He was very angry and filed a bug report that anyone could see. Senior people tried to shut down that discussion.
All these things happened in the two weeks up to the TGIF. That meeting is famous because it got live-tweeted by a New York Times journalist. Just a few words were said about Dragonfly — nothing substantial — by Sergey. The fact that it was live-tweeted was used by management to shut down discussion. One of the engineers got up to push back against Dragonfly, but once he heard that the meeting was being live-tweeted, he changed his discussion to yelling, “Fuck you” to the leaker and got quite a bit of applause.
It became really hard to talk to management after that. That was Thursday, August 16. The next Monday, I submitted my two-week notice to my manager but also made the letter available to the entire company. I made my case about why Dragonfly is an internal compromise of Google’s values. I also tried to address the predominant pushback internally at Google: Mainland Chinese employees were essentially arguing that if you were not from China, you had no standing to discuss this issue. Management even told me, “You should listen to your Chinese colleagues.”
After my letter was released, I got to have meetings with even more senior management. Those meetings were dominated by concerns about leaking — that was more important, it seems, than the ethics or human-rights concerns. Those meetings escalated all the way up to the head of AI research, Jeff Dean. The day before I resigned, I finally got a meeting with him — with my manager’s manager listening in, so that he would know how to respond to others who raised similar concerns. I was really looking forward to that meeting. I assumed I would get a sympathetic response. Two days before, 14 human-rights organizations had written to Google calling them to withdraw from the project. To me, that letter gave weight to my letter, which pointed to Google’s promise not to design or deploy tech whose “purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.” I showed up with a huge list of questions that management chose not to answer at TGIF. The best response I could get was that there would be only a small amount of things that would be censored. Jeff Dean’s primary argument for why it was OK for us to censor in China was that we can’t know how bad censorship is in the U.S. already because of FISA warrants — that it could be just as bad as China. Unless I thought that Google should withdraw from the U.S., then what ground did I have to complain about the China situation? The day after the meeting, I handed over my laptop and my badge and that was it.
— jack poulson, former senior research scientist at google
Politics Comes to Silicon Valley: A Timeline
December 2016: neveragain.tech
A group of engineers and activists brainstorm about how best to oppose incoming President Donald Trump’s policies. They launch neveragain.tech, an online pledge whose signers promise never to cooperate with attempts to collect data on immigrants and Muslims for the purpose of racial profiling.
January 2017: Silicon Valley security guards unionize
More than 3,000 security guards at Cisco, Facebook, Genentech, and other tech companies win union representation.
February 2017: Googlers learn about Project Dragonfly
Members of the security and privacy team at Google are briefed on a secret project to build a state-censored search engine for China.
April 2017: Project Maven announcement
The U.S. Department of Defense announces the creation of an Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team, known as Project Maven, to develop AI technologies for drones.
July 2017: The James Damore memo
A Google engineer releases a manifesto called “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” which claims to use science to discredit the company’s diversity efforts. The memo sparks widespread controversy and leads to his firing.
September 2017: Google and Project Maven
Google is awarded a $15 million Defense Department contract for work on Project Maven, with an expectation that it could grow into $250 million.
March 2018: Salesforce and Customs and Border Protection
Salesforce announces it has signed a contract with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to modernize the agency’s recruiting process and management of border activities.
March 2018: Cambridge Analytica scandal breaks
The Guardian reports that Cambridge Analytica, a data-analytics firm that worked on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign team, “harvested millions of Facebook profiles of U.S. voters.”
May 2018: ACLU report on Amazon
The American Civil Liberties Union reveals that Amazon has created a facial recognition system called Rekognition, which can “identify, track, and analyze people in real time and recognize up to 100 people in a single image.”
June 2018: Project Maven dropped
Google announces it won’t renew its artificial intelligence contract with the Pentagon.
June 2018: Amazon employees sign open letter
Amazon workers sign a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos, declaring that “our company should not be in the surveillance business.”
June 2018: Salesforce and Customs and Border Protection
Hundreds of Salesforce employees call on CEO Marc Benioff to end the company’s contract with Customs and Border Protection. Benioff refuses but later announces the launch of an initiative called the Office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology.
October 2018: Microsoft and the Pentagon
More than 300 Microsoft employees draft a letter urging the company not to bid on Project JEDI, a $10 billion cloud contract with the U.S. military.
October 2018: The Andy Rubin payout
The New York Times reveals that Andy Rubin, creator of the Android mobile software, was given a $90 million payout to exit his position at Google after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct were made against him.
November 2018: Google walkout takes place
More than 20,000 Google employees walk out to demonstrate against the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations and treatment of women.
November 2018: Amazon negotiates with workers
Somali workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Minnesota establish an informal group to advocate for better working conditions. For the first time, Amazon agrees to negotiate with workers.
November 2018: Palantir and ICE
The Wall Street Journal reports that some employees of Palantir begged CEO Alex Karp to cancel the company’s work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Karp declined, saying he wouldn’t make such a major business decision based on a passing political controversy.
December 2018: Google walkout part 2
The organizers of the Google walkout release a set of demands on behalf of temporary, vendor, and contract workers, calling on the company to end “pay and opportunity” inequity.
