Big Tech staff hold the power

Google's staff are requesting the firm stays away from a US border agency cloud contract— as tech giants face increasing accountability from their staff.
15 August 2019

A US border patrol building. Source: Shutterstock

Businesses must be cautious of the partners they work with— not just of their ability to pay the bills on time, but also how they appear in the public eye, and the collateral association it has on their brand. 

For example, a marketing agency may refuse to work with a defense contractor, despite being a lucrative campaign; an ad platform may choose not to work with pornography websites, despite high volumes of traffic; a cybersecurity firm may drop support for an online forum promoting extremist ideology. Every business will be judged by the company it keeps and must make its partnerships in accordance. 

More often than not though, it’s an organization’s staff— the very people that are committing their working hours to its cause— that possess the power to hold their employers accountable for their dealings and subsequently influence these key decisions. 

Google Cloud at the US border

It’s no surprise then that Google is facing pressure by employees to stay at arm’s length from a cloud computing contract with the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP)— an agency which, under the Trump administration, has been heavily accused of human rights abuses at the US-Mexico border regarding its treatment of immigrants at detention centers.

Google employees are responding to an RFI posted on  which states the CBP is seeking information to “develop an acquisition strategy to acquire services from a Cloud Services Provider […]” 

These are services that Google is well equipped to offer. 

Noting that the CBP is gearing up to request bids on a “massive cloud computing contract”, Google staff have launched a public petition requesting that its employer distance itself and Google Cloud Computing (GCP) from any involvement with the US immigration, border, and refugee resettlement agencies. 

“We demand that Google publicly commit not to support CBP, ICE, or ORR with any infrastructure, funding, or engineering resources, directly or indirectly, until they stop engaging in human rights abuses,” read a Medium post by Googler group ‘No GCP for CBP’. 

The same post notes that in January 2017, “thousands of Googlers, including our executives”, joined together to protest the Trump administration’s Muslim Ban, adding: “This was the right thing to do and we are proud to work at a place that reflects these values.”

Accountability in Big Tech

While Big Tech wears characteristically glossy, progressive veneer towards its users— a veneer that is near impossible to penetrate from the outside— its biggest moderators tend to sit under its own roof. It is only those on the ‘coalface’ who can really know what’s going on, and this majority frequently proves itself to have an overriding moral compass. 

‘Doing the right thing’ is something that giants such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter face constant pressure to demonstrate— particularly in a political and social environment which has become more polarized than ever before. 

Google is no stranger to that internal grilling; it recently disbanded its AI ethics council after an internal backlash regarding the appointment of a “rightwing thinktank leader”— some 2,000 workers signed a petition criticizing the company’s selection of the anti-LGBT advocate.

There are countless other examples of tech companies forced by staff to account for their actions— knowing full well that if they choose to blinker themselves, their operations (or some of them) could grind to a halt. 

Uber, for example, launched an investigation resulting in the firing of 20 employees following staff reports (chiefly, an open letter by a former engineer) of a workplace culture breeding sexual harassment and discrimination. Amazon saw workers protest “appalling” working conditions across seven fulfillment centers in the UK and seven US cities, coinciding with the retail giant’s landmark Prime Day. Protestors wanted to send Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos a message that “they were people, not robots.” 

Both Microsoft and Salesforce have similarly faced internal criticism of its “complicit” contracts with US border agencies. Addressing employee concerns, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said in a memo: “I’m opposed to separating children from their families at the border. It is immoral.

“I have personally financially supported legal groups helping families at the border. I also wrote to the White House to encourage them to end this horrible situation.”

But Benioff also said that Salesforce products were not directly involved in the family separations at the border— and that it would subsequently not scrap its well-paying relationship with the CBP.

Nonetheless, the extensive press coverage this case received contributes to the empowerment of employees in the tech industry to ensure their employers ‘do the right thing’, realizing that their combined might can and will draw the eyes of the public. Even if, as in the case of Benioff, the executive decision overrides. 

Indeed, as tech giants gain more power, their employees are becoming more aware that they are now driving force of any success. Reported by Wired last year, tech workers have begun to ‘realize that they are workers’.