“Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and organization on the planet to do more. But implicit in that statement, we believe it is also Microsoft’s mission to empower every person and organization on the planet to do good.” said the Microsoft Workers 4 Good in their open letter to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and President Brad Smith.
Back in November Microsoft won out a contract of about $479 million to the United States Department of the Army for an Integrated Visual Augmentation System, or IVAS for short. The gist of the contract is that Microsoft is going to use their HoloLens technology to created prototype augmented reality headsets for US Army Soldiers. They beat out several other companies for the contract including Magic Leap, according to a Bloomberg report. A group of Microsoft employees were unhappy with the decision then, writing an open letter asking Microsoft not to bid on the “Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract.” It pains me to see such a militaristic use of the word Jedi, but that is a whole other can of beans that I’m not in the mood to open right now.
Smith wrote a blog post at the time defending the military contract, stating three major points starting with “First, we believe in the strong defense of the United States and we want the people who defend it to have access to the nation’s best technology, including from Microsoft.” Microsoft has already been dealing with the military for decades, and Smith notes this in his blog post. “You’ll find Microsoft technology throughout the American military, helping power its front office, field operations, bases, ships, aircraft and training facilities. We are proud of this relationship, as we are of the many military veterans we employ.” The whole of the post has kind of a “suck it up, we’re doing this.” kind of vibe to it, including in his third point that he makes. “Third, we understand that some of our employees may have different views. We don’t ask or expect everyone who works at Microsoft to support every position the company takes. We also respect the fact that some employees work in, or may be citizens of, other countries, and they may not want to work on certain projects. As is always the case, if our employees want to work on a different project or team – for whatever reason – we want them to know we support talent mobility. Given our size and product diversity, we often have open jobs across the company and we want people to look for the work they want to do, including with help from Microsoft’s HR team.”
It is worth noting that he does give the employees who have qualms with the morality of a weapons contract options for working on other projects, but if you are working on a passion project that you consider your brain baby and find out that it is going to be used in a way you never intended, I imagine it is difficult to just pick up and move on to other things. And if you’re of the “this isn’t a weapons project” mindset, it states in part of the contract’s objective that this tech “provides increased lethality, mobility, and situational awareness necessary to achieve overmatch against our current and future adversaries.”
Fast forward to last Friday, where the employees of Microsoft tweeted their latest open letter “demanding for the cancelation of the IVAS contract with a call for stricter ethical guidelines.” Clearly Smith’s post has not dissuaded them from speaking out against the contract. They acknowledge Microsoft’s dealings with the military in the past, but take a pretty hard stance that “it has never crossed the line into weapons development.”
On behalf of workers at Microsoft, we're releasing an open letter to Brad Smith and Satya Nadella, demanding for the cancelation of the IVAS contract with a call for stricter ethical guidelines.
If you're a Microsoft employee you can sign at: https://t.co/958AhvIHO5 pic.twitter.com/uUZ5P4FJ7X
— Microsoft Workers 4 Good (@MsWorkers4) February 22, 2019
They go on to mention Smith’s statement about how unhappy employees are welcome to move on to other projects, but feel that it “ignores the problem that workers and not properly informed of the use of their work.” I’m inclined to agree with them, at least in a sense. If you’re creating something that employees believed “would be used to help architects and engineers build buildings and cars, to help teach people how to perform surgery or play the piano, to push the boundaries of gaming, and to connect with the Mars Rover (RIP).”, and the company feels it could be sold for military use then I think the employees have a right to know. On the other hand, I believe it is in the nature of many people, and governments in particular, that if a new piece of technology CAN be used for militant gains, then you can bet it eventually will be.
Unfortunately I believe that this open letter won’t actually do much to convince Brad Smith & Co to cancel the contract. Half a billion dollars is a lot of scratch to just say, “actually, no thanks, we’re good” to. That doesn’t mean I don’t think this letter is important. If companies in the future are to keep transparency with their employees, they need to be constantly reminded that the employees demand it. I also think that it is important for the employees who have strong opinions like this to make their voice heard publicly so corporations know they can’t just make these deals in silence with no repercussions. Whether you’re on the side of the chagrined Microsoft employees, or feel that this was a necessary move for a nations defense, I believe that nobody should be kept in the dark about what their work is being used for.
I’m not sure how many employees have signed thus far, but according to The Guardian, “More than 50 employees had signed the letter as of Friday afternoon, according to an employee.” Whether this works or not, I hope staff at Microsoft are given a bit more transparency in the future.