Google, Amazon face new protests over contract with Israeli government and military

It’s the latest in a complex history of tech workers’ objecting to building tech for defense or law-enforcement applications.
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Hayden Field

· 6 min read

“Amazon, Google, you can’t hide. No tech for apartheid.”

The chant was joined by dozens of tech workers, plus members of community organizations and the public, in a protest outside Google’s NYC headquarters on September 8.

The rally centered on Project Nimbus: Amazon and Google’s joint $1.2 billion, multi-year contract with the Israeli government and military, under which the tech giants will provide cloud computing services, including AI tools, build data centers, and set up other cloud infrastructure. Coordinated demonstrations took place on the same day in San Francisco, Seattle, and Durham, North Carolina, with hundreds of tech workers in attendance.

According to a joint letter sent to Amazon and Google executives, some workers at both companies are concerned that the contract sells technology that “allows for further surveillance of and unlawful data collection on Palestinians.” With the support of workers at both companies combined, the petition currently has nearly 1,500 signatures, according to the organizers.

The protests were the latest development in a 15-month trend of workers speaking out about Project Nimbus, including Ariel Koren, a Googler who resigned in late August after leading efforts to oppose the contract. Training documents and videos viewed by the Intercept in July helped spur the recent Project Nimbus protests, after it was detailed that Google will reportedly provide advanced AI capabilities to the Israeli government, including tools for facial detection, image categorization, object tracking, and sentiment analysis.

“The contract is for workloads running on our commercial platform by Israeli government ministries such as finance, healthcare, transportation, and education,” Atle Erlingsson, a member of Google Cloud’s communications team, told Emerging Tech Brew in a statement. “The protest group is misrepresenting the contract—our work is not directed at highly sensitive or classified military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services.”

The opposition to Project Nimbus is part of an ongoing movement driven by many Big Tech workers who object to building technology for defense or law-enforcement applications. In some cases, companies like Amazon and Google have dropped or paused key contracts or technology development after employee and public pressure.

“AWS is focused on making the benefits of our world-leading cloud technology available to all our customers, wherever they are located,” Brad Glasser, an Amazon spokesperson, told us in a statement. “We respect our employees’ right to express themselves without fear of retaliation, intimidation, or harassment.”​

‘Tech won’t build it’

The $1.2 billion Project Nimbus contract, which was reportedly also pursued by Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle, is the latest in a complex history of worker values clashing with Big Tech’s financial motives.

In recent years, workers’ “Tech Won’t Build It” campaign has picked up steam across tech giants, with workers protesting company contracts relating to immigration enforcement, facial recognition for law enforcement, and defense. And in 2018, thousands of Google workers spoke out against the company’s involvement with Project Maven, a controversial Pentagon program that could have netted the company up to $250 million a year down the road. Following the controversy, Google said it would not renew the Maven contract.

Tech worker actions like these helped inspire last week’s Project Nimbus protests, according to Bathool Syed, a content strategist at Amazon.

“We have completely been inspired and influenced by worker-led actions of the past around different contracts and different products and things that these companies were creating,” Syed told Emerging Tech Brew, adding, “One of the things for us as Amazon workers that was especially interesting is when Amazon workers did protest and raise concerns around facial-recognition technology that Amazon was selling to police departments and to ICE, Amazon actually did put a one-year moratorium on selling that technology.”

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She added, “It gave a clear indicator for us that workers can raise concerns and then we can see action.”

Amazon and Google workers began organizing about Nimbus separately in May 2021, soon after the contract was first announced, and during an escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza. An initial group of 10–15 Amazon workers put together a letter to executives around the same time that 10–15 Google workers sent a letter to executives asking the company to support Palestinian workers, according to organizers. The letters did not receive an official response, according to Syed and Schubiner. Neither company responded to a request for comment about these letters.

“[During that time], employees were asking a lot of questions on Slack chats and different things like that, about if there was going to be any response from Amazon as to what happened—not even related to the contract, but just in general,” Syed said.

Google software engineer Gabriel Schubiner said that organizing efforts around Project Nimbus began after internal efforts to communicate concerns to leadership were met with silence.

“A lot of organizing at Google began with organizing around cancel[ing Project] Maven, and I think that Google’s response to organizing is largely to protect military contracts because they know that workers are heavily opposed to our technology and our labor being used for violence and war,” Schubiner told Emerging Tech Brew.

After Google and Amazon workers sent the first letters in May, Syed and Schubiner both recalled, the two separate groups got in touch and coordinated their organizing efforts around Project Nimbus. In October, a group of Amazon and Google workers sent a joint letter to executives at both companies, signed by more than 480 Amazon workers and more than 1,080 Google workers, with no response, according to organizers. (When asked about the joint letter, both companies declined to comment.)

Later that same month, organizations like MPower Change and Jewish Voice for Peace teamed up with workers at both companies to launch a #NoTechForApartheid campaign.

After Koren’s resignation in August, the Alphabet Workers Union—which counts more than 1,100 Google workers as members—endorsed the #NoTechForApartheid campaign.

“There’s been, since Maven, an expansion of military contracting with even less oversight than there was before, and it seems that it’s running into things like [Google’s] AI principles, which Google really, really touted as a step forward after the defeat of the Maven contract,” Aniran Chandravongsri, a Google software engineer and member of the Alphabet Workers Union, told us.

“I think that people are just kind of looking [to know],” he added, “Is Google going to actually apply these [AI] principles, or are they just meaningless words?”

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