Tech us or leave us: How Silicon Valley’s staff are saving the world
There is a rise in activism among them, and the unique laws they work under mean they can dare to take on the giants
There is an often-overlooked reason the innovation centre of the world is not in New York, London or any of the world’s other metropolises, but the 80km strip of America’s west coast known as Silicon Valley.
It isn’t the weather, or the proximity to a renowned computer science university like Stanford, although both undoubtedly help. Instead, much of the tech hub’s status can be attributed to an oddity of California law.
The state refuses to recognise the “non-compete agreements” in employment contracts, which are commonly used by companies to prevent staff from jumping ship to a rival, or indeed, running off to start their own business. One of the companies that established Silicon Valley, Fairchild Semiconductor, was founded by a gang of workers who deserted the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in 1957.
With employees able to switch jobs with ease, ideas and knowledge spread rapidly, a key ingredient of the area’s success. But the laws prohibiting such agreements have a second consequence: they give workers at tech companies a power that those elsewhere do not enjoy.
When there is nothing stopping you from switching teams, your present employer must work harder to keep you on side.
Silicon Valley’s free market in labour is one of the reasons tech industry employees are among the best paid in the world, although the spectacular profits that their companies earn has something to do with it too. But more recently, tech company workforces have been exercising power in a different way: to protest.
A year ago, a group of Google employees signed a letter addressed to its chief executive Sundar Pichai urging the company to pull out of a contract with the US military, which they feared would mean its technology being used for “the business of war”. Not long after, the company said it would not renew the contract, and tightened its policies on military work. Staff at the company were emboldened and in November 2018 thousands walked out of Google’s offices to march against the company’s handling of sexual harassment complaints, eventually winning a handful of concessions.
Employees have protested against the company’s plans for China, its treatment of temporary workers and, last week, the members of an “artificial intelligence ethics” council the company had announced just days earlier. One member of the board, Kay Coles James, of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, had espoused views that were at odds with those of Google’s socially liberal workforce. Within days, Google announced that the ethics council had been disbanded, in another victory for the company’s increasingly vocal base of employees.
Employee activism is on the rise outside of Google, although the search giant has had to deal with it more than most. Staff at Amazon and Microsoft have risen up against the companies’ work on military contracts and surveillance technology, while those at IBM have opposed the relationship of the company’s chief executive with the Trump administration.
Why the sudden upsurge in staff protest? We are, of course, living in more politically charged times, and this is true of the tech industry more than most. The companies in question are increasingly dominant in our lives, particularly with regards to how news and information is distributed, and employees will feel they shoulder more of the responsibility for how society operates. The tech boom also means that the financial consequences for kicking up a fuss are minimal. While employees might have once been dissuaded from rocking the boat, fearing that they would be passed over for promotions or quietly pushed out of a company, the market for tech talent is now so hot that they can easily find well-paid employment elsewhere, references be damned.
Employees will also feel that they are perhaps the only ones able to enforce change. Despite widespread scandals over privacy and fake news, neither consumers nor advertisers have abandoned the major tech companies, and investors hardly seem likely to lead the charge. And despite the constant threat of regulation that politicians hang over these companies, so far their words have not been met with any real action. To date, no law has been effective in curbing Silicon Valley’s monopolies, and the political process is so slow that by the time new regulations come into force, a new problem has sprung up.
It is easy to see, therefore, why those at the coalface believe they shoulder the responsibility for change. But while it is refreshing to see Silicon Valley employees take responsibility for their actions, their achievements should not be overstated. Changing Google’s human resource practices and convincing the company to abandon a marginally profitable defence contract do not begin to get at some of the company’s wider problems, such as the rampant misinformation and disturbing videos that feature on its YouTube service, or its personal data collection. Facebook, which has as many faults to fix as anyone, has not seen nearly the same level of staff protest.Employees may only be incentivised to bring about change to the extent that their share rewards are unaffected, and Silicon Valley workforces are hardly exemplars of diversity, whether political or otherwise.We should be wary about relying a relatively small and vocal crowd making decisions about the direction of the tech giants. But today at least, employees seem to be the most effective agent of change within Silicon Valley.– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)