GitHub is trying to quell employee anger over its ICE contract. It’s not going well
When GitHub Chief Executive Nat Friedman announced on Oct. 9 his company would donate half a million dollars to nonprofits helping communities affected by the Trump administration’s immigration policies, it was a peace offering of sorts.
Employees had recently learned that the Microsoft-owned software development platform had renewed its 2016 contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.
In donating the money and making clear his personal disagreement with harsh immigration law enforcement, Friedman appeared intent on averting an internal protest of the sort that has roiled other technology firms whose software powers controversial government policies.
It didn’t work.
In the weeks since, frustration has risen among some within GitHub. After promising to address questions on the ICE relationship at a Q&A session scheduled for Oct. 11, executives canceled the meeting, blaming the cancellation on employee leaks, according to an email reviewed by The Times. At an all-hands meeting held Oct. 24, executives did not discuss the results of a quarterly survey showing negative sentiment toward GitHub’s leadership as planned, according to two employees.
With the issue refusing to go away, GitHub executives have changed their internal messaging, including a memo to employees saying that barring ICE from “access to GitHub could actually hurt the very people we all want to help,” in the words of Chief Operating Officer Erica Brescia.
“We have learned from a number of nonprofits and refugee advocates that one of the greatest challenges facing immigrants is a lack of technology at ICE and related agencies, resulting in lost case files, court date notifications not being delivered, or the wrong people being charged or deported,” read a companywide posting sent Oct. 22, signed by Brescia and the leadership team.
Brescia’s letter was a second response to an Oct. 9 open letter from employees calling on GitHub to cancel its contract with ICE. The employees behind it said continuing to work with ICE would make the San Francisco-based company “complicit in widespread human rights abuses.” In the company’s initial response, Friedman said that though he disagreed with the immigration policies ICE is enforcing, canceling the contract would not convince the Trump administration to change them. Friedman also said the revenue from the contract — about $200,000 — was not financially material for the company.
In response to requests for comment, GitHub referred The Times back to Friedman’s Oct. 9 blog post.
GitHub is just the latest tech company to face employee resistance to government contracts, particularly those with the Department of Homeland Security. In June 2018, Google, facing employee opposition, said it would not renew its contract to develop artificial intelligence systems for the Pentagon. In the same month, 500 Amazon workers called on executives to stop selling facial recognition to the government, without result. Employees of the e-commerce brand Wayfair walked out of their offices in June 2019 to protest the sale of beds to immigration detention centers.
The results of GitHub’s quarterly anonymous employee survey — which showed a decline in trust of leadership — were originally slated to be presented to employees on Oct. 10, according to documents and a schedule reviewed by The Times. There was no meeting on Oct. 10, however, and a companywide Q&A session scheduled for Oct. 11 was canceled. After GitHub canceled that meeting, Brescia admonished employees not to speak with outsiders about company matters. “We are all responsible for respecting and protecting internal, non-public information from being disclosed and protecting the privacy of fellow Hubbers as we engage in open dialogue on sensitive issues,” she wrote in an email explaining the cancellation.
Employees were then told the survey results would be shared at the Oct. 24 all-hands meeting, according to internal Slack messages The Times reviewed. However, executives leading the meeting did a sales recap and previewed an upcoming conference, among other agenda items, without discussing the survey, two employees said. (The company said it did share the results of the survey with employees on the day of the meeting, just not at the meeting.) They also did not respond to questions employees posed in a dedicated Slack channel. Executives typically respond to the questions in Slack during these meetings, the two employees said.
One of those employees, staff engineer Sophie Haskins, resigned Monday, stating in her resignation letter that she was leaving because the company did not cancel its contract with ICE and “shows no indication of canceling the contract,” which she wrote was “morally unacceptable.”
“I decided early on after the execs’ letter that my ‘line in the sand’ was that we must cancel the contract by the end of the month,” Haskins said.
In his original memo, Friedman indicated that GitHub’s work with ICE was through a reseller and that the company didn’t know what projects its platform was being used for. In her Oct. 22 letter, Brescia said GitHub’s servers were being used by Homeland Security Investigations and the Enforcement and Removal Operations division, among others. The ERO division is tasked with deporting and detaining immigrants.
“ICE is a large organization with many divisions, and we believe through Support interactions, that ICE has set up instances within the Homeland Security Investigations arm, M&A, and ERO divisions,” she wrote. Brescia cited the “other important work ICE does, such as stopping child exploitation, human trafficking, money laundering and disrupting terrorist networks.” Brescia added she was not defending ICE, simply sharing facts.
In a fact sheet circulating within GitHub, employees opposing the ICE contract wrote that the GitHub sales team actively pursued the contract renewal with ICE. The Times reviewed screenshots of an internal Slack channel after the contract was renewed on Sept. 4 that appear to show sales employees celebrating a $56,000 upgrade of the contract with ICE. The message, which congratulated four employees for the sale and was accompanied by emojis of a siren, bald eagle and American flag, read “stay out of their way. $56k upgrade at DHS ICE.” Five people responded with an American flag emoji.
The company did not respond directly to questions about whether the sales team actively pursued this contract.
GitHub parent company Microsoft — which has contracts with ICE worth more than $8 million, according to Recode — has also resisted giving in to employee demands to stop working with the agency.
Raices, a Texas-based nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrants and refugees, on Thursday responded on Twitter to Brescia’s claim that nonprofits want ICE to have better technology. “We can assure you that’s not the case,” the group tweeted.