Today, tech workers and immigrant rights activists are flocking to Microsoft offices around the country, delivering petitions signed by 300,000 people urging the tech giant to drop its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice). Rallies will be held, meetings will be interrupted, and executives will be embarrassed by employees urging morality over profits.
But will it work?
In early July, the same tech-immigrant alliance descended on San Francisco’s newest glass tower to protest Silicon Valley’s quintessential do-gooders, the cloud computing firm Salesforce. The company’s contract with Customs and Border Patrol inspired dozens to carry signs reading “Stop caging families!” and “Cancel the CBP contract”. But today, the contract is still in place and the Salesforce CEO, Marc Benioff, has declined to cancel it despite bad press and social media pressure.
Last month, more than 100 Microsoft employees circulated a letter to the Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, asking him to cancel the company’s contract with Ice. Nadella instead defended the Ice contract, claiming it did not specifically aid in family separations.
And Jeff Bezos of Amazon – just declared the richest man in the world – has said nothing despite facing similar protests, declining to comment while the press moves on to the next story.
Yet, in June, a group of tech workers and activists did manage to stop their company’s amoral behavior. More than a dozen Google employees quit – and many more spoke openly and passionately – over the company’s contract with the Pentagon to use AI to help drones track targets. After 4,000 employees signed a petition urging the company to back away from its work on war, the executives stood down.
So what was different? Salesforce, Microsoft, Amazon, Google – all these companies faced similar external pressure. They’ve all seen the same negative headlines and viral tweets. But in Google’s case, it was the magnitude and consistency of internal pressure that finally got the company to abandon its amoral work. Thousands of employees stood together – including those whose work had nothing to do with weapons systems – to pressure the corporation to change course.
Tech companies with record profits can weather a few negative news cycles. They can ignore press enquiries and dismiss protests. They can do all of this because the potential for future government payouts is massive (in fact, while Google executives publicly downplayed their role in the military’s drone program, they internally gushed at the chance to deepen their relationship with the government).
But when employees organize and apply pressure internally – when they challenge executives in person, jeopardize deadlines, and threaten to resign – companies take notice. It was only when enough of Google’s own employees said “not in my name”, combined with sustained external pressure, that the spell of future profits was broken.
We should all take inspiration from this tech-immigrant alliance. This union is novel in recent memory, with the same people who are being paid to help administer injustice standing up to stop it. When the #NoDAPL movement tried to stop the illegal Dakota Access pipeline, pipeline workers didn’t stand by activists’ side. Nor do those protesting private prisons find solidarity with guards within the walls. If this new tech-activist alliance hopes to be effective, it will require more tech workers to speak up and listen to immigrants whose lives are endangered by their technology. It will require those who have been silent while their companies help Ice terrorize immigrants to challenge their executives to live up to their purported corporate values. It will require tech workers to take direction from immigrant rights activists and organize – not just absolve themselves through donations.
Because the stakes are very real. Ice increasingly looks to data, such as that provided by Palantir, to help surveil and capture large numbers of undocumented people. And this data can be deadly. In April, a Central Valley couple, Santos Hilario Garcia and Marcelina Garcia Profecto, were killed in a car crash after dropping off their daughter at school while being chased down by Ice agents. The two were not the intended targets, but Ice was surveilling near their home and mistook Santos for someone else with the same last name.
The expansive use of data by Ice will make such encounters all the more common. In January, Ice obtained access to a license plate reader databasethat, with the help of Palantir, alerts agents when they come across a license plate of interest. The database has over 2bn license plate images – how many more high speed chases will that cause? How many more will be killed?
Palantir is dependent on Amazon’s server infrastructure to function, which means that Amazon is meaningfully enabling Ice’s dangerous and inhumane policies. It was only through learning from frontline activists and immigrants that Amazon workers understood the full picture. And many of them acted on this knowledge, recognizing their culpability and demanding that Amazon drop Palantir as an infrastructure customer.
As Salesforce workers said that day in July, caging children is a crime, not a business model. CEOs such as Benioff, Bezos and Nadella who continue defending their contracts with Ice will go down in history not as compassionate titans of industry, but as profiteers. Tech executives either fail to grasp the power they have to stop this deportation machine or are too enticed by future riches to stop it.
That machine requires many gears to turn. If thousands more tech employees stand together with immigrant activists – if tech executives feel more internal pressure, while activists apply ever more external pressure – then we can bring the deportation machine to a grinding halt.