Tech Against Trump

June 09, 2017
A black-and-white brush-drawn portraits of Val Aurora and Ka-Ping Yee. Val on left has pink short hair, and Ping on right has short black hair and is wearing glasses. Both look forward at reader.

Valerie Aurora and Ka-Ping Yee, by Gretchen Röehrs.

“It Can Happen Here,” with Valerie Aurora and Ka-Ping Yee from the Never Again pledge

On December 13, 2016, the day before Silicon Valley’s top executives made the pilgrimage to Trump Tower to sit down for a summit with the president-elect, the Never Again pledge went live at The pledge is a public declaration by tech workers that they will refuse to build a database identifying people by race, religion, or national origin. So far, the pledge has accumulated nearly 3,000 signatures, and has helped pressure several big tech companies to state publicly that they will not build a Muslim registry—after months of equivocating on the subject.

The pledge’s themes remain as relevant as ever. The Trump Administration needs the tech industry to implement its repressive agenda. Sadly, Silicon Valley has proven more than willing to play along.

We spoke to two co-organizers of the Never Again pledge, Valerie Aurora and Ka-Ping Yee. Valerie Aurora is a tech diversity and inclusion consultant at Frame Shift Consulting, and Ka-Ping Yee is a software engineer at Wave. We discussed the origins of the pledge, and how tech workers can organize internally to demand an ethical commitment from their companies.

What is the Never Again pledge, and how did it get started?

The pledge is a public commitment by individuals in the tech industry to resist, prevent, and refuse to participate in assisting the US government in targeting people for deportation or discrimination by religion, ethnicity, or national origin. The commitment includes refusing to create databases of personal information for such purposes, demanding legal process before turning over personal data to the government, blowing the whistle on unethical misuse of personal data in their companies, and resigning if forced to engage in such misuse.

The pledge was initially drafted by the lead organizer, Leigh Honeywell, and then edited collaboratively by approximately thirty contributors into its final form. Leigh and co-organizer Ka-Ping Yee gathered the initial list of signatories for the launch. Then they worked with Valerie Aurora, Liz Fong-Jones, and many other volunteers to coordinate the launch itself and manage the process of accepting and verifying signatures.

Did the big response meet your expectations—or did it come as a surprise?

The enthusiastic response from signatories greatly exceeded our expectations. Word spread quickly, and many people expressed that they were proud to sign. Over 1,000 people requested to sign within the first two days, and our team of volunteers had to work day and night to verify each signature before it could be published on the site. We ended up with just over 2,800 verified signatures. We were thrilled to see so much support throughout the tech industry community for these values.

“Never Again” has emerged as a protest slogan for anti-Trump protests, but what is the resonance of the phrase specifically within the tech industry? What’s the history that you’re hoping to draw attention to, and how useful is that history in organizing tech workers against Trump?

We want people in the tech industry to recognize two things: that they have a special responsibility because technology and data processing are necessary for committing injustice at a massive scale; and that they have power as individuals to resist, create accountability, and cause change within their organizations even if their leaders are unwilling to take a stand.

We want everyone to understand that information technology was an instrumental part of historical atrocities such as the Holocaust and the internment of Japanese Americans. The pledge was written, and its name was chosen, to explicitly draw a connection between Trump’s calls for mass deportation and religious targeting, and instances of targeting and mass deportations in history that have precipitated genocide.

What’s the balance between tech workers agitating for change inside versus outside their organizations? What are the specific risks or advantages to both approaches?

The reason we urge tech workers to take action inside their organizations is that for most tech workers, this is the area in their lives where their actions have the most power and influence. On the other side, working for change inside their company puts some people at too much risk of losing their homes or being unable to support themselves or their families—especially marginalized folks.

Balancing the answers to the two questions, “Where do I have most power and influence?” and “What is safe for me to do?” will help people decide whether to work within their companies or with outside organizations (or whether they have the safety and energy to do anything at all).

It’s important for tech workers to honestly assess these questions: What power does my employer have to change the world? How likely is it that I can help change my company’s policies? Am I at risk of losing my job at this company, and if so, how difficult will it be for me to get a new job?

We find that many (not all) tech workers sometimes overestimate the risk of agitating inside their company and underestimate their influence on their company’s policies. At the same time, we fully support people who have evaluated their work situation carefully and who are clear that, for whatever reason, it’s not safe or effective for them to advocate for change inside their company.

Overall, the big picture message is: carefully and thoughtfully evaluate where your actions can have the most influence and what risks you might be taking.

I know that the Never Again pledge was developed specifically in response to the possibility of tech companies building a Muslim registry for Trump. With the daily news of additional executive orders—the Muslim ban, among others—do you have any intention of expanding the scope of the pledge, or making a new pledge?

We don’t currently have any plans to expand this pledge or start a new pledge. This pledge served a very specific purpose: allowing tech workers to step forward in a group to say publicly that they opposed the incoming regime, at a time when tech companies were refusing to go on the record and tech workers felt voiceless. We hope that it serves as a model for effective collective action for others.

What’s the best way to demand accountability from tech firms? Should we be asking tech companies not to do certain specific things for Trump—like build a database that could be used to track Muslim Americans—or should we be asking them to cut any and all ties with Trump, such as in the #DeleteUber campaign?

We’re arguing for tech workers to convince their employers to form their own internal code of ethics, to commit to that code publicly, and to be transparent about whether they are following through on it.

The pledge was a blueprint for this process: work out exactly what it is you will and won’t do, write it down, and publicly commit to it. Each of the people who signed that pledge has, in the back of their mind, a little voice saying, “Are you living up to your pledge?” If you do something that you know is wrong, other people will notice and call you out on it, and you will lose credibility. The same goes for companies who make a public statement of their ethics.

We can’t define where the line between “working with” a tyrant and enabling a tyrant lies. All we can say is that, so far, it doesn’t appear that anything less than outright principled resistance has made this Administration back down on its plans to do unethical things. If any company’s plan is to influence or moderate Trump’s policies, we ask them: can you point to an instance where this actually worked?

What do you believe is the best way for tech workers to oppose Trump going forward? More pledges? Protests? Strikes? Other tactics?

It makes sense to try a lot of different things and see what works. Criticism of other actions makes sense when those actions are actively endangering some group against their will (see the Safety Pin debate); otherwise it seems like a waste of time. Some common themes we think successful tactics will have:

  • Collective action
  • Uncomfortably broad coalitions
  • Solidarity across multiple axes of oppression
  • Tailoring to specific strengths and skills of each person or group

We strongly encourage people and groups to take an inventory of their skills, power, influence, social capital, and assets, and figure out what action they are uniquely suited to take. A seemingly inevitable consequence of this process is that tech workers will awaken to the unique position of power we currently hold in global society.

This piece appears in Logic's Tech Against Trump. To order the book, head on over to our store.