clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Whistleblowers Are the Agents of Change in the Tech Industry

From walkouts and protest letters at Google to demonstrations at Amazon and internal memos at Facebook, tech companies are increasingly being held accountable not by users or government regulations but by their exasperated and disillusioned workforce

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At 11 a.m. on November 1, Google employees the world over walked out of their offices. The protest followed a New York Times exposé revealing the company’s gentle treatment of upper-level executives (including Android creator Andy Rubin) who were said to have engaged in sexual harassment. The organizers of the Google Walkout for Real Change were also reacting to a growing dissatisfaction within their workplace. They had six demands, largely amounting to workers being treated equally and respectfully. A week later, CEO Sundar Pichai met with the organizers, and several of their demands were met. That means, of course, that several were not—still, the result of the walkout was an air of hopefulness and progress, if not total victory.

Last Tuesday, there was more dissent at Google: A group of over 700 employees signed their names to an open letter asking the company to stop a project code-named Dragonfly, Google’s censored and state-surveilled search engine for Chinese consumers. “We object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be,” the letter stated.

Recent tech-employee protests haven’t been limited to Google. On Black Friday, Amazon warehouse workers across Europe protested the company’s working conditions. And last Tuesday, an ex-Facebook employee named Mark S. Luckie published an internal memo he’d sent out shortly before departing the company. The memo, titled, “Facebook is failing its black employees and its black users,” details Luckie’s perspective on how Facebook mistreats people of color on its platform and in its offices.

Rebellion has been brewing at tech companies for years now, eked out in small increments. But with the latest spate of high-profile incidents, it seems as though things are coming to a head: The groups of workers dissenting are bigger, and their actions more noticeable. So, the protests and open letters (and leaked internal memos, oh, the leaked internal memos) are coming faster and faster.

What’s most notable is where the pressure is coming from: the inside. It can feel nearly impossible for users—who to some degree, are the product—to take down the tools they’re increasingly reliant on. Look no further than the #DeleteFacebook campaign following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. While user numbers are down, Facebook pushed forward, fairly undeterred. Meanwhile, Amazon, Twitter, and Uber have all faced significant consumer protests. These moments can often seem like they’re a harbinger of change, a signal that the tide is turning—but then earnings reports come around, or the outrage cycle finds its next target.

Compounding matters is the fact the innovations that tech companies provide (not to mention the role of lobbyists on their behalf) are outpacing government’s ability to regulate them effectively. In the past year, Facebook, Twitter, and Google were forced to sit before Congress and answer for their respective privacy and transparency failures. But these companies received mere slaps on the wrist, and the only real consequences were their representatives (and CEOs) getting publicly berated and shamed.

Maybe this is why those on the inside are now louder and more organized than ever. The resistance against tech companies is being fueled by the exasperation and disillusionment of their own workforce. Employees might be the only hope for keeping technology corporations in check.

It’s a tidal shift: Silicon Valley’s work environment is known for its perks—summer Fridays, ping-pong tables, free meals, and the like. Consequently, its employees are often regarded as happy, willing, and even docile. Which means it’s even more significant that an increasing number of them are willing to blow it all up in an attempt to change the course these corporations are on.

In one way, that’s frightening: When the people who make their livings from these companies and benefit from their market sprawl are the ones who are revolting, it means that what’s happening inside these headquarters could be worse than what the rest of the world already knows. Other industries have faced similar upheavals: Insiders were agents of change in the tobacco industry, toppled fashion heavyweights, and even rocked the federal government. And of course look no further than how Susan Fowler exposed Uber’s toxic work culture, perhaps amplifying whistleblowing in tech.

There is hope. Those on the inside are certainly the most informed; they’re the ones building the tools people rely on, the tools regulators work too slowly to govern. So far, they seem to be the most effective ones to accomplish real change.