Author(s): Caroline Soussloff | UC Berkeley School of Law | J.D. Candidate 2019 | Posted: January 10th, 2019 | Download PDF
In June, employees at Salesforce called for the company to withdraw its contract with US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) in opposition to the agency’s implementation of the Trump administration’s policy of family separation. In an open letter to Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, they decried their employer’s complicity in “the inhumane treatment of vulnerable people.” NGOs are backing their efforts. However, Benioff has so far declined to cancel the contract—despite his personal political convictions, which lean progressive, and his demonstrated willingness to use Salesforce as a vehicle for political activism in the past (in the context of LGBT rights).
Salesforce is not alone in facing this kind of pressure in recent months. Nearly every major US tech company has contended with similar campaigns. Also in June, employees of Microsoft wrote their own open letter to get their employer to cancel its cloud-computing contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), stating “Microsoft must take an ethical stand, and put children and families above profits.” And employees of Amazon wrote its CEO Jeff Bezos “we should not be in the business of supporting those who monitor and oppress marginalized populations” in response to the use of Amazon’s facial recognition technology (“Rekognition”) by US law enforcement agencies.
It is important to bear in mind that the types of concerns being raised here are not “new”; they already have a long, ugly history in the context of international trade in digital surveillance technologies. During WWII, a direct subsidiary of IBM sold tracking technology to the Nazi regime that they used to implement the Holocaust. In more recent history, Cisco’s contract with the Chinese government to supply Internet surveillance technology has enabled human rights abuses against government dissidents.
Notably, Cisco defended its contract with China stating that it was in full compliance with US export controls—in essence, deferring to the judgment, or at least regulatory power, of the US government. But what if the client in question is the US government? One of the “new” dimensions of the recent controversies is that they are taking place in the domestic context. The Trump administration’s authoritarian tendencies and overt xenophobia are attracting unprecedented civil society scrutiny of US companies’ contracts with certain US government agencies, putting multinational tech companies’ globalist—or, at least, Silicon-Valley-oriented—identities in conflict with national policy.
These controversies are also hitting “closer to home” in the sense that they are igniting unprecedented employee activism. In these cases, employees are leading the charge; the media and NGOs have largely responded to employee initiatives, not the other way around. CEOs may be more likely to be responsive to internal dissent from employees—or shareholders—than from typical third-party activists.
Indeed, there are early signs that they are. In April, Google announced that it will not renew its contract with a Department of Defense drone surveillance project (“Project Maven”) when it expires in 2019. This move seems to be due in large part to an employee petition that garnered thousands of signatures, as well as resignations.
A final, “new” dimension of the Salesforce, Microsoft, and Amazon controversies is that recent political events have undermined tech companies’ fallback argument that they are simply neutral platforms. The turning point was the Facebook “fake news” controversy surrounding the 2016 election. Now, Facebook and a litany of other tech companies are cracking down on white supremacist hate speech. There may be a distinction to draw between platforms like Salesforce, which Benioff has contended that CBP does not directly employ to implement family separation but rather uses it for other functions, such as recruiting new agents, and technology applications that overtly and explicitly serve surveillance functions like Project Maven, but that distinction is less and less salient in the current political climate.
The recent US-focused controversies will prove an important testing ground for tech companies as they develop politically responsive and accountable internal policies. For example, the Microsoft open letter explicitly called for the company to develop a “clear policy stating that neither Microsoft nor its contractors will work with clients who violate international human rights law” and to “commit to transparency and review regarding contracts between Microsoft and government agencies, in the US and beyond” (emphasis added). We are hopefully witnessing a turning point in Big Tech’s corporate behavior at home and abroad.