#NoTechforApartheid: Google and Amazon put profit before principles with Project Nimbus
In 2004, Google's founders claimed in the first letter to shareholders that their goal is to "develop services that significantly improve the lives of as many people as possible". The reality, however, is a little different. Google, among other big tech giants, have ignored the principles they claimed to support, in order to increase profit and enhance power relations with states.
Project Nimbus, a $1.2 billion dollar contract that Google and Amazon have entered with the Israeli government and military, is the most recent example. This deal will provide Israeli authorities with artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud storage facilities.
Partnerships between tech giants and colonial regimes only ever lead to further repression, persecution, and systematic discrimination. In the case of Israel, it uses the Palestinian territory as a testing lab for its surveillance and spying technologies that it then sells off worldwide.
''Restrictions are increasingly being imposed and some workers have even faced retaliation for vocalising solidarity, leading to many refraining from disclosing their identities – a contradiction to the principles of freedom of expression, assembly and organisation that the tech companies claim to also espouse. ''
As Palestinians, we have lived under Israel’s enforced panopticon for many years. Among the technologies developed and tested on us are CCTV cameras with facial recognition, spyware, Blue Wolf and Wolfpack databases. The recent advanced AI tools contract between Google and the Israeli army will only strengthen the already existing surveillance state.
Sadly, this is not the first time that giant companies have invested in projects that serve the policies of systematic human rights violations practised by the Israeli authorities against us. However, there have been increasing concerns about the censorship of Palestinian workers, as well as other workers within these companies who express opposition to the oppression of Palestinians.
Restrictions are increasingly being imposed and some workers have even faced retaliation for vocalising solidarity, leading to many refraining from disclosing their identities – a contradiction to the principles of freedom of expression, assembly and organisation that the tech companies claim to also espouse.
Indeed, the support for Palestinian rights is being systematically silenced and delegitimised not only through content moderation that many have called out over the years – especially following Israel’s military assaults – but also among tech employees.
The treatment of former Google employee, Ariel Koren, is an example of the response reserved to all those who defend Palestinian rights within these spaces. Koren was forced to resign after she opposed and urged her bosses to reconsider the Project Nimbus contract. This has raised serious questions about the company's policies, especially towards colonised and oppressed people.
Furthermore, for a while now Google has been putting the lives of Palestinians at risk through its Google maps application, by not listing the roads that are prohibited to them, like those which are located in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Palestinians are therefore left vulnerable to attacks from settlers and/or the Israeli army.
To add insult to injury, the app includes settlements on the first layer of its maps without highlighting anywhere that they are illegal, or correctly including Palestinian villages. This only further legitimises Israel’s violations and normalises its actions on the land.
It doesn’t stop there. The company has also been imposing excessive censorship of Palestinian content on YouTube. A report by 7amleh, the Palestinian digital rights organisation, showed that videos that are published from Palestine are subjected to over-enforcement content moderation policies, which has at times even led to their deletion. Findings showed that there had even been an instance when the same political video was uploaded from both Palestine and a European country but only the former was taken down.
Ultimately, the right to freedom of opinion and expression must be guaranteed to users and employees of these platforms alike. Companies competing by launching new technologies aimed at short-term profit, ignoring their role in deepening discrimination, human rights violations, and oppression, must be held accountable.
Collaborating with, and listening to employees within these companies who actually develop the technologies, is a crucial element in transforming the direction of travel. They are, after all, witnesses to what takes place within these spaces and their testimonies are the strongest when it comes to our advocacy efforts. Therefore, it is important for employees in these companies who hold ethical principles toward their communities to speak up.
This from-within struggle is an extension of the broader fight waged by movements for freedom, justice and dignity.
Shamir, an @Amazon product manager, speaking at the #NoTechForApartheid action in NYC:— MPower Change #NoTechForApartheid (@MPower_Change) September 8, 2022
"We are here to demand that @Amazon + @Google listen to our voices...We must continue to raise our voices, until they stop profiting from apartheid." pic.twitter.com/9fZxKrOgA3
The political and economic interests of commercial companies, which intersect with the policies of governments worldwide – especially oppressive ones – are contributing to the broader shrinking of civil liberties. Therefore, just as oppressors join forces to muzzle us, we too must extend solidarity to those targeted by them, and stand shoulder by shoulder.
Palestinians aren't alone in this struggle, many other marginalised communities have faced similar repression by these companies – a point that Koren made in her resignation letter when she referenced Google's discriminatory practices towards the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
Criticism of Israel’s apartheid regime and its systematic human rights abuses should never be the reason that anyone loses their job, or faces discrimination over. Those companies who claim to "improve the lives of as many people as possible" should instead be protecting and supporting their workers.
Human rights defenders and ethical workers must continue mobilising and applying pressure on Google, and other tech companies, to end their complicity in the silencing of Palestinian voices, and expressions of solidarity.
Mona Shtaya is a Palestinian digital rights defender working in the MENA region. She is working as Advocacy Advisor at 7amleh- The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, and a non-resident scholar for the Middle East Institute (MEI) in the Cyber Security and Emerging Technology Program. Mona is getting an MA in Social Media and Digital Communication at the University of Westminster. Mona Previously worked as the community outreach specialist at Transparency Palestine, the national chapter of Transparency International.
Follow her on Twitter: @Monashtayya
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