Young workers across industries are expressing dissent over the unethical use of their work, asserting transparency and accountability to ensure morality
We are troubled by the recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) exposing our company's practice of selling Amazon Web Service (AWS) Rekognition, a powerful facial recognition technology, to police departments and government agencies. …This will be another powerful tool for the surveillance state, and ultimately serve to harm the most marginalised.."
"Along with much of the world we watched in horror recently as US authorities tore children away from their parents. … In the face of this immoral US policy, and the US's increasingly inhumane treatment of refugees and immigrants beyond this specific policy, we are deeply concerned that Amazon is implicated, providing infrastructure and services that enable Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS). …"
Thus begins a letter written by Amazon employees on June 21, 2018, and it goes on to demand from their CEO Jeff Bezos that the company should scrap the contract with American law enforcement agencies. Establishing a common grid for all the intelligence agencies of a state equipped with massive biometric data of citizens and facial recognition technology is the new normal. Amazon was to establish a common data centre for 17 American intelligence agencies at a cost of $600 million and extend face recognition technology to them. But Amazon workers put their foot down in the letter saying, "We refuse to build the platform that powers ICE, and we refuse to contribute to tools that violate human rights".
Amazon is not alone in collaborating with the repressive state machine. Google and Facebook are assisting the US government to suppress political opposition to its policies. Since April 2017, both have announced measures in the name of fighting 'fake news,' aimed at reducing access to socialist, left-wing and anti-war publications.
Google entered into a contract with the Pentagon to provide artificial intelligence back-up to its drone warfare. On April 4, 2018, four thousand workers wrote to Google CEO Sundar Pichai against it, and a dozen employees resigned in protest – the rattled Google backed off and scrapped the deal. The collaboration between the tech giant and Pentagon marked a qualitative leap in the seemingly all-powerful military-industrial complex. But the tech workers' might prevailed. That 4,000 tech workers revolted in league with 400 academics, who also sent a protest letter, showed a different order of anti-capitalist and anti-militarist united front.
On August 17, 2018, 1400 Google employees shot off another letter protesting against the company succumbing to the authoritarian Chinese regime's pressure to have a censored search engine for China: a powerful values-before-profit gesture that is in sharp contrast to the corporate culture of genuflection. More than that one of their four demands was that they should have a say in deciding about the ethical permissibility of projects. That was a splendid display of workers' power.
Google is not the only tech giant at the service of the military. Edward Snowden revealed that Verizon, AT&T and other Internet majors were also doing work for the US National Security Agency (NSA) on a programme of global and domestic surveillance. It is not that a small fraction of tech workers are becoming vocal and their main mode of protest is letter-writing. Tech workers have started organising on their industrial issues too. They oppose labour abuse in other firms too and solidarity actions are on the rise. A Tech Workers' Coalition too has emerged and they mounted vigorous solidarity action in support of workers of logistics technology firm Lanetix, fired for attempting to unionise. Labour abuses in the tech sector can no longer go unchallenged.
Close on the heels of their colleagues in other tech majors, on June 19, 2018, Microsoft workers too called on their management to cancel the contract with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) due to their excesses against immigrants.
In their protest letter, they wrote: "We are part of a growing movement, comprising many across the industry who recognise the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm." It was not just a humanitarian gesture towards the poor migrants. Rather, it was a rebellion against alienation of their work against their own civilised essence and core values and turning the products of their work into a monstrous anti-human device.
Global marches of Google employees against the company's attitude toward sexual harassment are well known. But not many noticed protests by Facebook workers against the proximity of their Vice-President Joel Kaplan with Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's handpicked nominee for the Supreme Court facing sexual harassment allegations. Even less noticed was the fact that many Facebook employees quit and accused the company of acting as a parastatal surveillance outfit.
Amazonians too concluded their letter with decisive lines:
"Our company should not be in the surveillance business; we should not be in the policing business; we should not be in the business of supporting those who monitor and oppress marginalized populations".
The tech workers were also asserting that they had a right to know whether the work they were doing was ethical or not and affirmed their right to say a loud 'No' to unethical work: "Implement strong transparency and accountability measures, that include enumerating which law enforcement agencies and companies supporting law enforcement agencies are using Amazon services, and how".
Such protests might be few in number. But they are not isolated chance events. Rather, they point to a blossoming of a new common consciousness across industries with very strong underlying democratic values. Many are surprised at thousands of workers doing what a handful of activists used to do earlier; say, on issues of immigrants or militarisation. Even more intriguing for them is the reality of a very high political consciousness blossoming among the advanced tech workers without an external political agency infusing it from outside.
Perhaps, an appropriate political forum could well help in deepening it and in steering it towards larger political goals. But a spontaneous political agency of the tech vanguards is a new element in labour history.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)