Tech giant Google is facing a demand from hundreds of employees for an assurance that it will not bid on a government cloud computing contract that could be used to enforce US immigration policies on the southern border. A group of employees called Googlers for Human Rights posted a public petition overnight Thursday urging the company to resist tendering for a US Customs and Border Protection or Immigration and Customs Enforcement contract. It is not clear if Google or its parent Alphabet has already applied – the application deadline was 1 August – but the tech giant has previously drawn employee protests after signing cloud-computing or data storage deals with the government. The company confirmed in March 2018 that it was involved with Project Maven, a $250m Department of Defense artificial intelligence initiative designed to provide 3D mapping that could be used for improved drone-strike battlefield accuracy. Over 3,000 Google employees signed a petition in protest against the company's involvement.
More than a thousand Google employees have demanded that the company publicly commit not to work with U.S. immigration enforcement agencies, and that includes the Border Patrol and ICE. This petition is forcing Google's hand at a time when it's risky for big tech to criticize the Trump administration. AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced it's looking for a cloud provider, a tech company at the cutting edge of big data storage, to give IT support to its mission of securing the nation's border. Mark Egerman, a product manager at Google and an author of the petition, says while his company has not yet applied for the job, it's not too early to protest. MARK EGERMAN: There's the old parable that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second-best time is today.
Silicon Valley has a long and secretive history of building hardware and software for the military and law enforcement. In contrast, a recent wave of employee protests against some of those government contracts has been short, fast, and surprisingly public--tearing through corporate campuses, mailing lists, and message boards inside some of the world's most powerful companies. The revolt is part of a growing political awakening among some tech employees about the uses of the products they build. What began as concern inside Google about a Pentagon contract to tap the company's artificial-intelligence smarts was catalyzed by outrage over Trump administration immigration policies. Now, it seems to be spreading quickly.
Google is trying to quell the debates roiling its workforce by setting new internal rules designed to limit offensive language and personal attacks against fellow employees. In a set of guidelines sent to employees, Google said it would discipline anyone who discriminates against or attacks colleagues or engages in discussions that are "disruptive to a productive work environment," according to a copy of the guidelines reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The rules aim to curb so-called trolling--in which people are deliberately provocative or offensive online in order to elicit strong reactions--as well as "blanket statements about groups or categories of people." For Google, which has long prized its culture of open debate, the rules present fresh challenges about how to police employee speech while continuing to encourage free expression and unconventional thinking. Google sent employees what it called Community Guidelines last week, designed to limit offensive language and personal attacks.
Bloomberg reports today that earlier this year, a group of Google employees refused to work on a security tool that would have opened up more military contracts to the company. The tool in question is air gap technology that would be key to the development of the secure cloud configurations required by government agencies. Without it, Google might be left in the "Moderate" security rating it has been granted by the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, while others like Microsoft and Amazon have products with "High" ratings that give them access to additional contracts. The sources also say that the engineers' refusal to work on the air gap technology helped spur other company protests, like the one formed in response to Google's Project Maven. Employees signed petitions against the military AI project, some even resigned because of it, and ultimately the company decided not to renew its Project Maven contract with the Pentagon.