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Google, Amazon employees protest tech giants’ contract with Israel as worker activism ramps up


Hundreds of Google and Amazon employees protested Thursday outside of company offices in San Francisco, New York, Seattle and Durham, N.C., demanding that the tech giants end their $1.2 billion Project Nimbus contract to supply Israel and its military with artificial intelligence and cloud computing technology.

Some Google and Amazon workers believe that the contract will aid Israel’s surveillance efforts of Palestinians, Josh Marxen, a Google Cloud engineer based in Sunnyvale, told The Chronicle prior to the protest.

Around 1,100 Google workers have signed a petition calling on the company to drop the Nimbus contract, Marxen said. There is “no way to participate without giving data to the Israeli government that’s oppressing Palestinians,” he said. “It’s concerning.”

Google denied that the contract would aid intelligence services or bolster the military, saying protesters were inaccurately describing Project Nimbus.

“This protest group may have its own views about Israel, but that doesn’t impact our work on this contract,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement. “As we have stated many times, the contract is for workloads running on our commercial platform by Israeli government ministries such as finance, healthcare, transportation, and education. Today’s protest group is misrepresenting the contract — our work is not directed at highly sensitive or classified military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services.”

Around 200 workers gathered outside Google’s One Market Plaza office near San Francisco’s Embarcadero, waving signs like “no tech for Israeli apartheid,” the latest example of rising tech worker activism.

There are also allegations of Google retaliating against workers for speaking out.

Ariel Koren, a Google marketing manager who had been with the company for seven years, was a leading critic of Project Nimbus and resigned last week. Koren, a San Francisco resident, alleged that the company gave her an ultimatum: move to São Paulo, Brazil, within 17 business days or get fired, after she criticized Project Nimbus.

The New York Times reported that Google and the National Labor Relations Board investigated her complaint and did not find wrongdoing by Google.

The Project Nimbus backlash follows an uproar in 2018 over Google’s Project Maven contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to analyze drone footage, which workers feared could be used for violence. Thousands of workers signed a petition against the program and some resigned from the company. The contract reportedly wasn’t renewed.

That year, Google CEO Sundar Pichai released the company’s artificial intelligence principles, which included a pledge not to design or deploy tech involved in weaponry, “surveillance violating internationally accepted norms” and tech that violates established human rights laws and principles.

“We want to be clear that while we are not developing AI for use in weapons, we will continue our work with governments and the military in many other areas. These include cybersecurity, training, military recruitment, veterans’ health care, and search and rescue. These collaborations are important and we’ll actively look for more ways to augment the critical work of these organizations and keep service members and civilians safe,” Pichai wrote at the time.

In the past four years, Google workers have also protested over the company’s handling of sexual misconduct cases, worker activism and politics.

In 2020, Google Cloud reportedly provided services for military tech company Anduril Industries’ surveillance tech used by the U.S. government along the Mexico border. Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey is a co-founder of Anduril Industries.

Marxen, who has worked at Google for six years, said news of the Anduril work pushed him to become more involved in activism at the company.

He said he was disappointed that the company has shifted away from candid internal meetings where executives were more open to questions. Employees haven’t received any internal response on the Project Nimbus controversy as of Wednesday, he said.

Marxen feels like ethical considerations are an afterthought for the company now in favor of profit, and that the artificial intelligence principles are too narrowly applied. For instance, he said customers could potentially use Google’s technology in an abusive way, but that wouldn’t be adequately covered by the principles.

The employee unrest comes at an increasingly challenging time for Google and its parent Alphabet, which reported second quarter revenue growth dropping to 13% from 62% a year earlier as ad spending declined.

Pichai said at a conference this week that he wants to make the company more efficient and more productive with fewer resources. Last month, the company slowed down hiring.

Managers in Google Cloud, the same division involved in Project Nimbus, put it more bluntly, reportedly saying “there will be blood on the streets” if sales don’t improve, Insider reported.

Roland Li is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: roland.li@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @rolandlisf





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