When Google-owned YouTube suspended Donald Trump’s ability to post videos last week it joined Facebook and Twitter in blocking the president, and many Trump supporters, from their platforms. Conservatives and others have denounced the moves as censorship. But the decisions by tech companies to refuse service to those they do not approve of – including the president of the United States – also raise concerns about national security.
The Department of Defense uses software created, delivered, and maintained by many of the same high-tech companies now engaged in shutting down online speech. If the titans of tech can pull the plug on public communications tools people have come to rely on, some observers fear, they might do the same to the Pentagon in response to a military action deemed unacceptable by San Franciscans.
Something along those lines already happened with Project Maven, a major Pentagon initiative using Google algorithms to identify drone targets. The software was well under way when, in 2018, thousands of Google’s workers protested their company becoming a defense contractor.
"We believe that Google should not be in the business of war," began an open letter from Google employees to company boss Sundar Pichai. They demanded that the company create a “clear policy” stating that it and its contractors never “build warfare technology.”
Bowing to this pressure from its own workforce, Google has stepped back from high-profile military projects. The company has been noticeably absent from the scramble among such firms as Amazon, Microsoft and Oracle to win the contract for the Pentagon’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI. A 10-year deal providing cloud computing to the Department of Defense, JEDI is worth billions of dollars.
The Pentagon could rely exclusively on established defense contractors that are not squeamish about the business they’re in. But officials have been eager to work with Big Tech, where they expect to find the top talent that will gain and maintain an edge for the U.S.
That talent is proving to be touchy. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, now has a small union less interested in winning workers’ pay and benefits than in projecting ideological might. “We will use our reclaimed power to control what we work on and how it is used,” reads the union’s mission statement.
It isn’t just external political pressures that have led Big Tech companies to de-platform Trump and his supporters; the pressure also comes from within. “We will ensure Alphabet acts ethically and in the best interests of society,” declares the company’s workers union, confident in its own ability to discern the best interests of society.
Google isn’t the only conscientious objector. Microsoft did pursue the JEDI contract – over the objections of workers who published an open letter of their own. “Many Microsoft employees don’t believe that what we build should be used for waging war,” the letter protested. “When we decided to work at Microsoft, we were doing so in the hopes of ‘empowering every person on the planet to achieve more,’ not with the intent of ending lives and enhancing lethality.”
'Software as a Service'
Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, studies military procurement of technology. He says that tech employees are less likely to object to selling to the Pentagon “as computing becomes more like a commoditized service.” Developing generic software that can be used by anyone, including the military, may be less objectionable to Big Tech workers than crafting bespoke war-fighting code. For example, Clark says, “Microsoft sells Office 365 to DoD and has sold Office to the military for decades. Cloud computing and AI are becoming similar generic services.”
But Clark notes there is a difference between how a product such as Microsoft Office has traditionally been sold and the new cloud computing model. In the past, the purchaser would buy copies of the software, whether on discs or other media, and that software would be installed onto customers’ computers. How the customers used the software was generally beyond technology companies’ reach.
The new model is “software as a service,” says Gregory Sanders. He is a fellow and deputy director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In the new model, the product isn’t housed in customers’ computers, but rather in the technology companies’ own servers – in the cloud. It is convenient and allows customers to draw however much computing power they need, not unlike electricity. But if software lives in the cloud, access to the software is regulated by those who control the cloud. Big Tech has shown it can take away software from unpopular customers – and that its judgment of who deserves its products and who does not can change dramatically.
Take Amazon Web Services’ top government sector sales executive, Teresa Carlson. She enraged the rank-and-file when she promised AWS’s “unwavering” support for police, military, and intelligence customers. That was in the summer of 2018. Things were very different two years later. The May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd led to nationwide protests against police. Reacting to the rioting, Amazon announced it was “implementing a one-year moratorium on police use of Amazon’s facial recognition technology.” That technology, called Rekognition, had been made available through the cloud.
There are reasonable debates to be had about what technologies governments should have access to and how they should be used. But what if the military comes to rely on technologies such as the cloud only to find that in a crisis those technologies are shut down or disabled by companies responding to the ideological demands of their own employees? These “security of supply considerations” are risks “the Department of Defense thinks about a lot,” Sanders says.
Internal ideological revolts have roiled companies beyond the tech giants, and are becoming a common cause of conflict between labor and management, even when management shares labor’s woke values. In June, staff at the New York Times rebelled against the editorial page for publishing an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton. The Arkansas Republican had advocated enlisting the military to help quell rioting. Editorial page editor James Bennet was pushed out and six months later his deputy resigned as well.
The Hudson Institute’s Clark says that if a tech giant withdrew access to services it had agreed to provide to the military, it would likely have to pay penalties for breach of contract. Such fines might make little difference to the bottom line of Big Tech. But the loss of cloud capabilities in the middle of a conflict could be disastrous for warfighters.
Sanders says the Pentagon could always invoke the Defense Production Act “if a company pulled out of a service provision in a crisis environment in a non-orderly manner.” As the Congressional Research Service puts it, the act “allows the President to require persons (including businesses and corporations)” to “prioritize and accept government contracts for materials and services.”
That might keep tech companies from leaving the government fully in the lurch in a crisis, but it isn’t a guaranteed strategy for success. “The quality of work you get when compelling an objecting vendor wouldn’t necessarily be the best, so DoD wouldn’t want to invoke those authorities needlessly,” Sanders says.
Big Tech has proved willing to shut down service and shut out customers who become unpopular with Silicon Valley. That should be a red flag for government agencies that are considering housing their capabilities in the cloud – do they want to be constrained by the tech industry’s morals of the moment?