The Tech Worker Resistance
Season 5: Episode 4
There’s a movement building within tech. Workers are demanding higher standards from their companies — and because of their unique skills and talent, they have the leverage to get attention. Walkouts and sit-ins. Picket protests and petitions. Shareholder resolutions, and open letters. These are the new tools of tech workers, increasingly emboldened to speak out. And, as they do that, they expose the underbellies of their companies’ ethics and values, or perceived lack of them.
In this episode of IRL, host Manoush Zomorodi meets with Rebecca Stack-Martinez, an Uber driver fed up with being treated like an extension of the app; Jack Poulson, who left Google over ethical concerns with a secret search engine being built for China; and Rebecca Sheppard, who works at Amazon and pushes for innovation on climate change from within. EFF Executive Director Cindy Cohn explains why this movement is happening now, and why it matters for all of us.
Rebecca Stack-Martinez is a committee member for Gig Workers Rising.
Check out Amazon employees’ open letter to Jeff Bezos and Board of Directors asking for a better plan to address climate change.
Cindy Cohn is the Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. EFF is a nonprofit that defends civil liberties in the digital world. They champion user privacy, free expression, and innovation through impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism, and technology development.
Manoush: Rebecca Stack-Martinez has been driving for rideshare companies for over a year now.
Rebecca Stack-Martinez: I originally started driving for Lyft exclusively and then switched over to Uber which I do exclusively at this point.
Manoush: But not on May 8th. On that day, Rebecca, was organizing a protest.
Rebecca Stack-Martinez: Drivers, thank you for being here.
Manoush: An informal coalition of ride hail drivers had come together and for this one day, they were on strike. They turned off their apps, got out of their cars, grabbed placards, and protested in Chicago, Washington, New York. Some targeted airports like LAX in Los Angeles. Some drivers protested in Europe too, like in London. Rebecca’s group was in San Francisco.
Rebecca Stack-Martinez: On the sidewalk in front of Uber headquarters. To me it felt like a party in the street for a moment. You know you had the band playing, you had drivers meeting and greeting each other, discussing their stories, getting on the loudspeaker, letting everybody know where they stood and what they wanted.
Manoush: What they wanted, what they still want, is better pay, better working conditions.
Rebecca Stack-Martinez: We deserve to be paid fairly.
We have absolutely no say as drivers and any of the algorithms or policies or anything that’s done in headquarters that affects us. And so I think what Uber treats us as, is an extension of the app, which is very dehumanizing as a driver.
Manoush: Rideshare companies steadfastly argue that the drivers are contractors, not employees. So on May 8th, they marched, and the timing was deliberate, right before the initial public offering or IPO of Uber stock.
Rebecca Stack-Martinez: What we started hearing in the press and reading about is how Uber was potentially going to be valued at $120 billion, and how their CEO made $45 million the year before and how he stands to become a potential billionaire with this IPO that was coming up, and at the same time we’re earning less and less money.
Manoush: Uber’s valuation on its first day of trading ended up being more like $78 billion. No paltry sum, but below market expectations. And as for Rebecca’s own expectations after the protest? Well, she didn’t really have any.
Rebecca Stack-Martinez: None of us standing out there that day on May 8th thought that Uber executives were going to come outside and say, “Oh, come on in, let’s have a conversation.”
Manoush: The one day strike didn’t result in any immediate action, but Rebecca marks it as a victory nonetheless.
Rebecca Stack-Martinez: There are some drivers who can’t even afford to take off of work for a few hours to come join our protest. So I was there also for them, for those drivers who couldn’t be there, to give them a voice to what they’re experiencing.
Manoush: And she’s not backing down anytime soon. Something she made very clear on that day, standing in front of Uber HQ with her megaphone.
Rebecca Stack-Martinez: I put the megaphone up to my mouth and I said, “If you didn’t come down and talk to us today, don’t think it’s over. We’ll be back.” And then everybody behind me just started chanting, “We’ll be back. We’ll be back.” And so to me, I knew that we were doing the right thing and that this fight wasn’t over.
Manoush: For Rebecca, the Uber strike is personal. But by striking, she and the other drivers are also calling out an entire industry, an entire way of doing business. Tech companies that chase profit over people. Tech companies like Uber have heard these complaints before from lawmakers, privacy advocates, people who use their products. But now the complaints are coming from the inside, from the tech workers themselves.
