Tech workers of the world, unite for human rights!

In January of this year, more than 60 Californians braved the rain and gathered in Palo Alto to protest against the possibility that Palantir would partner with the new U.S. administration to build a Muslim registry. I saw it as a sign of what has since become clear: there are many tech workers in the U.S. who are newly inspired to participate in politics, and specifically to listen to members of marginalized communities, and put pressure on company leadership to respect their human rights. And they’re starting to connect with others who feel the same way.

I’m a trained engineer and a former tech worker. I left the tech world with a feeling of relief. I’d always been good at math and physics, and as a kid, I fell into a STEM track without really knowing why. Years later, I found myself in the U.S., working as an electrical engineer on an H1B visa. But it never felt like my calling. I often wished that my colleagues cared more about the world outside their cubicles.

I did what I could to get out myself, volunteering for nonprofit partnerships via my employer AMD, including mentoring young girls in engineering. But it didn’t feel like I was doing enough. So I quit my job in Austin and moved to New York City to work toward a master’s degree at Columbia’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

Today I find myself between two worlds (in more ways than one). Right now, I’m helping Access Now with RightsCon, the yearly conference that explores the intersection of human rights and technology. I am an engineer and understand what’s happening from that standpoint, but I also see the tech world from a humanities perspective. And what I am seeing right now is heartening: more tech workers in the U.S. are getting involved in politics. They’re seeing how their work impacts human rights, and they want to have a say in what happens.

The crowd that gathered to demonstrate in Palo Alto were inspired by a new initiative called Tech Solidarity, launched by a Polish-American entrepreneur and software developer named Maciej Ceglowski. In its own words, the group aims to “better connect tech workers with the communities they live in.”  For me, the group’s existence is a reassuring affirmation that there are other people who don’t want to be complicit in letting their expertise or products be used to harm the rights of marginalized people, in the U.S. or around the world. People joining groups like this can send a strong message: We won’t stand by and watch when Muslims, immigrants, refugees, or any other group is targeted for U.S. government surveillance. It didn’t stop there, either. Not long afterward, people circulated a pledge, Never Again, which has now been signed by 3,000 individuals, most of whom are employees at large technology companies.  

Now the issues that inspired the demonstration are sparking more tech activism. After President Trump issued an Executive Order on refugees and immigration that banned travel from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days, tech workers refused to stand silent. They demanded that top executives show solidarity with immigrant communities and take a public stand against the EO. Googlers and Comcast workers organized a walkout and rallies against the order. Qualcomm workers wrote a letter to their own CEO demanding that he take action publicly. Uber staff questioned their CEO’s presence on Trump’s advisory board. Tech workers have since been organizing meetups and protest events through Facebook.

These protests have had concrete results: more than 130 companies have filed amicus briefs against the Trump travel ban, which has now been rejected by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The question now is, will this new energy last? And if so, how will it manifest in action? It’s impossible to predict the future, but this budding movement could follow a few different vectors, which I sketch out here:

Tech workers could explore unions: Labor strikes, protesting, public letters, etc. are all relatively new, untested tactics for tech workers in Silicon Valley. It’s interesting to see tech workers (who often have a libertarian ethos) embark on collective action  traditionally performed by labor unions. It makes me wonder whether the time is coming when techies in the U.S. (especially immigrants) decide to unionize, so they have a strong, unified voice to advocate for their own rights and the rights of people doing the underpaid contract work that is the underbelly of tech, such as making food, cleaning tech campuses, sifting through abusive content at overseas monitoring centers, and building our phones.  

Tech workers could participate in more bottom-up movements:  For a long time, you could sum up tech companies’ Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives as comprising community service activities such as preserving local parks, tutoring, or, at most, partnering with NGOs to provide humanitarian aid. For a long time, we only saw the top executives in tech companies featured in the news, for starting philanthropic foundations or social good initiatives. When I was at AMD, I dreamt of opening a newspaper or a website to find word of a bottom-up initiative led by tech workers, not their bosses. Employees could be challenging the companies they work for, holding their CEOs accountable for respecting human rights (like the right to privacy), or for providing transparency. We’re seeing a hint of the possibilities in broad-based initiatives like Tech Solidarity and Tech Stands Up, and there could soon be a whole new wave of efforts to ensure senior leadership maintains standards of ethical conduct. More than that, perhaps we will start to see tech-worker movements improve the public standing of an industry that is often associated with the apathetic “tech bro” stereotype (a stereotype that research shows is not unsubstantiated).

As a person who strongly believes that technology workers should acknowledge their societal impact and be proactive in standing up for human rights, it is encouraging to see that techies have started embracing this idea, educating themselves, seeking help from NGOs, and pushing their companies in the right direction.

Perhaps it’s also time for non-profit groups to show their support for these grassroots movements and use their expertise in securing the digital rights of at-risk groups. At Access Now, for instance, we are working to strengthen our Digital Security Helpline. This work relies on the knowledge of technologists who understand that the rights to privacy and free expression do not go away when you go online. We also need more conversations where technologists and people in other disciplines come together to learn from one another’s experiences, share our knowledge, and find ways to create more just societies. RightsCon is one place to do that.

Not all of us need to quit our tech jobs and go back to school to study human rights. And not everyone has to agree on every political point. But my fellow engineers, are you ready to join human rights activists so we can work together for a better and more just society for everyone? If your answer is yes, consider yourself invited to RightsCon. It’s calling you!