By Therese Poletti, MarketWatch
With Facebook Inc. again at the center of another political and social controversy, some of the harshest criticism has come from an unlikely source -- its employees, part of a new trend of activism in Silicon Valley.
Co-founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg's initial unrelenting stance against removing incendiary comments on the social network by President Donald Trump drew criticism from many factions, but current and former employees were the most emboldened. Last week, some employees staged a virtual walkout (), while nearly three dozen of the company's former employees -- and its earliest hires -- wrote an open letter to Zuckerberg ( ), saying his stance did not fit the original values of Facebook. A few employees have also recently quit their jobs.
On Friday, Facebook (FB) said it would review its policies () on how it handles content related to civil unrest or violence. Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post ( , based on "feedback from employees, civil-rights experts and subject-matter experts," the company would be looking at "ideas related to specific policies, ideas related to decision-making, and proactive initiatives to advance racial justice and voter engagement."
It's not clear yet, though, what that means, or if any changes will occur. But employees clearly have had an impact, as more tech employees in the past few years have become activists at their companies, calling out social, ethical and equality injustices.
"This feels like a very big change to me," said Irina Raicu, director of internet ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. "It's a very public outing of the criticism they are giving Zuckerberg...I do feel like it is effective."
In the past, these white-collar workers, who typically are paid well and receive stock options and other cushy benefits, have not been known for taking public actions that would endanger their careers. () Recent activism has mostly been around social-justice issues, such as protests by employees at Alphabet Inc.'s (GOOGL) (GOOGL)(GOOGL) Google who protested the company's involvement in the Department of Defense's Project Maven that used artificial intelligence to help analyze video imagery used by drones. Last year, over 3,000 employees signed a open letter to then Google CEO Sundar Pichai, ( ) ( that they believe "Google should not be in the business of war." Two months later, Google withdrew from the program. The previous year, thousands of Google workers worldwide staged a walkout ( the company's culture that they said protected sexual harassers, including its mandatory arbitration clauses for employee contracts.
"If an employee doesn't like what a company is doing, calling them to task can be effective," said Hillary Brill, interim executive director of the Institute for Technology Law and Policy at Georgetown University Law Center. "It can create a narrative."
(GOOGL) (activism at tech companies is a fairly recent phenomenon, especially in Silicon Valley, which is known to be extremely hostile to unions or workers organizing.
Currently, the only unions at major Silicon Valley companies are for janitorial, food-service workers and security guards, and many shuttle-bus drivers are now part of a local Teamsters chapter.
Amazon.com Inc.(AMZN) warehouse workers and gig-economy workers have also raised their voices about health hazards in the workplace because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with varying results. In February, workers in a Chicago suburb at the online grocery-delivery company Instacart voted to unionize (the United Food and Commercial Workers local, a rare outcome.
Many different unions have targeted Amazon warehouse workers, () ( ) but so far their biggest impact has been by helping Amazon employees raise awareness. In late March, Amazon fired one warehouse worker, Chris Smalls, ( had organized a strike at its Staten Island facility, for "violating social distancing guidelines."
"On the one hand, yes, we have seen in recent months the uptick in worker response from these companies, whether it's at Amazon or Facebook, with them speaking out or organizing about the awful practices at these companies," said Chris Gilliard a professor of English at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., whose work also focuses on privacy, institutional tech policy and discrimination through data mining and algorithms. Still, "it would require the willingness of leadership to listen."
Gilliard pointed out in an excellent essay for Fast Company () that many tech companies have made statements of support for Black Lives Matter, after protests began all over the U.S. following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer, but called them an example of "black power washing" -- giving lip service to their commitment to the black community, but so far doing little to change their hiring practices or their platforms, which can engage in racial profiling or make money from hate speech.
"One thing that is not pointed out, is a lot of these [companies] are pretty hostile environment for black folks," he said. If companies really want to take on social justice and equality issues, they need to truly become diverse -- beyond simply hiring a chief diversity officer -- and listen to all of their workers, he said.
Read: Black tech workers hope nationwide protests will force industry to be more inclusive ()
On Monday, over 650 content moderators at Reddit Inc. wrote a letter to the company's board (/), saying "you need to act." They asked that the company shut down one of its controversial subreddits, called "the donald."
"You don't get to say 'BLM' when Reddit nurtures and monetizes white supremacy and hate all day long," they wrote. Among other actions, they called on the company to honor the recent wishes of co-founder and former executive chairman Alexis Ohanian, who stepped down last week (asked that his position be filled with a black board member.
Also this week, 250 employees at Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) wrote a letter to CEO Satya Nadella with several requests, including asking the company to cancel its contracts with the Seattle Police Department and other law enforcement agencies, and to support a list of demands by Black Lives Matter Seattle, after protests and police have turned one neighborhood "into a war zone."
"I have heard from many employees over the past several days, expressing calls for action, calls for reflection, calls for change," Nadella said in a statement. "My response is this: Yes. We have to act. And our actions must reflect the values of our company and be directly informed by the needs of the Black and African-American community. We also have a responsibility to use our platform and resources intentionally to address systemic inequities in our communities and in society broadly. This is the work we need to do to have lasting impact."
Many employees and workers in tech are showing they have had enough. If they cannot directly influence the decision-making of someone like Zuckerberg and other CEOs who have founder control of their companies, at least they can make a statement with their feet by leaving. And if a company becomes known as a place where employees have serious ethical and moral issues, that in turn could effect its future workforce.
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June 09, 2020 20:21 ET (00:21 GMT)
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