More than 500 employees at tech companies including Google, Slack, Stripe, and IBM have signed a “Never Again” pledge refusing to assist the US government with data collection that could be used to target Muslim Americans or other groups.
The pledge has four points: refuse to participate in building databases, advocate against such measures within organizations, report the misuse of data, and raise broader awareness about data collection issues.
The effort was prompted, of course, by the election of Donald Trump, who has talked about building some sort of Muslim registry. It's informed by the tech industry's history of enabling civil rights violations on behalf of the government, as many companies did for the NSA and IBM did during the Holocaust — hence “never again.”
The pledge has attracted some employees from influential companies, but can it make a real difference? Pledges have been shown to work for commitments to voting, wearing seatbelts and recycling, restraining politicians, and being honest (although they're less effective for maintaining virginity). But there are a lot of variables that will determine the effectiveness of this particular pledge. Does the pledge correctly approximate the threat? Do the people signing the pledge have any power? Will anyone remember this pledge when Trump is president?
“Personally, I don't have super high hopes that an open letter is going to directly prevent large tech companies from working with a Trump government,” said Alex Baldwin, an engineer at the weather forecasting service Poncho who signed the pledge. “But I do feel that this has a chance to raise at least a little awareness around data, security, and what data can do in the wrong hands, as well as get more tech employees thinking about the role that their companies and products play in politics.”
"The actions we're pledging to avoid are both unethical and illegal in the first place; such a pledge shouldn't even be necessary," said Steven Johnson, an engineer at Google. But "if today's political reality makes this sort of thing even a remote possibility, it is essential for all persons of conscience to make it clear that [we] will not participate,” he said.
"We don’t yet know if it will matter," the authors of the pledge said in an email. "We can’t see the future. But we are heeding the advice of experts on authoritarianism who say to think deeply about what our personal values and ethics are." Those experts include writers Masha Gessen and Sarah Kendzior.
“We don’t yet know if it will matter.”
"We hope that faced with difficult decisions down the road, signatories will be able to know that they aren’t alone in caring about these issues, to be able to reach out to fellow signatories for moral and ethical support, and to have some context and resources at hand so that they can make decisions that protect people," the pledge authors wrote.
Most of the people signing the Never Again pledge are rank-and-file employees. Leigh Honeywell, an engineer at Slack and one of the pledge's organizers, told BuzzFeed that the original idea came from “informal discussions among techie friends.” However, some signatories suggested that a pledge might be more effective if it targeted CEOs.
The Intercept had a similar line of thinking when it polled nine tech companies that could potentially be tapped if the government wanted to build a database of Muslims living in the US. Only Twitter was willing to go on the record saying it would never participate in building such a database. Thanks to an errant email, we also now know where Facebook stands.
It's unclear, however, if a company-focused Never Again pledge would have the desired effect. It’s very easy to sign a pledge — in fact, Silicon Valley seems to love pledges. In the past year, tech companies have signed on to the Tech Inclusion Pledge, the Equal Pay Pledge, a pledge against illegal wildlife trafficking, and a pledge to hire veterans.
I reached out to companies that signed the Tech Inclusion pledge to find out if it had had any impact on increasing diversity in the industry, the pledge’s stated goal. “Yes, we continue to invest in external partnerships and internal diversity and inclusion initiatives to make good on this pledge,” said Elka Looks, a spokesperson for Medium. She said that making a public pledge helped Medium stick to its goals. Pinterest, Github, Intel, and Airbnb also responded in the affirmative — they are making progress and plan to publish their numbers as promised — although they declined to elaborate on the effectiveness of pledges in general.
The public pledge did make it easier to get an answer back on a specific question — from certain companies. Another 15 companies did not give a meaningful response. Meanwhile, the industry remains overwhelmingly white, and the companies that signed the pledge admit that adhering to its terms is not enough.
Traditionally, Silicon Valley has been more aligned with Democrats over immigration, social issues, information freedom, and surveillance. The industry, anchored in the ultra-liberal San Francisco Bay area, finds Trump particularly offensive.
In spite of that, executives at top Silicon Valley companies agreed to a meeting with Trump — starting what some see as a slow process of normalization. (For a fun list of who and who wasn't invited, see Recode). To stop that process, some vocal advocates are calling for public displays exactly like the Never Again pledge. "You can say no — loudly and in public," wrote longtime tech writer Kara Swisher.
There are definitely some signatories at companies who could wreak havoc on civil rights if commanded to by the government. The Tor Project, which maintains a tool for anonymous web browsing, for example, or Planet Labs, a satellite company that takes high-resolution images of 90 percent of Earth's landmass. A pledge might not stop tech workers from assisting in civil rights violations, but social science suggests it will inhibit them. At any rate, it's better than silence.