Tech staffers flex protest muscle

14 April 2019 - 00:03 By JAMES TITCOMB


There is an often-overlooked reason why the innovation centre of the world is not in New York, London or any of the world's other metropolises, but the 466.1km² strip of the US West Coast known as Silicon Valley.
It isn't the weather, or the proximity to a renowned computer science university like Stanford, although both undoubtedly help. Instead, much of the tech hub's status can be attributed to an oddity of California law.
The state refuses to recognise the "noncompete agreements" in employment contracts, commonly used by companies to prevent staff from jumping ship to a rival, or running off to start their own business.
With employees able to move jobs at ease, ideas and knowledge spread rapidly, a key ingredient of the area's success.
But the laws prohibiting such agreements also give workers at tech companies a power those elsewhere do not enjoy. When there is nothing stopping you from switching teams, your present employer must work harder to keep you on side.
Silicon Valley's free market in labour is one of the reasons tech industry employees are among the best paid in the world, although the spectacular profits their companies earn has something to do with it, too.
But more recently, tech company workforces have been exercising power in a different way: to protest.
A year ago, a group of Google employees signed a letter addressed to CEO Sundar Pichai urging the company to pull out of a contract with the US military, which they feared would mean its technology being used for "the business of war".
Not long after, the company said it would not renew the contract.
Staff at the company were emboldened, and, last November, thousands walked out of Google's offices to march against the company's handling of sexual harassment complaints, winning a handful of concessions.
Employees have protested against the company's plans for China, its treatment of temporary workers and, last week, the members of an "artificial intelligence ethics" council the company had announced.
One board member, Kay Coles James, of the conservative Heritage Foundation, had espoused views that were at odds with those of Google's socially liberal workforce.
Within days, Google announced that the ethics council had been disbanded.
Employee activism is on the rise outside of Google, although it has had to deal with it more than most. Staff at Amazon and Microsoft have risen up against the companies' work on military contracts and surveillance technology, while those at IBM have opposed the company CEO's relationship with the Trump administration.
Why the sudden upsurge in staff protest?
We are, of course, living in more politically charged times, and this is true of the tech industry more than most. The companies in question are increasingly dominant in our lives, particularly with regards to how news and information are distributed, and employees will feel they shoulder more of the responsibility for how society operates.
The tech boom also means the financial consequences for kicking up a fuss are minimal. While employees might have once been dissuaded from rocking the boat, fearing they would be passed over for promotions or pushed out, the market for tech talent is now so hot they can easily find well-paid employment elsewhere, references be damned.
Employees will also feel they are the only ones able to enforce change. Despite scandals over privacy and fake news, neither consumers nor advertisers have abandoned the big tech companies, and investors hardly seem likely to lead the charge.
But while it is refreshing to see Silicon Valley employees take responsibility for their actions, their achievements should not be overstated.
Changing Google's HR practices and convincing the company to abandon a marginally profitable defence contract do not begin to get at some of the company's wider problems, such as the rampant misinformation and disturbing videos that feature on YouTube. Facebook has not seen nearly the same level of staff protest.
We should be wary about relying on a relatively small and vocal crowd making decisions about the direction of the tech giants. But today, at least, employees seem to be the most effective agent of change in Silicon Valley.
- © The Daily Telegraph

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