- Immigration and Customs Enforcement is renewing a contract with GitHub, in a deal said to be worth less than $200,000 to the Microsoft-owned company.
- CEO Nat Friedman wrote that while GitHub and Microsoft both disagree with the current administration's immigration policies, the company can't be responsible for what customers like ICE do with its software.
- "Just as Microsoft for more than three decades has licensed Microsoft Word without demanding to know what customers use it to write, we believe it would be wrong for GitHub to demand that software developers tell us what they are using our tools to do," Friedman wrote.
- In response, over 150 GitHub employees, including a vice president, signed a letter asking the company to cancel its contract with ICE, the Washington Post's Nitasha Tiku reported.
- "Continuing to hold this contract does not improve our bargaining power with ICE. All it does is make us complicit in their widespread human rights abuses," said the open letter.
- Friedman says GitHub plans to continue participating in immigration advocacy efforts, and that it will donate $500,000 to immigration nonprofits.
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GitHub, the Microsoft-owned code-sharing service that forms the backbone of the open source software world, is under scrutiny for a customer deal with Immigration and Customs Enforcement — the agency charged with enforcing the Trump administration's controversial immigration policies.
In an email to employees on Tuesday, CEO Nat Friedman said that the deal was worth less than $200,000 to the company. That email was originally leaked to an advocacy group called Fight for the Future, but is now posted publicly on GitHub's blog.
Friedman said that the contract was actually handled through one of GitHub's reseller partners, and was originally signed in April 2016, though in August the company learned it was up for renewal.
In that email, Friedman says that leadership consulted with employees and executives on what to do about the deal, but that GitHub doesn't plan to block the renewal of the contract. While GitHub and Microsoft oppose the current administration on immigration policies like family separation at the border and ending DACA, the company can't be responsible for what its customers use its products and services for, Friedman said.
"Just as Microsoft for more than three decades has licensed Microsoft Word without demanding to know what customers use it to write, we believe it would be wrong for GitHub to demand that software developers tell us what they are using our tools to do," Friedman wrote.
However, he said, GitHub will commit to spending $500,000 on immigration-related nonprofits — more than the value of this ICE contract, he noted — and advocate for political reform.
In response, over 150 GitHub employees, including a vice president at the company, signed a letter asking GitHub to cancel its contract with ICE, the Washington Post's Nitasha Tiku first reported. You can read the letter, posted on Twitter, here. GitHub was not immediately available to comment on the open letter.
—githubbers (@githubbers) October 9, 2019
"We are not satisfied with GitHub's now-public stance on this issue," the letter said. "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 widespread human rights abuses."
The episode makes GitHub the latest tech company to face protest over work with ICE, following similar incidents at companies like Palantir, Amazon Web Services, Salesforce, and GitHub's parent company Microsoft.
Using GitHub's 'corporate voice'
In his letter to employees, Friedman argues that while GitHub, and Microsoft itself, have taken a stand against administration policies like family separation at the border, the Muslim travel ban, and the dismantling of the DACA program, it would set a bad precedent to close the door to doing business with ICE.
He says that while ICE enforces the immigration policies that GitHub opposes, it also helps stop human trafficking — a cause that the company supports. In that light, he says, it would be folly to stop working with the agency, and supporting it in that sort of mission.
Instead, Friedman says, GitHub believes the best way to advocate for or against policies to support is to use its "corporate voice, and not to unplug technology services when government customers use them to do things to which we object."
"My hope is that we can be an organization that works hard to make principle-based decisions, that regularly reflects on and remains willing to refine its principles, and that recognizes the inevitability of interpersonal disagreement around those principles and challenges that constructively," Friedman wrote.
A building backlash
Friedman says that employees will help pick which nonprofits the $500,000 will go to, and that it will support GitHub employees who take political action in support of immigration reform.
Still, some GitHub employees believe this isn't enough.
"We cannot offset human lives with money. There is no donation that can offset the harm that ICE is perpetrating with the help of our labor," says the letter to Friedman. "We implore GitHub to immediately cancel its contract with ICE, no matter the cost. Now is the time to take a stand, or be complicit."
RAICES, the prominent immigration nonprofit supporting action at the border, has also chimed in, urging action from GitHub employees: "We're asking you on behalf of all the immigrants ICE has terrorized to protest the hell out of this," RAICES said in a tweet.
—RAICES (@RAICESTEXAS) October 9, 2019
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