Thousands of Google employees won a victory earlier this month after the company abandoned its Project Maven contract to provide surveillance technology to the US defence department.
Google was supplying machine-learning algorithms to analyse drone footage, and the deal was seen as a beachhead for winning more military contracts. A few employees had quit in protest, which may have made Google fear a larger exodus. Organising with their own internal communications and supported by groups including the Tech Workers Coalition, these workers showed the power that can be wielded by Silicon Valley employees.
The Project Maven victory could provide the spark for a new age of political tumult in the Valley, pushing companies to listen to their workers, even at a time when regulators, users and shareholders struggle to make their voices heard. Or in the words of the Internationale, the Marxist anthem: “At last ends the age of can’t.”
Michelle Miller is the co-founder of Coworker.org, an online platform for workplace campaigns, including an employee push about diversity at Google and the Uber drivers’ protest that led to the introduction of a tipping feature. Miller says having such a “tangible victory” is making more tech workers enthusiastic about the prospect of wielding their power. She believes people may have thought: “How on earth can we convince two of the most powerful entities in the US — Google and the department of defence — to really change anything?” But now others have started to feel that if they do not try to change their employer’s behaviour, they are “complicit in the status quo”. Already employees are speaking out against Microsoft for working for the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), at a time when it is separating parents and children at the border.
As the tech industry takes a bashing, it is clear that a large number of workers want to protest. Many joined companies because of their supposedly worthy missions, not to compromise their values to meet financial targets.
The 2016 US election showed how tools such as Facebook can be harnessed for good and evil — and Donald Trump has made tech workers fear that even the simplest technologies could be warped. For example, they fear databases could be used to track Muslims. Even if Googlers were not working directly on a military contract, all their work developing image recognition could be used to enhance the Pentagon’s capabilities.
Liz Fong-Jones, a Google employee and seasoned campaigner, says tech workers are now far more confident of their power: “If a large number of employees left all at once, it would typically take six months to fill the vacancy, train them up and become productive.”
Fong-Jones is pushing for Google to take harassment seriously. She says a small minority of employees within the company use “trolling tactics” to push back against diversity initiatives. She and her colleagues teamed up with a shareholder at a recent annual meeting to push for executives’ pay to be tied to diversity in recruitment.
Coworker, which has helped lower-wage employees such as Starbucks baristas organise, is now paying attention to the tech workers. Miller argues this makes sense because techies have influence over products used by others to organise, such as Facebook groups and Reddit threads. Ultimately, they could be working on artificial intelligence products that put people out of work. “These companies don’t just dominate the economy, they effectively are the economy,” she says.
Last year, when Uber engineer Susan Fowler spoke out against harassment at the company, her blog contributed to the departure of the CEO. Others were emboldened by the fact she was taken seriously.
Project Maven may be the #MeToo moment for tech employees hoping to hold their companies accountable for how they are shaping the world. In their letter to Google chief executive Sundar Pichai, the employees wrote a message that resonates across the Valley: “We cannot outsource the moral responsibilities of our technologies”. The most sought-after employee perk in the technology industry has become pride in their company.
Hannah Kuchler is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent
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