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GitHub CEO Says It Has to Follow Microsoft’s Lead on Working With ICE

Multiple GitHub employees recalled comments from CEO Nat Friedman made during an internal company meeting.

by Joseph Cox and Janus Rose
Oct 10 2019, 8:09pm

Image: Chesnot/Getty Images

During a recent internal Q&A at GitHub, company CEO Nat Friedman told employees that he believes GitHub is beholden to Microsoft's policies about working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to multiple GitHub employees familiar with the exchange and a transcript of the meeting obtained by Motherboard.

Microsoft, which bought the code repository site for $7.5 billion last year, has defended its relationship with government agencies before.

The news comes just days after Friedman sent an email to employees saying that GitHub would allow ICE to renew a contract for a GitHub product, despite the fact that he, GitHub leadership, and many employees are opposed to ICE's child separation policy.

"Do we have the autonomy to make this decision independent of Microsoft?," a GitHub employee asked, according to a transcript of the meeting obtained by Motherboard.

"That's a good question. It would have been very challenging for us to take a position on this [that's] very different from Microsoft's position, I would say, because the government customers and the policymakers see us as a single company," Friedman said, according to the transcript. "And so while I think there are a lot of areas where we have a lot of autonomy, this is an area where we would probably prefer to be synchronized more with Microsoft on this."

"But I would also say it was a conversation," he added. "It's not a matter of taking orders purely, but it was a conversation with folks at Microsoft. So I'd say it's an area of interdependence at least. I hope that's clear enough."

Two GitHub employees corroborated the thrust of Friedman's comments to Motherboard.

Motherboard granted multiple sources anonymity to talk more candidly about internal GitHub discussions. Microsoft has previously defended its government contracts in the face of protests by employees.

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ICE has been widely criticized and protested against for separating children from their parents at the border. Multiple migrant children have died in ICE custody recently, and the agency has housed children in inhuman conditions.

On Wednesday, an anonymous Twitter account called GitHubbers tweeted an open letter addressed to Friedman and GitHub leadership, expressing disappointment with the decision. One of Motherboard's sources said the account is run by GitHub employees.

"We come to you not just as employees, but as fellow humans," the letter starts. "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."

GitHub employees haven't just suddenly started paying attention to ICE. A former GitHub employee said, "while I was there, there was a lot of dispute about the fact that GitHub had a contract with ICE."

"People wanted the contract cancelled basically as soon as early 2017, as soon as the travel ban came up. The calls to cancel got a lot louder as soon as the Microsoft acquisition was announced," they added.

The question raised at the Q&A centered around GitHub's decision to not cancel its contract with ICE for a GitHub Enterprise Server, which is an on-premises version of GitHub that customers can deploy on their own server. ICE originally bought a license for the software in April 2016, Friedman's earlier email to employees reads.

"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," the email adds, referring to GitHub employees.

In the email Friedman justified the decision by highlighting that ICE also works on issues such as child exploitation, money laundering, terrorism, cybercrime, and human trafficking. He wrote that GitHub has no visibility or control into how the software may be used however, and recognized that "it could be used in projects that support policies we both agree and disagree with."

"In approaching the topic of government purchases, we use the same overarching policy framework as Microsoft," the email adds, which includes the belief "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."

"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," the email added.

"It would have been very challenging for us to take a position on this [that's] very different from Microsoft's position, I would say, because the government customers and the policymakers see us as a single company."

Microsoft has previously defended contracts with the government that employees took issue with. In February, around 50 Microsoft employees signed a letter protesting a $479 million contract with the Pentagon. In response, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella made comments in a CNN interview that strongly resemble the same position that Friedman says GitHub follows in his email.

"We made a principled decision that we’re not going to withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy,” Nadella said. “We were very transparent about that decision and we’ll continue to have that dialogue [with employees]."

Microsoft employees, however, are circulating a letter asking GitHub to cancel the ICE contract, Bloomberg reports.

One GitHub employee told Motherboard, "Nat and the rest of GitHub leadership has been very sensitive to explicit—or implicit—questions around GitHub's autonomy from Microsoft."

Friedman's email pointed to how Microsoft leadership also opposes the Trump administration's immigration policies. It highlighted that Microsoft is a plaintiff in litigation challenging the termination of the DACA program.

Many employees across the tech industry are taking part in a wave of renewed activism, blowing the whistle on controversial products, or staging protests around company policies. Employees at multiple companies have particularly focused on the industry's involvement with ICE, especially because of ICE's child separation policy. In September, Seth Vargo, a former employee for a tech platform called Chef, deleted open sourced code he wrote in protest over Chef's links to ICE. Chef then decided not to renew its contract with ICE.

Neither Microsoft or GitHub immediately responded to a request for comment.

Update: This piece has been updated to include a mention that Microsoft employees are circulating a letter asking for GitHub to cancel the contract.

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