After GitHub CEO backs Black Lives Matter, workers demand an end to ICE contract
With protests over the police killing of George Floyd gripping the country, Microsoft’s president said Thursday the company would refrain from selling facial recognition software to police, a small victory for employees who demanded the company sever relationships with law enforcement agencies.
At Microsoft-owned GitHub, the parent company’s concession only served to reinvigorate internal opposition to a controversial contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
At the start of an all-staff Q&A session Thursday morning, GitHub’s chief executive, Nat Friedman, spoke for around 30 minutes about what he called the “compounding crises” of the global pandemic, surging unemployment and civil unrest over police brutality.
Friedman said GitHub stands firmly with the Black Lives Matter movement and added that the company would look to support law enforcement reform, according to a transcript of the meeting reviewed by The Times.
After his opening remarks, Friedman took his first question from a presenter compiling employee submissions: Can we reconsider GitHub’s contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other law enforcement agencies?
“Thank you for the question. Respectfully, we’re not going to be reconsidering this,” he said on the videoconference call. “Picking and choosing customers is not the approach that we take to these types of questions when it comes to influencing government policy.”
As Friedman spoke, dozens of employees expressed frustration and outrage in a company Slack channel with more than 1,200 people, according to screenshots reviewed by The Times. A number of the posters said they viewed the company’s outward stance as clashing with its continued operational support of a government agency that arrests undocumented immigrants at workplaces, schools and hospitals; detains them in harsh and sometimes life-threatening conditions; and separates children from their families.
After Friedman’s answer to the initial question, senior application engineer Josh Nichols pushed back with a follow-up: “How does the leadership team rectify GitHub’s position on Black Lives Matter with our continued business with ICE despite their racist practices and policies?” he asked.
Friedman responded saying he believes investing in policy changes is a more effective method of driving progress than denying customers and forcing one such as ICE to switch to a competitor such as GitLab or Gitian, according to the transcript.
Employees pushed back on nearly every point Friedman made.
After he said “it hurts to be not understood in our approach,” multiple employees in the Slack channel responded by saying immigration authorities hurt Black, indigenous and undocumented people more than Friedman could be hurt by opinions.
Friedman compared the dissonance between the company’s stance and employees’ values to a marriage, saying: “I deeply love my wife, but we don’t agree about every single approach to every single problem in the world. But we’re together.”
At least four employees said in Slack messages reviewed by The Times that they found the comparison ridiculous.
Keith Ballinger, GitHub’s vice president of engineering, posted a message of support for Friedman’s argument, saying his wife does pro bono work on behalf of asylum seekers and other immigrants.
“What I’ve learned from her is that keeping technology from ICE actively harms those vulnerable populations,” he wrote.
Employees noted that they repeatedly hear this refrain from the company. Raices, a Texas nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrants and refugees, has previously disputed the claim that immigration advocacy groups want ICE to have better technology.
After the meeting, Nichols publicly aired his disappointment with GitHub’s refusal to reconsider its ICE relationship. “The company’s response is confidential, but mine isn’t: continued anger and disappointment,” Nichols tweeted Thursday.
GitHub did not respond to repeated requests for comment Friday.
The Thursday meeting is not the first time GitHub has faced ire from employees over law enforcement contracts.
In the fall, employees learned the company had renewed its 2016 contract with ICE. In an open letter on Twitter, employees said continuing to work with ICE would make the company “complicit in widespread human rights abuses.”
In response, Friedman announced the company would donate half a million dollars to nonprofits helping communities adversely affected by the Trump administration’s immigration policies. The gesture failed to quell anger over the issue, which continued to fester and has resulted in the departure of several employees.