December 2018: Google Dragonfly R.I.P.?
Project Dragonfly is dead — or at least on hold, according to news reports. The company neither confirms nor denies.
The Microsoft engineer who wants to organize coders as well as cafeteria workers
I wasn’t involved in the initial organizing of the ICE petition at Microsoft , a lot of which happened at headquarters. But in the Boston office, a bunch of us got together and circulated the petition and joined a protest one weekend. I work with a lot of people who aren’t from the U.S. and are likely on H-1B visas and did not feel comfortable putting their names on the document. I’ve been careful about not having conversations on any Microsoft platforms. I wouldn’t chat with co-workers over Skype or Outlook. We talk on the phone or WhatsApp or IRL. I don’t want to put anyone at risk.
A lot of people I sent the document to didn’t even respond. I think they just didn’t want to engage. The culture at Microsoft is different than that of Facebook. The average Microsoft engineer tends to be older, and there is a generational thing where they believe in the meritocracy of working in tech and trying to be as apolitical as possible. Because it’s an older crowd, people go home and see their children, which translates to valuing stability at work and work-life balance. Microsoft is also very strong on charity — perhaps this is how the company gives employees an ethical out.
One thing we did in the Tech Workers Coalition was get tech workers thinking about their role in the company, especially in a big company. Part of our strategy is to build solidarity with folks like cafeteria workers and, in the case of Amazon, warehouse workers. We helped cafeteria workers at Facebook unionize. Because of the tech workers’ high salaries, the conversation of the past couple years has been, “Oh, are tech workers workers?” Now people are accepting the fact that they are.
— anonymous, engineer at microsoft and volunteer in the tech workers coalition
The engineer who was fired for trying to unionize
From my perspective, the whole thing went from zero to 60 overnight. One morning a year ago, I came in and found out a team lead was no longer at the company. I went to my manager and I was like, “What’s happening? This person was well-liked, well-respected, recently promoted to a team lead, had a great record with Lanetix as far as anybody was aware. This is making everybody, including me, a bit scared for our jobs. Is there some kind of financial problem? Are there layoffs coming?” And he said, “Let me try to find out.”
When the manager finally got the office together, he told us, “I was given a list of things to say: ‘Don’t be divisive. Don’t be subversive.’ ” But nobody was being divisive or subversive. Later, I was called in for a one-on-one and was told, “Hey, I’ve heard that there’s this external Slack group that people are in on, and if you’re on it, you should leave.” He said something to the effect of, “Anybody that’s in that Slack group is on management’s shit list.” I was like, “First of all, I don’t know of it. But second, what are you even talking about? I’ll be a part of whatever Slack group I want.”
After a week or so, somebody threw out the idea of bringing up what’s bothering us to management. So we just gave them a letter saying, “Look, we like the environment that we work in, or at least we did. We all value our working relationship with you, and we would like to air our concerns and come to some kind of agreement about how to move forward on the right foot.”
We had two specific requests. One was, recognize our right to organize as we see fit. What we were saying was, If we want to be on a Slack group, we will be. If we want to talk amongst ourselves, we will. They were preventing us from talking about workplace conditions, and that was unacceptable. And the second request was, please do right by the person who was fired.
The CEO set up a meeting with all of us, where he gave some incredibly condescending and offensive analogies to parenting. He didn’t have a good read on the situation at all. If you strip all the BS aside, his actual message was, “I need to consult an attorney in order to say whether I have to recognize your right to organize, so I will schedule a follow-up once I do so.” We were honestly shocked. This is like table stakes for a civil conversation, you know?
We had the follow-up conversation, and he did recognize our right to organize at that point. But shortly thereafter, he uninvited all of us from the company retreat, and in the same email, let us know that the company was going to open up a development center in Eastern Europe, sending the clear message of, Get in line or we’re outsourcing your work.
At that point, we all kind of said, “You know what? We can play hardball, too.” That was when the consensus was built to do some collective action. Unionizing is a risky thing, especially for those with families or those with dire financial situations. People were definitely concerned. We were putting our jobs on the line. We got the majority we needed to unionize and gave them notice. Ten days later, we were all fired.
— sahil talwar, former engineer at lanetix, now at oracle
The designer who left Facebook because he felt its growth-at-all-costs strategy was wrong
A lot of interesting people in the product-design world were working at Facebook. I thought that if these people are working there, then the company must have a base-level respect for people.
During my first internship at Facebook, one of the developers discovered a bit of code that was specific to censoring content. We eventually realized that this was for their China effort. There was a big discussion at the company, and it was brought up during Zuck’s weekly Q and A. That was the first time that I thought, Oh, maybe this company says they care about openness, but they’re willing to bow down to this government’s requirements of censorship.
When I started working full time, I began to notice other instances. Take Messenger, for example. Employees made a lot of complaints about how the Messenger app was devolving into this ad experience — how we’re adding notifications for no reason at all except to drive people to open the app, remind them to use Messenger again. Were these updates really making the product better for people or, instead, making our users more profitable for the business? The product managers always had a way of explaining it away.
