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The world’s best-known tech companies are undergoing a painful new phase as employees and contractors band together for workplace organizing and activism.
Despite a reputation for generous paychecks and perks, Facebook, Google, Apple, and other US consumer-tech giants face growing scrutiny from within.
Facebook has suffered a devastating few weeks after a series of disclosures from its former employee Frances Haugen. The former product manager revealed to The Wall Street Journal that Facebook’s internal teams were aware that Instagram could worsen body-image issues for teen girls and that the company had considered “leveraging playdates” to get children and tweens onto its platform.
Google employees launched a first-of-its-kind union earlier in 2021, while Amazon faced fresh calls for unionization among its warehouse employees. DoorDash and Uber workers are demanding better working conditions — and the list goes on.
Insider sat down with some of the prominent tech workers turned activists to find out what prompted them to speak out and what they hope to achieve for themselves and their colleagues.
Ifeoma Ozoma made headlines last year when she publicly accused her former employer Pinterest of discrimination and racism.
Since then, she has been campaigning to help others speak out, most notably by pushing forward a California bill to protect whistleblowers who have signed nondisclosure agreements.
Ozoma recently launched an online guide, the Tech Worker Handbook, a collection of resources for tech employees who are considering blowing the whistle on their company.
“What was also really heartening was that whistleblowers from the last decade have reached out to say, or tweeted to say that they wish a resource like this existed when they spoke up,” Ozoma told Insider.
The main objective of the handbook is preventing future workers from having to navigate the process alone, Ozoma said.
“I think people are more prepared as they’re speaking up,” she said. “The point of the Tech Worker Handbook was so people are more prepared and their stories are more likely to break through the noise.”
A spokesperson for Pinterest said the company never wanted anyone to feel the way Ozoma felt while working there.
“We’re committed to immediately taking the actions that we’ve outlined to our employees, and we are actively pursuing this work,” the spokesperson said.
Google became mired in controversy around the exit of Timnit Gebru.
Gebru, a world-renowned artificial-intelligence ethicist, left the company (she says she was fired; Google insists she resigned) after an internal dispute over a research paper she coauthored on the risks of AI reproducing human biases.
Google’s treatment of women and employees of color has since come under greater scrutiny, and helped galvanize a first-of-its-kind union in Silicon Valley. A string of Googlers also resigned from the company in protest.
Gebru said she is now working on an independent AI research group, which she said will not be tied to the incentives structures of academia or industry.
“There are many things in place in the incentive structures that do not encourage long-term research that benefits, rather than harms, people in marginalized communities,” she told Insider.
“I’m really glad to see workers organizing at Apple and Tesla, and I hope there is much more of that. However, I still see that the cost is high on these organizers and companies are still retaliating against them with impunity.”
Gebru said she has been trying to amplify efforts to organize in tech.
“I do see a shift, but we also need to make sure to keep the momentum until we have lasting, tangible change, and also ensure that these organizers are not treated the way they currently are,” she added.
Google did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Jane Chung worked at Facebook for two years between 2015 and 2017, primarily on the controversial Free Basics program.
Under the program, users in developing markets were offered limited access to other websites — those offering services such as the news, weather forecasts, and job ads — without having to pay for data.
The scheme was criticized as a form of “digital colonialism” and, in Chung’s words, was above all a way to “get communities in the Global South addicted to Facebook.”
“I realized that Facebook was fundamentally uninterested in behaving ethically in its pursuit of world dominance … that its single-minded prioritization of growth was hurting communities and democracies around the world,” she said.
“And nothing I could say or do within the company as a new-graduate hire would be able to change that.”
Since then, Chung has moved to The Worker Agency, a California-based “strategic advocacy” firm that coordinates campaigns against the tech giants on behalf of workers.
Chung describes her goals as threefold: “I want to make a world where technology companies and the economy at large are seized for public ownership and control, stripped of profit motive, and operated to the benefit — not the exploitation — of working people.”
Facebook has previously defended its Free Basics program in an article published by The Guardian, saying it had helped “people around the world access impactful local services, including health resources, education and business tools, refugee assistance sites, and more.”
Ashley Gjøvik, a senior engineering program manager at Apple, was placed on leave in early August after tweeting allegations of sexism at the company.
