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Home / Business / The US technology industry becomes a hotbed of employee activism

The US technology industry becomes a hotbed of employee activism

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – When Liz O'Sullivan joined the New York City-based artificial intelligence firm Clarifai in 2017, she felt lucky to find work at the intersection of two of her main interests: technology and ethics. Two years later, she was in a moral dilemma.

Clarifai developed aerial photography and object recognition tools as one of several companies working on Project Maven, a Pentagon drone monitoring program. After several conversations with friends and colleagues, O & # 39; Sullivan realized that this type of technology could eventually be used for autonomous weapons.

In January, she wrote to Clarifai CEO Matt Zeiler on behalf of a group of employees, seeking clarification on whether technology would be used to make weapons and ask him to commit to a variety of ethical measures. Zeiler later explained at a meeting that Clarifai would probably provide technology for autonomous weapons. O & # 39; Sullivan quit the day after.

"I was very surprised and had to follow my conscience," she said. Zeiler and Clarifai did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press. In a blog from 201

8, Zeiler defended Clarifai's commitment to Project Maven and said it was consistent with the company's goal to accelerate human progress with continuous improvement of AI.

O & # 39; Sullivan, 34, considers himself part of a "growing backlash against unethical technology," A foundation over the past two years in which US engineers have been trying to recreate the industry from the inside out – to push for more control over how their work is used and calls for better conditions, job security and pay for affiliated workers.

While some are voicing and others signing requests and attending collections, workers are taking actions as never before:

– Amazon and Microsoft employees demanded companies stop providing services to software company Palantir, which supplies technology to federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Army.

– Amazon employees have also urged the company to switch to renewable energy and confronted CEO Jeff Bezos at a shareholders meeting.

– After last year's review of Google's handling of sexual misconduct rhold, employees signed a letter protesting Project Dragonfly, a search engine that would abide by Chinese censorship.

– Employees at Salesforce, Microsoft and Google have protested the companies' ties to the Customs and Border Protection, ICE and the military.

Despite the six-figure salary and unlimited vacation time, many technicians question the effect of their work and team up with their more insecure colleagues, service and contract work colleagues, pushing for better working conditions and wages.

"It's incredible, both the extent of the power of these companies and the willingness of white collar employees to shake off the privilege they have and to really see the impact of the work they do," said Veena Dubal, a professor at the University of California. Hasti ngs College of the Law which has interviewed dozens of technical workers involved in organizing.

They feel widespread because of national and global "existential crises" and the recognition that technology companies "have more power than any multinational company has had in a long time," Dubal said.

The phenomenon is particularly strong in San Francisco Bay Area, home to Salesforce, Google and Palantir, among others, the bastion of activism and progressive culture has been hit hard by the technology boom's housing affordability crises.

"There is a lot (that) people are being asked to build for shareholders in these companies and leadership of these companies, ”said Ian Busher, 28, a former Google contract analyst and organizer with the Bay Area chapter of Democratic Socialists in America. "If you want to make the world a better place, you should exercise discretion and democracy with the people you work with to build these tools."

Facebook and Palantir did not respond to requests for comment.

An Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment on employee activism, but noted that the Seattle-based company is committed to sustainability and said it provides good pay and benefits and humane conditions in the stocks. At the stakeholder meeting, Bezos did not directly address workers' demands for renewable energy, but referred to some sustainability efforts that are already underway.

A Microsoft spokeswoman said the company, headquartered in the Seattle area, appreciates employee feedback, respects different views and provides "Many ways for all voices to be heard."

A Google spokesman did not comment on specific incidents, but emphasized that retaliation is prohibited and pointed to CEO Sundar Pichai's previous statements on workers' dissent.

"There are many things that are great about giving employees a lot of voice," he said at a conference in November. "There are decisions we make, which they may not agree with."

Congress has begun to has been aggressively investigating the industry in recent years, and the Department of Justice last month launched an investigation into large technology companies amid antitrust allegations, a recent Pew Research Center study indicated that Americans have an increasingly negative view of tech's impact on the country.

employed in the tech sector right now it's a good deal or (ask), "What's my responsibility?" said Kellie McElhaney, a professor at Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley.

Amr Gaber, 32, a Google engineer, was among several technicians at a July demonstration in front of Facebook's San Francisco office that supported the cafeteria. workers seeking a new contract. Although the white collar workers are more privileged, they are all working people.

"Our wealth is tied together," Gaber said. "If (the companies) can't even treat the people who work for them well, how can we expect them to have a positive impact on society?"

There is evidence that companies are listening.

Google and Facebook promised to pay contract workers better and provide some benefits. Google ended forced arbitration for sexual misconduct after the employees quit. After screaming at employees, Google refused to renew the contract with the Pentagon for work on Project Maven.

When employees asked Microsoft to cancel their contract with ICE, CEO Satya Nadella stated that the company did not contribute to family separations at the border, but did support email, calendar and document systems.

A salesforce spokeswoman said conversations with employees led the company to create the Office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology and "hire a Head of Ethical and Human Use to develop guidelines and evaluate situations around ethical use and development of our technology . "

In the wake of concerns about tech's impact on the Bay Area housing crisis, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff gave $ 30 million to UC San Francisco this year to investigate homelessness, after donating $ 6 million to the city last year for to help provide supportive housing for the former homeless. Pichai, Google's CEO, also pledged $ 1 billion to build 20,000 homes over a decade.

Such response is good for the business and for building trust with customers and employees who are more likely to express their demands, according to McElhaney.

"Those who do not respond are missing … a large ocean lining that has already left the dock," she said.

Still, some technicians say that companies' efforts are falling short. In some cases, employees have said they have seen or experienced retaliation after they or others have spoken.

"We say that technology workers have a lot of power, but technical leaders have more," said O & # 39; Sullivan, who quits in principle and now has a job in a young technology company seeking transparency in the use of artificial intelligence. "The best way to influence change is through legislation and regulation."

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