The Boz memo was indicative of how executives really thought about Facebook. It basically said, “Bad things will happen on our platform. People will get bullied, people will get hurt, but it’s OK because we have this larger goal.” To me, that’s just not right. We should make sure that people aren’t harmed by our service because we want to grow and expand. This growth-at-all-costs manifesto pervaded everything in the company. There was a product where we would help businesses scan latent Bluetooth signals so that if a consumer came in, the business owner would pick up their signals on their own phones, and we would know where they were. We were asking business owners to help us track their customers without being upfront about our tactics to either them or our users.
I felt powerless inside the company. It was a façade, this idea that we could really influence the company through open discussion. I quit. I didn’t want to be complicit in what the executive team wanted to accomplish. It felt like I had to fall in line or get out. My small team was working on a product that we thought could make Facebook good again and help people get out in the real world, take part in their local community. But it was silly because the company had other wants and needs from our team — which was to harvest user data.
— anonymous, former product designer at facebook
The developer who tried to prevent companies that work with ICE from using his software
Lerna is an open-source project that was started by a friend. I began working on it in early 2016. I’ve worked on several open-source projects that have been downloaded millions of times, and it becomes a reality that some people use them for horrible things. But when I found out that Palantir was using Lerna, that was different — Palantir works with ICE.
When I saw what ICE was doing over the summer, I was so angry I was shaking for hours. There was a video of a 3-year-old who didn’t recognize his mother anymore, as if she abandoned him. He didn’t understand that he was taken. My mom ran a day-care center out of our home for the first 12 years of my life, and it was obvious that the government was inflicting trauma on these kids. Even if in the smallest of ways, it was partly my fault for not doing more about it.
I opened up a pull request and said, “I don’t want Palantir to use my project.” In the past, I had talked about including a morality clause, so I brought up the idea with the friend I had started Lerna with and with the current maintainer, and they were for it. We didn’t have any law background so had no idea what we were doing, but we thought we could try and blacklist companies from using it. I had done some Googling on who works with ICE and turns out it’s half of Silicon Valley. I made a list of these companies and said, “This license doesn’t apply to you.”
People got angry instantly on GitHub, Twitter, Reddit, Hacker News. When I brought ethics into open source, it was like the first time people had encountered it. They said, “What do you mean you hold us personally responsible?” The immediate response from employees at Microsoft and LinkedIn was, “This license isn’t legally valid.” People at Palantir didn’t reach out at all.
One of the features of open source is that it’s unconditional: It’s free for anyone to use, and it can’t be taken away. Because of that, the guy who termed the phrase “open source” wrote that Lerna wasn’t open source anymore. The person maintaining Lerna went silent, and one afternoon, I got an email saying I was removed from the project. Then another pull request reverted the change I made, saying I’d been removed for code-of-conduct violations.
I was told about the internal effort by employees to get Microsoft to rip up their ICE contract. A lot of folks there thought people outside Microsoft didn’t care that the company was working with ICE — that it was just liberal snowflakes pushing internally. But when the Lerna thing happened, the first thing I was told was that it was a big external signal that other people did.
— jamie kyle, open-source developer
The AI researcher who helped organize two of the biggest protests inside Google
I had known about Maven before word broke internally and was following efforts by a number of senior engineers to push back against the project.
I had seen none of these efforts work. At the same time, I had been speaking and writing about the stakes of these technologies. Using machine-learning technology for a drone program that has been deemed illegal by human-rights organizations is not something we can do blindly. Forming an alliance between Google, a company that is entrusted with collecting sensitive personal information about millions and millions of people, and the world’s most powerful military is not something we should go into lightly. I was as vocal as possible, and there were people who enjoyed the show. But I wasn’t seeing any change.
I wrote the Maven letter, and people across Google made suggestions. I put my name on it and sent it out. It was one piece of a much bigger effort. There were hundreds of people who did weekly coordinated leafleting and organized questions for the TGIF meetings. Some people quit over Maven.
It was an organic movement. There were people who would start doing things and ask other people to come along. It was, “Try all sorts of tactics.” The shared goal was to push back on this contract and on decision-makers who had moved ahead with this relationship without fully considering the moral and ethical consequences.
It was great that there was a commitment to cancel Maven, but I think there are bigger core issues at Google and in tech overall. You have companies that have significant centralized power, where a handful of people are making decisions that affect the whole world in profound ways without even being accountable to their workforce, let alone the public. We have not solved that issue. It’s what unites all the recent movements: It’s an unaccountable few making decisions that are a cost for others.
One of the things that led to the walkout was a New York Times article, which documented things that were known among whisper networks and had the details about the Andy Rubin payout. There was no understanding from leadership what a significant problem the article documented.
The walkout came together really quickly. It started with an email on the moms’ mailing list. I’m not on the moms’ list, but I got a text Sunday evening that people are thinking of having a walkout. It was organized within three to four days. I was part of the core organizers. People worked around the clock. The demands were crowdsourced from hundreds of people, and I helped structure them and write messaging. At the beginning, I didn’t expect 20,000 people to walk out. I was hoping for a few hundred and a little press. What it became was incredible.
— meredith whittaker, founder and lead of google’s open research group and co-founder of the AI Now institute at new york university