Gjøvik said senior employees kept a whiteboard tally of votes on how they could make her “life a living hell,” that she was regularly excluded from important emails, and that some were known to pressure other employees into drinking alcohol during working hours.
In September, Apple fired Gjøvik, saying she leaked confidential information.
Speaking to Insider, Gjøvik said that since speaking out, she felt “much closer to my authentic self than I have for a very long time.”
“I spent a decade working in tech, and the experience was full of painful compromises and cognitive dissonance,” she said. “Alongside the anger and grief, I’ve also felt joy through this. It feels so good to speak up for myself and for others.”
Gjøvik’s complaints have stood out because it is so unusual for Apple workers to speak out.
When Gjøvik wrote an op-ed for Insider, an Apple spokesperson said: “We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace.
“We take all concerns seriously, and we thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised and, out of respect for the privacy of any individuals involved, we do not discuss specific employee matters.”
In the wake of Gjøvik’s public accusations of discrimination and misogyny at Apple, her fellow employee Cher Scarlett decided to take matters into her own hands.
Consulting with friends at the Alphabet Workers Union and elsewhere in Silicon Valley, Scarlett put together AppleToo, a website designed for Apple workers to submit allegations of sexist and racist discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.
The site, which has received more than 500 submissions thus far, came out of a sense that Apple’s human-resources department “didn’t really consider anything they complained about to be an issue,” Scarlett previously told Insider.
“It’s quite clear that this is a serious and systemic problem,” she added at the time. “It needs to be looked into thoughtfully and thoroughly.”
Apple did not respond to Insider’s request for comment regarding Scarlett’s work on AppleToo.
Earlier this month, Frances Haugen revealed that she was the ex-Facebook employee responsible for leaking tens of thousands of pages of internal documents to The Wall Street Journal as part of its devastating and wide-ranging investigation into the company.
Haugen’s leaks revealed that Facebook has a secret system that lets 5.8 million users, such as politicians and celebrities, skirt the company’s rules on content, that its internal teams were aware that Instagram worsens body-image issues for many teen girls, and that the company had considered “leveraging playdates” to get children and tweens onto its platform.
In a Senate hearing about Facebook’s policies, Haugen said the company repeatedly resolved conflicts “in favor of its own profits” and called for regulatory oversight of the company.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg later responded to Haugen’s testimony, saying many of her claims “don’t make any sense” and that she is painting a “false picture of the company.” Facebook did not respond to Insider’s requests for further comment.
Haugen is now preparing to appear before lawmakers in the European Union and UK.
In March 2020, Chris Smalls, who worked as an assistant manager at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, made headlines when he said Amazon had fired him in retaliation for his organizing efforts.
About 50 workers at the New York warehouse went on strike to protest Amazon’s health and safety policies amid the outbreak of COVID-19 after a colleague tested positive for virus.
After Smalls went public, an internal Amazon memo leaked revealing a plan concocted by the company’s public-relations team to discredit him as “not smart or articulate.” Then-CEO Jeff Bezos reportedly attended the meeting in which the strategy was discussed.
“The experience changed my life forever,” Smalls told Insider. “From that moment forward I knew I wanted to take the fight to them.
“My advice to others is simple: No matter how big the company or how much power they have, workers generate that wealth, and if we organize collectively, there’s no amount of money and power that can match people’s power. Stand up speak up for what you believe in. The time is now.”
Since then, he has continued to be an outspoken advocate for Amazon’s warehouse workers.
After the leaked memo was published, its author — the Amazon lawyer David Zapolsky — said in a statement that his comments were “personal and emotional.”
“I was frustrated and upset that an Amazon employee would endanger the health and safety of other Amazonians by repeatedly returning to the premises after having been warned to quarantine himself after exposure to virus Covid-19,” he said at the time.
“I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me.”
Meredith Whittaker is a former Google artificial-intelligence researcher who helped organize 2018’s massive walkout as well as internal protests against the company’s involvement in Project Maven, a controversial project with the Pentagon.
In a recent interview with Insider, Whittaker — who serves as faculty director of the AI Now Institute at New York University — said there was “almost no mechanism for public assessment” of tech companies’ dealings with governments and armies around the world.
“The ability to decide whether you contribute to a project that supports drone targeting for death or a project where you can actually validate that is only used for humanitarian purposes — right now those mechanisms aren’t in place,” she said.