A few examples: Microsoft employees demanding the company stopped developing augmented reality products for the U.S. military. Amazon getting shamed for selling facial recognition software to law enforcement or for lackluster commitments to renewable energy. Facebook watches as former execs call for the company to be broken up and its monopolistic power reigned in. Even smaller online companies face resistance. An online furniture store Wayfair sold beds earmarked for a detention center in Texas holding migrant children. Hundreds of employees were furious and staged a very public walkout in June. And then there’s Google, which in the past year was hit with everything from outcry over both the company’s workplace and LGBTQ harassment policies, to objections over it’s top secret work, developing search tools for the Chinese market or artificial intelligence for the Pentagon.
Walkouts and sit-ins. Picket protests and petitions. Shareholder resolutions, and open letters. These are the new tools of tech workers increasingly emboldened to speak out. As they do that, they expose the underbellies of these companies’ ethics and values, or perceived lack of them. Companies that we, the consumers, the users, support with our clicks, our data, and our wallets. But will this resistance amount to any lasting change or will this moment for tech workers ultimately fade away?
I’m Manoush Zomorodi and welcome back to IRL, an original podcast from Firefox. Firefox is more than just a browser. It’s a suite of products with privacy built in and they’re backed by Mozilla, a not for profit company. Mozilla invites radical participation from around the world. It embraces openness from employees and volunteers and considers a chorus of perspectives with every decision. Firefox products manifest Mozilla’s mission. Learn more at firefox.com/join.
Okay, so let’s start with Google. The world’s biggest search engine has been blocked in China since 2010 when it stopped complying with the government’s requests to filter its results. But last August news broke that Google was secretly exploring building a search engine for China. Code named Project Dragonfly, this search engine would censor content as required by the Chinese government, which would then grant Google access to the country’s massive market. But as employees learned about a new search engine and another attempt to reenter the Chinese market, some were worried and angry.
Jack: I’m Jack Poulson and I’m a computational mathematician.
Manoush: Jack was working at Google when he learned about Dragonfly.
Jack: A number of engineers had been working on it previously and due to ethical concerns had convinced their management to pull them off of the project. And so the moment that this news article went public, these engineers were able to, within the company, finally explain themselves and post it on the internal Google Plus about you know how upsetting the experience had been.
Manoush: And do you remember how you felt reading both the media reports and the internal message board from your fellow scientists?
Jack: Yeah, it hits you pretty hard that your company really does have that low of a standard. And that began what was about a month of me trying to stand up within the company to get them to explain to what degree that they would be willing to censor and to what degree they would insist that they would protect human rights activists and journalists.
Manoush: Can I ask what might sound like a very naive question? But I just want to clarify. There might be people listening who are saying, “Well, Google is a private company. If the Chinese government is their client, they have to deliver.” What’s the issue here?
Jack: I think that international human rights standards are not an option and this is something that especially American companies should hold themselves up to, especially when they constantly espouse themselves as utopian.
Manoush: Jack asked his managers to clarify the goals of Project Dragonfly. He went to an employee town hall. He wanted to understand why Google would take on this project.
Jack: And the response I got was, “Well do you think Google should also pull out of the United States?” Because FISA warrants, the foreign intelligence surveillance warrants, are perhaps just as invasive and you have no way to prove that they’re not. And so there was an immediate attempt to equivocate that the United States government is just as aggressive as the Chinese Communist Party. And therefore I had no standing to question Google censoring human rights information.
And so I just felt like … I don’t know. I still have a hard time talking about it because it’s just so against Google’s public image. And yet that’s what happens in practice when you question a business decision, which involves many, many billions of dollars of revenue.
Manoush: So what did you do, Jack?
Jack: I handed in my badge and my laptop. And that was it.
Manoush: What was the reaction when you did that? Did people notice? Did you feel like it made other people sit up and say, “Hang on, this is more serious than I thought.” What happened?
Jack: Actually I think the most appropriate answer would be that I think people really didn’t notice. But I had published my resignation letter across the entire company. I wrote up about a six page document, which is now public, and posted it throughout the company. And I documented quotes from human rights groups, what their concerns were with a lot of references and the fact that I wasn’t comfortable with profiting off of the suppression of dissidents. And that it could lead to the erosion of these sorts of protections within the United States in North America. And I got a few people, I think, paying attention. At some point I saw the director of legal open it up. The head of search, who was actually leading Dragonfly, opened it up. So I know that these senior people saw it. I just didn’t get any real response from them.
