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GitHub's trying to quell employee anger over its ICE contract. It's not going well.

Johana Bhuiyan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

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 a emails 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 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 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 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 said it would not renew its contract to develop artificial intelligence systems for the Pentagon following employee opposition. 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.

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