Whittaker added that unless the Pentagon and tech companies are more transparent and accountable, they’ll continue to meet resistance from the growing worker-ethics movement.
“My sense is that intervention is going to need to be led by organized tech workers and social movements who are kind of demanding this because it would signal a radical shift of how the tech industry operates,” she said.
Google did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
When Shipt, the online delivery service owned by Target, switched to an opaque new payment system in early 2020, workers were outraged.
Under the new “black box” system, up to 40% of the firm’s workers reported a decrease in their wages. One of those leading the calls for change was Willy Solis, the self-described introvert from Dallas who wants to “raise awareness and bring voice to our grievances.”
Things got even worse when the pandemic hit, with many Shipt workers reporting that they had struggled to get ahold of the protective gear, like face masks and gloves, they needed to do their jobs.
“Our long-term goal is to prevent gig companies from continuing their exploitative employment models,” he told Insider. “We hope this will result in positive change for all gig workers.”
A Shipt spokesperson told Insider the firm had “prioritized the health and safety of shoppers and customers by immediately prioritizing contactless delivery options.”
Raksha Muthukumar was instrumental in launching the Alphabet Workers Union — the first labor collective to exist at Google — earlier this year.
Muthukumar and other Google employees spent months quietly building support for the union before going public. “It was a scary, nebulous prospect of: We’re a group of people, we have to become a union, but we don’t know what that looks like.”
With the help of the Communications Workers of America, the AWU went live in January, after several months of bubbling tensions between employees and leadership.
“I think out the door it’s been a firehose,” Muthukumar said, reflecting on the launch of the union almost a year later. “So many people have so many things to address.”
One of the union’s primary campaign objectives has been to win more rights for temporary vendors and contractors at Google — known as TVCs — who often do similar work to full-time employees but don’t enjoy many of the same benefits.
Muthukumar left Google in June to join Ya-Ya Network, a nonprofit focused on social-justice activism.
In October 2020, Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham filed a complaint to the US National Labor Relations Board accusing Amazon of violating labor laws by firing them that April.
Costa and Cunningham had worked for 15 years at Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle and were members of the group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.
Amazon fired them after they helped organize an event for warehouse workers to speak out about working conditions during the pandemic.
This April, the NLRB found that Amazon had acted illegally by firing Costa and Cunningham. Amazon subsequently paid each an undisclosed sum as part of a financial settlement.
An Amazon spokesperson told Insider: “We have reached an agreement that resolves the legal issues in this case.”
When Proposition 22 passed in California last November, it caused a firestorm.
The law exempts ride-sharing and food-delivery firms from AB5, a California gig-worker law that forces Uber and Lyft to classify their drivers as employees.
Ever since, Veronica Barnes has been at the forefront of DoorDash employees’ demands for better conditions.
Speaking to Insider, Barnes said her move into activism was the “culmination of a variety of different things.”
“Because this is how America works: The people who do the most work get paid the least, and this is a growing trend in America,” she said. “That’s what led me to become an activist because if you don’t speak up, you’re not heard. But it takes us working together in order for a change to start.”
A DoorDash spokesperson contradicted Barnes’ characterization of the company, telling Insider: “We’re proud of the role we’ve played in helping connect Dashers to earning opportunities while helping customers access meals and essential items from merchants in their communities.”
The spokesperson added: “We’ve long advocated for regulatory frameworks that are portable, proportional, and flexible — meeting the needs of Dashers and workers like them.”
By early 2020, Rondu Gantt said, Uber had started treating its drivers reasonably well “by allowing us drivers to see pay minimums and destinations for every ride request that we received.”
But the passage of Proposition 22 changed all that, he told Insider: “Uber took away all the positive changes that they made on the app for the drivers, and my pay plummeted.”
He added: “I felt economically threatened and treated like a horse with blinders on, so I decided that I would do everything I could to fight these ride-share companies’ abusive business practices.”
As one of the most outspoken Uber activists in the country, Gantt said he hopes to help “establish rules for ride-sharing companies that amount to a living wage,” as well as more “dignified working conditions.”
When contacted by Insider, an Uber spokesperson insisted Proposition 22 had given drivers a “series of new benefits and protections,” including an earnings guarantee, and up to $1 million in health insurance.
