As civil unrest across the country continues, Microsoft faces more pressure from its employees to make broader political changes.
Employees circulated an open letter demanding the company end its contracts with the police, which resulted in the announcement that Microsoft would refrain from selling facial recognition software to law enforcement.
However, the attention has reignited internal pressure for Microsoft-owned Github to end its controversial contract with ICE, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This isn't by any means a new fight, with employees at Github demanding change since 2019.
The rekindled debate comes following a staff Q&A session with CEO Nat Friedman, where the executive addressed the "compounding crises" of the coronavirus outbreak, unemployment rates, and the continued protests to end police brutality. Friedman announced he aligns with the Black Lives Matter Movement and supports police reform.
The first question asked was about Github's contracts with ICE, which the CEO swiftly shut down. "Thank you for the question. Respectfully, we're not going to be reconsidering this," he said on the call. "Picking and choosing customers is not the approach that we take to these types of questions when it comes to influencing government policy."
According to screenshots collected by The Times, employees convened in Slack and expressed outrage with the CEO's response.
"How does the leadership team rectify GitHub's position on Black Lives Matter with our continued business with ICE despite their racist practices and policies?" Senior Application Engineer Josh Nichols followed up.
The executive doubled down, saying the company will not be denying customers and driving them to competitors, but rather investing in policy change to facilitate social progress.
After constant pushback from employees throughout the call, Friedman compared employees' concerns to arguments in his marriage. "I deeply love my wife, but we don't agree about every single approach to every single problem in the world. But we're together."
In October 2019, Github employees distributed an open letter urging the company to stop working with ICE following the company's $500,000 donation to nonprofit organizations in support of "immigrant communities targeted by the current administration." Back in November, several employees resigned to protest the $200,000 contract with ICE.
Github has more than 37 million users, making it the largest host of source code in the world. Notably, much of the code hosting is open source, meaning it's accessible, shareable, and modifiable. The company's contract also suggests that volunteer developers may have unconsciously contributed to code for ICE.
Recent government data showed that nearly 70,000 immigrant infants, toddlers, children, and teenagers had been held in ICE custody over the last year. Reports show thousands have fallen victim to sexual abuse while in detention.
Meanwhile, Friedman announced that the software development platform company is working to remove the term "master" from its services and replacing it with a more neutral term like "main" to avoid any references to slavery.
The CEO announced the changes in response to a tweet from Una Kravets, a developer advocate. "It's a great idea and we are already working on this!" Friedman replied in another tweet.
This includes abandoning terms like "master" and "slave" for alternatives like "main/default/primary" and "secondary" as well as replacing phrases like "blacklist" and "whitelist" with "allow list" and "deny/exclude list."