GitHub CEO Nat Friedman explained why the company plans to renew a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), even though he and others at GitHub oppose ICE's policy of separating children from parents at the border, according to an internal GitHub email obtained by Motherboard and tweeted by activists.
The email shows the continuing debate within the tech industry about whether companies should work specifically with ICE, and comes as a host of other companies have dealt with employee protests over corporate involvement with ICE.
"In August, the GitHub leadership team learned about a pending renewal of our product by the U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Since then, we have been talking with people throughout the company, based on our own personal concerns and those raised by Hubbers," Friedman's email reads, referring to GitHub employees. Evan Greer, deputy director at activism group Fight for the Future tweeted a copy of the email on Tuesday. Motherboard also separately obtained a copy of the email from a source inside GitHub.
The product up for renewal is a license of GitHub Enterprise Server, an on-premises deployment of GitHub that customers can run on their own server, according to the email. ICE originally bought a license in April, 2016.
"The revenue from the purchase is less than $200,000 and not financially material for our company," it adds.
Do you work at GitHub or another tech giant? Are you protesting against the company's actions? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on firstname.lastname@example.org, or email email@example.com.
The email emphasized that leadership at GitHub and Microsoft, which owns the company, oppose the Trump administration's policies on immigration and, specifically, its child separation policy. However, the company justified its decision by noting that ICE works on issues such as terrorism, child exploitation, money laundering, human trafficking, and cybercrime—while admitting it has no way of controlling how the software will be used.
"These policies run counter to our values as a company, and to our ethics as people. We have spoken out as a company against these practices, and joined with other companies in protesting them," Friedman wrote. But ICE is "also on the front lines of fighting human trafficking, child exploitation, terrorism and transnational crime, gang violence, money laundering, intellectual property theft, and cybercrime."
"GitHub has no visibility into how this software is being used, other than presumably for software development and version control," Friedman's email adds. We "recognize it could be used in projects that support policies we both agree and disagree with."
The email suggests that GitHub won't stop ICE from renewing the license.
"We respect the fact that for those of us in the United States, we live in a democratic republic in which the public elects our officials and they decide, pursuant to the rule of law, the policies the government will pursue. Tech companies, in contrast, are not elected by the public. But we have a corporate voice, and we can use our voice and our resources to seek changes in the policies that we oppose. As a matter of principle, we believe the appropriate way to advocate for our values in a democracy is to use our corporate voice, and not to unplug technology services when government customers use them to do things to which we object," Friedman wrote.
This stands in contrast to the stance taken by others in the tech industry. Recently, a former employee for a company called Chef deleted open source code he worked on in protest over the company's dealings with ICE. Chef decided not to renew its contract with ICE following the protest.
Instead, Friedman adds, "we believe that this principled approach will also be impactful as a matter of pragmatism. Attempting to cancel a purchase will not convince the current administration to alter immigration policy. Other actions, such as public advocacy, supporting lawsuits, meaningful philanthropy, and leveraging the vast resources of Microsoft will have the greatest likelihood of affecting public policy. Our voice is heard better by policymakers when we have a seat at the table."
Friedman says GitHub will donate $500,000 to nonprofit organizations working with immigrant communities targeted by the current administration. This donation, as Friedman points out, is of greater monetary value than the contract itself with ICE. The company will also "continue to participate in policy and advocacy efforts to change the current administration's terrible immigration policies," the email adds.
Friedman writes that some GitHub employees are working on a letter related to the issue.
"It’s incumbent on all of us to find ways to cohesively navigate the increasingly turbulent times we find ourselves in," the email concludes.
When asked for comment, GitHub pointed to a now public version of the email posted on the company's blog.
Update: This piece has been updated to include a response from GitHub.
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