Google and Amazon Seek Defense Contracts, Despite Worker Protests

Chandravongsri’s parents were born in Laos, where he still has extended family. He has seen first-hand how CIA-led bombing campaigns during the 1960s and 1970s left a deadly legacy of unexploded ordnance that still threatens lives today, a problem seen in many war zones, including Gaza. He says reading the AI capabilities included in Project Nimbus “really scared me.”

Chandravongsri is far from the only worker in Google’s vast, international workforce whose background provides a perspective on the Pentagon and its military allies different from that of many US employees and executives. “There are a lot of places that Google workers are from that have been at the wrong end of US policy,” says Chandravongsri. “There are also a lot of Palestinian employees. They fear speaking out a lot.”

After Google retreated from Maven, it continued its relationship with the Pentagon, albeit largely through lower-profile projects like anti-corrosion technology for Naval vessels and cloud security for the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit. The announcement of Project Nimbus in 2021, and Google’s bid for the Pentagon’s $9 billion flagship cloud project, the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability, has some workers worried the company will significantly expand its military work.

Alphabet Workers Union, which has more than 1,000 members across Google’s parent company but no collective bargaining rights, went public in January 2021 and has since its early days had a working group devoted to scrutinizing military work at Google. Chandravongsri is a member of the group, which has pressured management about the JWCC and Project Nimbus.

Last November, a question about the JWCC’s compatibility with Google’s AI principles received enough upvotes on an internal Q&A tool called Dory to get read out during a companywide all-hands meeting. According to a report by CNBC, Google Cloud head Thomas Kurian responded that the company’s technology could be used for pieces of the contract that didn’t violate its AI principles. He later published a blog post outlining some of these potential uses. Chandravongsri was not satisfied with the response, saying Kurian’s claims clashed with the military language of the US government’s bid solicitation, which talked of the need to take on China.

Workers had less luck getting their questions about Project Nimbus asked at companywide meetings or the Weather Report, the Cloud team’s all-hands—prompting employees to take their concerns public. Ariel Koren, a Jewish marketing manager and outspoken opponent of Project Nimbus, resigned last week, saying she was pressured by managers, an allegation Google has denied. Koren also says she met pushback from other Jewish employees, who are supportive of Israel.

Google and Amazon workers concerned about Project Nimbus got connected through activist group Jewish Voice for Peace. In June of 2021, employees from the two companies formed a joint committee, and in October they published a letter in The Guardian opposing the contract.

The collaboration represented new territory for Amazon employees, who have expressed less public dissent against their company’s military contracts, which are more extensive than Google’s. Amazon’s culture is widely seen as less open to dissent than that of Google, which from its early days encouraged employees to talk freely with their leaders in company forums.

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