Manoush: Was there any part of you that was thinking, “You know what, I’m going to stay. I’m going to make sure that this conversation about human rights and what Google’s role is in espousing them happens internally”?
Jack: I think that there are many people I deeply respect that are doing that. And I think that that role is absolutely critical. And in fact that’s ultimately what stopped, or at least significantly delayed Dragonfly from launching, was the 700 engineers within the company signed a public letter and then the privacy team collectively stood up to management over some of these concerns. So I think it’s fair to say that that had a huge impact. But I think from my perspective, I felt like I had no guarantee that that would happen. And so, as part of at least informing the public, it was really important that there be at least one face to stick to this so that it seemed more real.
Manoush: So Jack, can I just ask you though, I do get the sense that there are more and more people who work for the big tech companies who do feel comfortable speaking out. Is that happening? Is there some sort of awakening for big tech workers that if they don’t speak out, no one will?
Jack: Yeah. I think it’s pretty fair to say that there’s a movement building and I view myself as part of this broader movement calling for greater ethics and transparency within Silicon Valley. That’s a view I still very much hold to this day and it’s … Once you as an employee see that other employees were able to make a mark at least as a group, that gives you a lot more confidence that if you forfeit something about your career, then there might be a worthwhile trade off there, if you at least get to push your company closer to the type of ethical or human rights standards that they should have.
Manoush: I’m curious as someone who has been critiquing the tech industry from the outside in, when you’re actually working inside one of these companies, does it not feel as though there’s much pressure? I mean you have a job to do, right? Heads down, build the stuff. I guess?
Jack: I think it’s more than that. It’s also that, but at least in the scientific side, there’s a really strong precedent that if you bring up ethical issues, you’re actually being unprofessional and you’re distracting from the real work. And so yes, you’re very much supposed to be heads down and you’re actively penalized. And so in my exit interview with my manager, it was made clear to me that Google has this policy where if you leave the company within a year, you can come back, no questions asked. So what was clarified to me was, “Well, we can forgive your politics within the company.” Which, to be clear, it was made known to me that some of my management chain was very upset about it. But the answer was, “Well, we’ll forgive those politics and focus on your technical contributions as long as you don’t do something unforgivable, like speak to the press.”
Jack: And so it was literally put that bluntly to me. And so I think that really gets to your question of, well, what is the culture? It’s well, do your job. And if you take issue with what you’re asked to do, then you’re going to be professionally penalized for that. And maybe that’s not always the case. And if it’s something like the Google walkout over sexual harassment, I think it’s difficult for management to punish you for that, but if it’s something that’s at all controversial, which within the company, censoring human rights was very controversial, but a huge fraction of the company still defends it to this day.
Manoush: That’s Dr. Jack Poulson. If you’d like to read his letter or the open letter to Google signed by more than 700 of its employees, we’ve got links in the show notes for this episode at irlpodcast.org. Project Dragonfly by the way, wasn’t the only project Google was working that outraged workers. The company was helping the U.S. military with its artificial intelligence for a drone program called Project Maven. Employees protested. Later, Google decided not to renew its government contract. It also announced new ethical guidelines for its AI work.
And let’s not forget the company wide walk out that happened last year. 20,000 Googlers protested how the company handles sexual harassment in the workplace. The walkout led to some changes in company policy including giving employees the right to sue in sexual harassment disputes.
Okay. Now over to Amazon. That’s where staff and shareholders recently spoke out against the world’s biggest online retailer, claiming that the company has weak environmental policies. While Amazon does invest in some renewable energy products and has committed to reducing the carbon footprint of its trucking fleet, some say the company must do much more.
Rebecca Sheppard: Climate scientists have been telling us for decades that there is one very easy number to remember of what the right number is for a fossil fuel extraction, and that is zero.
Manoush: Rebecca Sheppard works at Amazon.
Rebecca Sheppard: We cannot continue to expand and accelerate the extraction of fossil fuels and the corresponding carbon emissions, and yet Amazon web services has continued to partner with those fossil fuel services, which is extremely alarming and doesn’t show the commitment to sustainability and innovation that you would expect from Amazon.
