At Big Tech Firms, Protest Over Policies Increasing

In 2018, Microsoft signed a $480 million contract with the U.S. military to supply augmented reality (AR) technology. Under the terms of the deal, Microsoft may eventually provide more than 100,000 AR headsets to the troops, with the goal of boosting their combat capability by “enhancing the ability to detect, decide and engage before the enemy” (in the government’s words).

According to Bloomberg, the U.S. and Israeli militaries already use the HoloLens, Microsoft’s current AR headset, in a limited training capacity.

Now Microsoft’s employees have begun protesting the contract. “We demand that Microsoft… cease developing any and all weapons technologies, and draft a public facing acceptable use policy clarifying this commitment,” they wrote in an open letter to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and President Brad Smith. “As employees and shareholders we do not want to become war profiteers.”

Smith has defended Microsoft’s position on military contracts before, arguing that the company believes in “the strong defense of the United States and we want the people who defend it to have access to the nation’s best technology.”

Whether or not Microsoft’s employees convince the company to rescind a contract worth nearly half a billion dollars, it’s clear that tech pros are becoming far more vocal about their employers’ ethical decisions.

In mid-2018, for example, Google employees argued that their company shouldn’t perfect machine vision technology for the Pentagon’s drone programs. That initiative, dubbed “Project Maven,” would have improved drones’ ability to recognize faces and objects; some 4,000 employees signed a petition asking Google to drop the work, and a handful quit. As a result of the pushback, the company vowed to not renew the project.

Around that same time, Amazon employees asked their company to stop selling its real-time facial-recognition technology (dubbed Rekognition) to law enforcement agencies, particularly U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “We already know that in the midst of historic militarization of police, renewed targeting of Black activists, and the growth of a federal deportation force currently engaged in human rights abuses—this will be another powerful tool for the surveillance state, and ultimately serve to harm the most marginalized,” those workers wrote in an open letter.  

(Employees at Microsoft have also asked that their company not sell technology to ICE, including cloud services and email.)

When it comes to protests like this, there’s safety in numbers. A single employee arguing against company policy can be ignored (or even disciplined); but hundreds or thousands of employees signing a petition or even walking out of the office is difficult for executives to dismiss.

And it’s not just political matters; Google employees recently protested until the company promised to end its longtime practice of forced arbitration for employees and (direct) contractors. That decision came after a massive employee walkout to protest corporate inequality and sexual harassment.

If you’re interested in changing policy at your company, speaking up in a respectful manner is a good first step. But sometimes change requires a hefty percentage of a company’s employees pushing back against something they disagree with; there’s safety in numbers.