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Does Employee Activism Spell Doom for Big Tech Innovation?

As governments consider laws for modern tech companies, a discussion on the ethical role of an employee and company in the public space is welcome.

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Last year, a Google employee became unhappy with the company's business decision to advance Project Nimbus - a $1.2 billion contract between Google, Amazon, and the Israeli government and military. Ariel Koren, a Jewish 28-year-old marketing manager, felt that the deal violates Palestinians’ human rights.

Koren was not involved in any way, shape, or form with the complex transaction or the project. We doubt she was even technically qualified to judge the project's merits. She marketed educational products to Latin America and was based in Mexico City before voluntarily moving to the Bay Area during Covid. Google had a generous Work From Home policy at the time, so it did not oppose Koren's move to California.

So, what did Koren find so offensive about the highly-secret project? The Intercept reported, by culling information from Nimbus's user documentation, that "the new cloud would give Israel capabilities for facial detection, automated image categorization, object tracking, and even sentiment analysis that claims to assess the emotional content of pictures, speech, and writing." Koren concluded that such tools would harm Palestinians.

While employed at Google, she embarked on a year-long initiative to organize against the project and the company, circulating petitions, lobbying executives, and even talking to news organizations - all, generally offenses that can get one fired. But not at Big Tech, which gently coddles their employees, often to avoid bad press.

Google transferred Koren to São Paulo, Brazil, presumably to locate her closer to her customers. She complained to Human Resources and the National Labor Relations Board that the decision amounted to retaliation. A seven-month investigation by both found that Google had indulged in no wrongdoing. She continued her activism against Google during this time, earning a paycheck and enjoying the company's cradle-to-grave benefits.

In deciding to quit, she embarked on the usual ploy to which modern woke employees feel entitled. She used the words "Israeli Apartheid" in her Medium piece, borrowing from both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which have both formally accused Israel of committing crimes against humanity by "maintaining an apartheid system against Palestinians." And she had to bring up identity politics. She charges that "Google is "weaponizing its DEI* and ERG* systems to justify the behavior, so it is no coincidence that retaliation has disproportionately impacted women, queer, and BIPOC employees." *[DEI = Diversity, Equity, Inclusion; ERG = Employee Resource Group].

If you are scratching your head, welcome to the tangled world that Big Tech has weaved for the rest of us. Under the pretext of fairness, employees are using every tool to push the limits of workplace activism. Koren only quit now because, having lost her challenge, Google has the legal right to fire her if she refuses to obey the transfer order. Rather than lose face, she decided to bask in her new-found celebrity.

While no employee should be allowed to hold a company or a project to ransom, ethical whistleblowers can act as tools to stop companies from pursuing profits at any cost. Innovation is welcome and necessary. But, the intrusive side of technology and the lengths to which AI can be manipulated is raising concerns from many quarters.

The power of the modern tech worker is remarkable. Across town, shortly after billionaire Elon Musk announced that he would buy Twitter for $44 billion, top Twitter lawyer Vijaya Gadde cried during a virtual meeting as she expressed concerns about how the company could change, as sympathetically reported by Politico. Sixteen months prior, Gadde had spearheaded Big Tech's unified response to permanently ban former President Trump from Twitter, although he had 84 million followers. Gadde was part of the same team that had suspended the New York Post for breaking the Hunter Biden laptop story earlier. Twitter also disallowed tweets or retweets of any thread about Hunter Biden, suspending users or even banning them.

Musk, who is not a Trump fan and has said that he would support Florida Governor Ron DeSantis's bid for 2024, has made it clear that he favors free speech. Speaking at a Financial Times Conference two weeks after Gadde broke down, Musk said he would reverse Trump's permanent ban from Twitter if he took over. Banning Trump "was a morally bad decision, to be clear, and foolish in the extreme," the billionaire said at a Financial Times conference. We await with bated breath if free speech returns to Twitter, but with the transaction tied up in the courts, we don't see much hope.

What began as innocuous search engines and social media platforms now wield enormous power, with the ability to even swing elections in America and worldwide. Employee activism and company censorship squelch fair public debates to the detriment of American society. It can’t be sustained for too long. But, the question is, should personal beliefs or bias be allowed to steer or malign projects? Just as the governments are mulling formulating laws to suit modern tech-based companies, a discussion on the ethical role of an employee and company in the public space would be welcome.


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