Microsoft employees protest work with ICE

In an open letter posted to Microsoft’s internal message board, more than 100 employees protested the software maker’s work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement..

In an open letter posted to Microsoft’s internal message board, more than 100 employees protested the software maker’s work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). They asked the company to stop working with the agency, which has been separating migrant parents and their children at the US border with Mexico.

Background

Microsoft Corporation is an American multinational technology company headquartered in Redmond, Washington. It develops, manufactures, licenses, supports, and sells computer software, consumer electronics, personal computers, and services. Its best-known software products are the Microsoft Windows line of operating systems, the Microsoft Office suite, and the Internet Explorer and Edge web browsers. Its flagship hardware products are the Xbox video game consoles and the Microsoft Surface lineup of touchscreen personal computers. The word "Microsoft" is a portmanteau of "microcomputer" and "software".

Microsoft was founded by Paul Allen and Bill Gates on April 4, 1975, to develop and sell BASIC interpreters for the Altair 8800. It rose to dominate the personal computer operating system market with MS-DOS in the mid-1980s, followed by Microsoft Windows. The company's 1986 initial public offering (IPO), and subsequent rise in its share price, created three billionaires and an estimated 12,000 millionaires among Microsoft employees. Since the 1990s, it has increasingly diversified from the operating system market and has made several corporate acquisitions, their largest being the acquisition of LinkedIn for $26.2 billion in December 2016, followed by their acquisition of Skype Technologies for $8.5 billion in May 2011.

Since Satya Nadella took over as CEO in 2014, the company has scaled back on hardware and has instead focused on cloud computing, a move that helped the company's shares reach its highest value since December 1999. As of 2016, it is the world's largest software maker by revenue, and one of the world's most valuable companies.

Analysis

An open letter signed by more than 100 Microsoft employees has called on the tech giant to stop its work with the US Border Patrol.

“We believe that Microsoft must take an ethical stand, and put children and families above profits,” said the letter, which was addressed to the chief executive, Satya Nadella. The letter pointed to a $19.4 million contract that Microsoft has with ICE for processing data and artificial intelligence capabilities.

Calling the separation of families “inhumane,” the employees added: “As the people who build the technologies that Microsoft profits from, we refuse to be complicit. We are part of a growing movement, comprised of many across the industry who recognize the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm.”

The letter is part of a movement of tech workers rallying against the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy that refers to prosecuting all immigrants detained crossing the border without authorization. The policy has resulted in about 2,000 children being separated from their migrant parents, raising a bipartisan outcry.

In recent days, employees of companies including Google, Apple, and Facebook, have spread internal emails asking for donations to nonprofit groups that support immigrants. The activity has had an effect. After Microsoft’s employee letter, the company released a statement from Mr. Nadella where he called the immigration policy “cruel and abusive” and said Microsoft was not working with the federal government on any projects to separate families. Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, also published a blog post titled, “The Country Needs to Get Immigration Right.”

Apple’s chief, Timothy D. Cook called the immigration policy “heartbreaking.” Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, tweeted that he was a “top donor” to the American Civil Liberties Union and said that “if there is some way for me to help these kids I will do so.” Sundar Pichai of Google, Dara Khosrowshahi of Uber, and Chuck Robbins of Cisco also tweeted their opposition to the policy.

The initiative by tech workers is suggestive of protests held in January 2017 when many Silicon Valley employees protested an executive order from President Trump suspending immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries. At the time, Google employees held rallies to object; Amazon and Expedia were among the companies that filed in court to stop the order.

Since then, tech workers have noticed their companies increasingly come under scrutiny for their moral and ethical behavior. Many tech employees have begun organizing against actions by their own companies, for example, in April, thousands of Google employees signed a letter protesting the company’s involvement in a Pentagon program that uses artificial intelligence in weaponry.

Microsoft has been positioning itself as a moral leader. Mr. Nadella and Mr. Smith have publicly said they want to protect user privacy and establish ethical guidelines for new technology like artificial intelligence.

The letter added that Microsoft should not only cancel its contract with ICE but be open to a review of its contracts with government agencies domestically and internationally, and that it should create a policy stating it would not work with those “who violate international human rights law.”

Assessment

Our assessment is that Microsoft’s involvement in providing services to the ICE is a sensitive issue for its employees, especially since many tech companies comprise workers who are first-generation immigrants or who grew up in immigrant families. We feel that public scrutiny and debate could ensure that such services are being deployed fairly and in a socially beneficial manner. Microsoft has taken a positive step toward protecting their interests within the scope of public welfare by releasing a list of principles that are binding on the company.

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