Manoush: Amazon Web Services is a massive network of data centers that support countless companies. Rebecca thinks an innovative company like Amazon could be a leader by making those data centers more environmentally responsible. She’s not the only one. In May, shareholders asked the company’s board of directors to come up with a robust climate change plan and 8,000 employees signed a public letter calling for action. Rebecca was one of them and it gave her hope.
Rebecca Sheppard: It’s incredible that at the place that you work when you start to feel down, rather than feeling small or disempowered that you can actually do something in your current company, to make the change that you know is right. You don’t have to be on the wrong side of history just because where you currently find yourself. You can work to make the company or organization you’re currently identified with better.
Manoush: Ultimately the shareholder resolution was voted down. Amazon says it’s already working on reducing emissions, but it’s now agreed to make information about its carbon footprint public for the first time. As for Rebecca and the other members of the Amazon employees for climate justice, they say they are not letting up and they have another shareholder resolution planned for next year.
Rebecca Sheppard: I think the best form of company loyalty and ensuring you’re getting the most from the place you work is to challenge your company to be better.
Manoush: By the way, if you missed our previous episode, it was all about the internet’s carbon footprint, so go check it out. It’s really interesting. Uber, Google, Amazon. Those are just a few examples of companies facing new found tech resistance from within. And this activism is growing, but what’s less clear is: why now?
Cindy: I think that many tech workers were lured in with the idea that they were making the world a better place.
Manoush: Cindy Cohn is the executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the EFF.
Cindy: I think they’re increasingly seeing that the business models of these companies and the business strategies of these companies are really not, I think consistent with some of the values that they were lured in with. And I think tech workers are beginning to feel like it’s time for them to stand up.
Manoush: Taking that stand, calling your company out in public, takes courage. On that, Cindy says there’s a simple reason why they’re able to do it: these employees are hard to replace.
Cindy: The tech companies don’t really compete in the marketplace anymore for anything but talent. They compete for the best and the brightest out of the schools and out there in the world. And I think the tech workers have started to realize that that’s an important thing and that they have power in a way that I suspect they didn’t feel as much a few years ago.
Manoush: Cindy and the EFF have long championed tech workers who speak out, because when they do it helps those who are fighting from the outside.
Cindy: When we’re trying to make change, when we’re trying to protect people’s privacy, and protect civil liberties, the information that comes out is really the facts that we need to be able to make our case and to be able to make change. So it’s incredibly important that we have people who have the courage to come out and tell the rest of us what’s really going on. We want to live in a world where our technology answers to us, serves us and isn’t really working against us. And I think that these tech workers are making their voices heard because they’re trying to make sure that they build a world that we all want to live in. What these tech workers are saying is important and we should be listening and standing with them when we agree.
Manoush: Cindy Cohn says these protests matter to all of us because the business decisions these companies make affects all our lives, and in some cases, our liberties. And that includes our right to privacy. The fight at Amazon, over selling facial recognition tech to law enforcement is one example I mentioned earlier. The fight over Google’s censored search engine, Project Dragonfly, is another.
Cindy: It’s one thing when you’re building a search engine that has a business model. It’s another thing when the tool that you’re working on is being used to actively support repression in China.
Manoush: Not every tech worker protests leads to change, but Project Dragonfly was stopped. Sundar Pichai, the CEO, told US lawmakers that the project is not under development, and it’s those victories that make Cindy hopeful for this movement.
Cindy: I think that the tech workers are beginning to make a difference. So there’s going to need to be some persistence. But I think that the tech workers got some good initial wins and now they have to figure out how to build on them.
Manoush: And when you see all this activism rising from within the tech companies, it makes you wonder if maybe the next big issue will be about online privacy. After all, tech employees are online consumers too. They have families and kids and communities that they care about. So as more and more of us are talking about and wondering where our personal information is going, maybe they also will start to push back on the very companies collecting all that data.
When these tech employees speak out against policies or about the way products are built, they force the companies to take a stand on the issues, to debate with the public about what kind of world we want our technology to build. In turn that helps us as consumers decide where to put our clicks, our data, and our wallets. It’s how we can also hold these companies accountable. And it’s how collectively we can ensure that the internet we have is an internet that reflects our values.
I’m Manoush Zomorodi and this is IRL, an original podcast from Firefox. Thanks so much for listening.