In a leaked transcript obtained by Motherboard, GitHub CEO Nat Friedman talked through his company’s decision to renew a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The private meeting followed an open letter from Microsoft and GitHub employees asking for the contracts to be dropped. This has been a point of contention since the Trump administration first announced its immigration policies, especially since Microsoft mistakenly said it was providing facial recognition tech.
Microsoft reportedly holds $8 million in ICE contracts, while GitHub recently renewed one worth $200,00. Despite some assurances little would change after the acquisition, it seems the company was under pressure regarding the ICE. In response to a question asking if GitHub has the autonomy to decline the contract, Friedman said:
“That’s a good question. It would have been very challenging for us to take a position on this [that’s] very different from Microsoft’s position, I would say, because the government customers and the policymakers see us as a single company. And so while I think there are a lot of areas where we have a lot of autonomy, this is an area where we would probably prefer to be synchronized more with Microsoft on this.”
Friedman also notes that it’s “not a matter of taking orders purely”, but rather a conversation, making it an area of interdependence.
How Much is a ‘Seat at the Table’ Worth?
Recent reports say several migrant children have died in ICE custody recently, and that conditions were inhumane. However, in a previous email, Friedman noted that the ICE also works in areas like child exploitation and money laundering.
“We don’t believe that unplugging technologies from government agencies will have an effect on policy,” the transcript reports him saying in the meeting. “There is no positive impact of [revoking service] on the actual outcomes for migrants or for people who are affected by those policies.”
In an earlier email noting the $200,000 contract renewal, Freedman admitted he wouldn’t know exactly how the ICE used the product. He also said the company would donate $500,000 to immigration charities.
— githubbers (@githubbers) October 9, 2019
GitHub condemns the policies of the Trump administration just like Microsoft. The companies’ general attitude is to make a stance via its ‘corporate voice’ rather than by withholding software. They advocate that by having a seat at the table, they can have a bigger impact.
In its open letter, the Githubber Twitter account points out, “GitHub has held a ‘seat at the table for over 2 years, as these illegal and dehumanizing policies have escalated, with little to show for it. Continuing to hold this contract does not improve our bargaining power with ICe. All it does is make us complicit in their human rights abuses”.