The firm’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, has also proposed a series of reforms for the industry, which the company said were overwhelmingly supported by its drivers.
The Netflix software engineer Terra Field was suspended by the company amid an ongoing controversy over the comedian Dave Chappelle’s sixth stand-up special, “The Closer.”
Chappelle was criticized and accused of making anti-trans comments during the special and for declaring that he is “team TERF,” which stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist.
Field posted a Twitter thread on October 7, where she said that Chappelle “attacks the trans community, and the very validity of transness – all while trying to pit us against other marginalized groups.” She and two other employees were subsequently suspended.
Almost a week later, Field tweeted that her employment status with Netflix had been fully reinstated after the company found “no ill-intent” in her actions. “I’m going to take a few days off to decompress and try to figure out where I’m at. At the very least, I feel vindicated,” she said.
Netflix did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
A former Google research scientist, the Tech Inquiry founder Jack Poulson is working tirelessly to expose tech companies’ growing role as military contractors.
Historical links between Silicon Valley and the US Department of Defense are well documented, but as tech giants continue to pitch themselves as weapons manufacturers, Poulson is working to ensure employees feel empowered to reject any part of it.
When approached by Insider, Poulson said he felt “ambiguous” about the idea of being included on a list of tech employees turned activists.
“I think it is important to encourage whistleblowers and labor organizing in tech,” he wrote in an email. “But I am also frequently frustrated that former tech workers are over-emphasized relative to those who were *always* skeptical of tech companies and didn’t want to take the money.”
Poulson went on to say that he would have preferred his current work was “judged independently of whether or not I used to work in tech — if anything, I see it as something to apologize for.”
Google did not respond to Insider’s request for comment regarding Poulson’s reasoning for leaving the company.
One of the founding members of the Gig Workers Collective, Robin Pape has been sounding the alarm on behalf of Instacart workers since 2019, when it was revealed the firm had been using customer tips to subsidize workers’ pay.
“I had been a social worker in my community, so activism wasn’t entirely new. It was very soon after I began that Instacart made the first major changes to their pay structure,” Pape told Insider.
“I was then invited to work with a group of women to help organize and advocate for gig workers.”
She added: “We hope that Instacart and other gig companies will acknowledge and address our reasonable demands and that the value and expense of this work will be fairly considered.”
Instacart did not respond when approached for comment.
You might recognize Tristan Harris from “The Social Dilemma,” the tech-bashing documentary that caused a storm when it debuted on Netflix last year.
Over almost a decade, Harris — who previously worked as a design ethicist at Google — has forced many of us to think differently about the devices and digital services we use every day.
“It’s like: ‘Guys, we’re creating a very specific form of psychological manipulation and influence that we, the tech industry, are responsible for fixing,” he previously told Insider.
“And getting people to admit that took a really long time. We had a hard time getting people to sort of just agree that there was a problem that had to get fixed.”
Facebook has defended itself against Harris’ accusations, saying his work “gives a distorted view of how social media platforms work to create a convenient scapegoat for what are difficult and complex societal problems.”
When Facebook fired Sophie Zhang last year, the data scientist wrote a several-thousand-word memo accusing the company of ignoring problems of hate and misinformation on its platform.
Since then she has gone public with more details about what she witnessed at Facebook — namely, she says, a company letting its business interests stand in the way of efforts to fix harmful activities with potentially huge political consequences.
As Frances Haugen captured headlines in recent weeks, Zhang published her own guide on blowing the whistle on Big Tech firms, based on her own experience.
“I have had tech workers reaching out to me for a long time,” Zhang told Insider. “I think many people are in difficult positions and have similar questions to ask about.”
Zhang has said she is willing to testify before Congress and said she has handed over documentation related to “potential criminal violations” at Facebook to a US law-enforcement agency.
A Facebook spokesperson previously told The Guardian: “We fundamentally disagree with Ms Zhang’s characterization of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform.
“We aggressively go after abuse around the world and have specialized teams focused on this work. As a result, we’ve taken down more than 100 networks of coordinated inauthentic behavior.
“Combatting coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority. We’re also addressing the problems of spam and fake engagement. We investigate each issue before taking action or making public claims about them.”
The Big Tech Activists Turning the Tables on Silicon Valley – Business Insider
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