Microsoft is again grappling with dissent from its own employees over a deal with the government, this time involving a GitHub license sold to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
A letter circulating among Microsoft staff calls for GitHub, which Microsoft purchased last year but still operates mostly independent of the tech giant, to cancel a contract with the agency that implements the federal government's immigration policies.
The initial deal to sell GitHub Enterprise Server, an on-prem GitHub repository, didn't generate controversy when inked through a reseller back in April of 2016—more than two years before Microsoft purchased the open source code repository startup for US$7.5 billion.
But that contract, and a subsequent renewal, totaling only about US$200,000 have drawn fresh scrutiny in the wake of controversy around the Trump Administration's immigration policies.
The letter circulating among Microsoft employees says selling technology to ICE "makes all of us working at Microsoft complicit to the unethical detainment of tens of thousands of immigrants and the various abuses that ICE subjects them to."
GitHub's platform has "already been contributing to the terrorism of ICE agents on our country's immigrant population," it reads. "We've been doing so for years."
GitHub CEO Nat Friedman addressed those concerns in an open email to "Hubbers" that downplayed the significance of the contract and made the case for a more pragmatic approach to opposing federal immigration policy. CRN USA has reached out to Microsoft for comment.
The ICE deal was both "not financially material" for the company, he said, and it involves no arrangement for ongoing professional services or other consulting work.
"GitHub has no visibility into how this software is being used, other than presumably for software development and version control," he said.
Friedman went on to list Trump administration policies that GitHub and Microsoft have publicly opposed, from the family separation policy at the US-Mexico border to its Muslim travel ban to opposition to the DACA program that protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children.
"We have spoken out as a company against these practices, and joined with other companies in protesting them," he said.
Friedman also noted Microsoft is a plaintiff in a legal challenge supporting DACA before the US Supreme Court and the company has been vocal on immigration issues, as has Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, himself an immigrant.
That approach is principled and pragmatic, he argued.
"Attempting to cancel a purchase will not convince the current administration to alter immigration policy," he said.
While ICE is responsible for enforcing those controversial policies, the agency also conducts many other important operations, such as combatting human trafficking, he added.
Friedman joined Microsoft after it acquired his own startup, Xamarin, in 2016. He was named GitHub's new CEO almost immediately after Microsoft bought that company.
ICE hasn't been the only federal agency that's drawn heat from employees of Microsoft and other tech giants, as government contracts increasingly become politicized.
In October of 2018, Microsoft workers published an open letter asking the company's cloud division to abstain from bidding on the military's massive JEDI cloud computing contract for ethical reasons involving the application of artificial intelligence.
When they took jobs at Microsoft, those employees said, they never expected their work to have "the intent of ending lives and enhancing lethality."
Microsoft President and chief legal officer Brad Smith shot down that suggestion, saying the company has a duty to supply those who serve in the military with the best technology—then engage in the conversation over its ethical use in war.