Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | The rise of anti-tech activism and white-collar protest

Like Google, governmental discomfiture with Facebook has been on show publicly

Google’s chief executive Sundar Pichai was grilled last week by members of the US Congress. Many highlights from the video-taped hearings have been doing the rounds across platforms such as WhatsApp, Google’s own YouTube, and on the online mouthpieces of many news organizations. My view is that the Google CEO, in three equal parts, gave a technology tutorial to elderly lawmakers, a plausible explanation as to why searches for Google’s images on the word ‘idiot’ unfortunately throw up images of President Donald Trump, and deftly side-stepped questions about Google’s plans to enter the Chinese search-engine market.

He achieved this last by conceding that over a hundred engineers had been working on “Project Dragonfly", Google’s research effort into a search engine that would comply with China’s censorship requirements, while maintaining that the tech giant had no ‘current’ plans to enter the Chinese search market. Should these plans change, he said, he expected that his company would enter into wide consultations, including with US lawmakers, before it made a final decision.

We will have to wait for the Congressional report to see what, if anything, comes out of the hearings. That said, it is becoming extremely clear that executives from Big Tech companies are coming under increasing fire from at least three different groups in addition to governments.

The first is with the stock markets. Like Google, governmental discomfiture with Facebook has been on show publicly. To add to this, more recent news is out that Facebook has had yet another breach where users’ photographs have been shared without their knowledge. Facebook’s shares have fallen in recent months. On 14 December, they were trading around $144, down from $217 on 25 July.

Across town, Apple Inc. has stopped disclosing unit sales for its iPhone products. In the meantime, its suppliers have forecast weakening demand for their components that are used in Apple’s iPhones —thereby creating jitters among investors, and a steep fall in Apple’s stock price. On 14 December, Apple was trading at $165, down from $232 on 3 October.

Big Tech firms’ troubles don’t stop with lawmakers and stock market investors. They are now coming under fire from human rights groups who are united in their viewpoint, and are working together to limit the activities of Big Tech. Bloomberg reported last week that more than 60 human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, demanded Google end an effort to launch a censored search engine in China, saying the move could make the company “complicit in human rights violations".

Earlier this year, the company was besieged by organizations that normally reserve their ire for weapons manufacturers. These organizations were protesting an Artificial Intelligence contract that Google had signed with the US’s Pentagon (or defence establishment) and were asking for its cancellation.

In May, the International Committee for Robot Arms Control wrote in an open letter to Google employees: “We are deeply concerned about the possible integration of Google’s data on people’s everyday lives with military surveillance data, and its combined application to targeted killing… Google has moved into military work without subjecting itself to public debate or deliberation, either domestically or internationally."

But most interesting of all is the discontent among employees that is fomenting within these firms. Employee activism is on the rise. Google decided earlier this year that it would let the Pentagon contract lapse after employees threatened to quit over the matter. Such employee activism has also been seen at other firms. The Atlantic reports that Microsoft employees have protested their company’s contract with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement in an open letter, saying that the company should put “children and families over profits". In addition, Amazon’s employees have asked Jeff Bezos, their boss, and also the world’s richest man, to cease selling face-recognition software to law enforcement for fear that it may be misused.

This collective conscience of white-collar tech employees is vastly different than blue-collar unionization. Unions typically deal with workplace issues such as compensation and safe working conditions, and not with the societal issues that have caught the imagination of Big Tech’s employees. The biggest tech news of 2019 may well be the all too human story of the evolution of white-collar protest.

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India.

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