Mozilla Wants Young People to Consider ‘Ethical Issues’ Before Taking Jobs in Tech

A new guide 'With Great Tech Comes Great Responsibility' arrives during a period of backlash on campuses, where tech companies like Amazon and Palantir recruit.
January 22, 2020, 4:00pm
GettyImages-969818924
Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

As tech companies like Google, GitHub, and Amazon clash with workers on a range of ethical issues, Mozilla has taken an unusual, if not unprecedented, stance on labor organizing for a major tech company.

The Mozilla Foundation, the non-profit arm of the company known for its privacy-friendly web browser Firefox, released a guide today for helping students navigate ethical issues in the tech industry, in particular, during the recruitment process. The guide advises students not to work for companies that build technology that harms vulnerable communities, and to educate themselves “on governance” inside companies before taking a job. It also discusses unions drives, walkouts, petitions, and other forms of worker organizing.

The guide, which takes the form of a zine titled “With Great Tech Comes Great Responsibility,” follows events hosted by the Mozilla Foundation last fall in partnership with six university campuses, including UC Berkeley, N.Y.U., M.I.T., Stanford, UC San Diego, and CU Boulder. Not so subtly, it calls out Amazon, Palantir, and Google, which have faced backlash in recent months from tech workers as well as students on the campuses where they recruit.

“Addressing ethical issues in tech can be overwhelming for students interested in working in tech. But change in the industry is not impossible. And it is increasingly necessary,” reads the opening of the 11-page handbook—citing military contracts, algorithmic bias, inhumane working conditions in warehouses, biased facial recognition software, and intrusive data mining as causes for concern.

Mozilla’s work with tech students arrives during a period of heightened activism among students on universities campuses. In recent months, students at at least 16 universities have protested their universities’ ties to the data analytics firm Palantir, which does business with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). (Palantir pays UC Berkeley at least $20,000 a year to recruit in its computer science and electrical engineering departments, while Stanford accepts $24,000.) Amazon—which does business with Palantir—has been another frequent target of campus protest. Other students are campaigning to ban facial recognition software on campuses.

Anu Raghunathan, a math and mechanical engineering major at New York University and chair of the university’s Association of Computer Machinery (ACM) chapter told Motherboard she was surprised by the Mozilla reception of an event she organized at NYU in October, where students and expert panelists discussed ethical AI, discrimination against women in tech, and algorithimic bias.

“Addressing ethical issues in tech can be overwhelming for students interested in working in tech. But change in the industry is not impossible. And it is increasingly necessary."

“There are a lot of companies that offer recruiting events at NYU. Some students want to enter the private sector and work at some of these companies, others don’t. It’s an ongoing ideological battle,” said Raghunathan. “What surprised me about our event was that people showed up and were very engaged and concerned about ethical actions of tech companies. It was a very philosophical event.”

In Mozilla’s guide, tech workers offer advice to students compiled during these sessions for navigating the recruitment process—as well as a history of tech worker organizing, beginning in 1969 when the New York City collective Computer People for Peace demanded the international computing society ACM denounce the Vietnam War.

“We wanted to create content that would address questions students might have before talking to a tech recruiter, and that included that tells the larger story of organizing in tech,” Ashley Boyd, Mozilla's vice president of Advocacy, told Motherboard. “We want students to know that it’s been happening for quite some time. That is to say, these efforts have taken shape before and will continue to be needed. Many of the questions we address are the perennial questions that workers face.”

Before applying for jobs at large tech companies, the guide advises students to sit down with themselves and ask a long list of questions. Most of these questions focus on information flow throughout the company. (At many tech companies, engineers may not always be aware of how the technology they make is being implemented.)

It’s worth noting that Mozilla Corporation, which employs over 1,000 workers, announced last week that it is laying off 70 workers—raising questions about its own labor practices. When asked about the layoffs, Boyd referred Motherboard to Mozilla’s official statement on the matter. “We’re making a significant investment to fund innovation. In order to do that responsibly, we’ve also had to make some difficult choices which led to the elimination of roles at Mozilla which we announced internally today,” the announcement says.

Mozilla’s recent work with college students comes out of an older campaign that began in 2016 to create an internet strategy built on the pillars of openness, inclusion, and privacy. In 2018, that campaign began to specialize its focus on ethical implementations of artificial intelligence. In particular, Mozilla has sought to incorporate ethics curricula into computer science training programs. Between 2018 and 2020, the company will devote up to $3.5 million in prizes to computer science departments that create promising models to embed ethics into computer sciences courses.

Are you a tech worker or student organizing an action or protest? We'd love to hear from you. You can get in touch with Lauren via email lauren.gurley@vice.com or on Signal 201-897-2109.

“We’ve been honing in on the topic of AI trustworthiness,” said Boyd. “So we began an initiative to build ethics into computer science training. At that point, we were hearing concerns from students getting ready to graduate about the recruitment process. [Last fall’s] events came out of the desire for a space for students to think about these questions and discuss how to leverage the power they have over tech companies as highly sought professionals.”

“Ethics are a big topic of discussion on campus and in science departments at Stanford,” Brooke Teferra, a fourth year mechanical engineering major and president of the club Computer Science for Social Good at Stanford, told Motherboard. Last October, Mozilla sponsored Teferra to speak about tech organizing at Stanford at MozFest, the company’s annual internet conference, in London. “We talked about what tech organizing looks like and how students are becoming more cognizant and the discussion is changing at Stanford. I didn’t know too much about Mozila before this. If they are doing what they say they’re doing, that’s incredible. It’s very easy to see companies set up these initiatives, but it’s not easy to implement them.”

Boyd, Mozilla’s vice president of advocacy, said moving forward, the company plans to gauge the effectiveness of last year’s events with the hopes of hosting more events on college campuses this year.

Check out Motherboard's guide to secure labor organizing: How to Organize Your Workplace Without Getting Caught.