Forget activist investors. At a growing number of tech companies, it’s the age of the activist employee.
Salesforce Inc.’s (CRM – Get Report) Marc Benioff is the latest tech chief to receive a critical protest letter from employees, urging the company to end controversial government contracts. So far, about 650 Salesforce (CRM – Get Report) employees have signed a petition decrying “the moral and ethical emergency” at the border, asking Benioff to reconsider Customs and Border Protection (CMP)’s use of the company’s cloud services.
Microsoft (MSFT – Get Report) CEO Satya Nadella faced a similar backlash this month over the software giant’s $19.4 million contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through its government cloud services division, Azure Government.
“We ask that Microsoft cancel its contracts with [ICE] immediately, including contracts with clients who support ICE,” the letter read.
Contributors to Github, the code repository acquired by Microsoft for $7.5 billion in June, threatened to “take our projects elsewhere” if the Microsoft doesn’t drop the contract.
Microsoft hasn’t commented publicly on the uproar. But In an internal company thread obtained by Gizmodo, Azure VP Jaso Zander downplayed the company’s dealings with ICE, saying that Azure merely helped move the agency’s infrastructure to the cloud: “We are not doing anything with AI, Cognitive Services, or facial recognition,” Zander wrote.
Nadella reiterated that position in an email to employees, but that may not be enough to satisfy some of his critics, who pointed out that Microsoft boasted in a January blog post of Azure’s capacity to help federal agencies, including ICE, “utilize deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification.”
For companies courting big-ticket government contracts, unhappy workers have more leverage than ever — and they’re not shy about making it known.
At Amazon, employees wrote a blistering letter to CEO and co-founder Jeff Bezos about Rekognition, a facial-recognition system built on AWS, Amazon’s cloud service. After a report from the ACLU revealed that Amazon is shipping the tech to police departments, a number of ‘Amazonians’ circulated a letter demanding that Bezos pull law enforcement contracts and increase transparency around the company’s participation in building surveillance systems.
The letter also demanded that Amazon ban Palantir, the data firm that provides intelligence to ICE and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), from using AWS in light of widespread outrage surrounding immigrant detention practices at the border.
“Technology like ours is playing an increasingly critical role across many sectors of society,” the letter read. “What is clear to us is that our development and sales practices have yet to acknowledge the obligation that comes with this. Focusing solely on shareholder value is a race to the bottom, and one that we will not participate in.”
Amazon hasn’t commented on the letter.
Meanwhile, at Alphabet’s (GOOGL – Get Report) Google, more than 4,000 employees signed a letter demanding that CEO Sundar Pichai reject warfare-related technology, arguing that “Google is already struggling to keep the public’s trust,” amid growing fears about the use of artificial intelligence in weapons or for other destructive purposes. Google opted not to renew the project that initially sparked the uproar, Maven. And in a subsequent blog post, Pichai clarified that Google won’t provide AI for use in weapons or tech “whose principal purpose or implementation is to cause or directly facilitate injury.”
The impact for companies is very real: According to internal emails, Google had hoped to parlay the Maven project into more lucrative military deals, which can be worth hundreds of millions or even billions depending on the nature of the contract.
But in a fiercely competitive market for tech workers — particularly in burgeoning fields like AI — companies are compelled to pay attention, or risk potentially alienating a vital talent pipeline.
“All of the power is on the supply side now,” says tech recruitment specialist Jeremy Schifeling. “Employees feel emboldened to speak out. And engineers can go where the applications are the most appealing and the most palatable.”