So far, the Palestinian-rights movement hasn’t generated the kind of groundswell that hammered Facebook over civil rights last summer, when 800 companies joined an advertising boycott over its policies on hate speech and misinformation. But the industry’s critics say Silicon Valley cannot dodge the Palestinian debate, even as a more than week-old ceasefire between Israel and Hamas holds on.
“What’s happening right now is a broader reckoning within the technology industry about its involvement in Israel,” said one Google employee involved in organizing efforts at the company, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “Technology companies are heavily embedded in Israel and benefit greatly from being in Israel, and it’s time for tech companies to acknowledge and come to terms with, and hopefully redress, the human rights violations that they are benefiting from.”
Jack Poulson, a former Google research scientist who resigned in protest three years ago over the search titan’s ties to China, said he sees a “significant likelihood” that the companies could cancel or pare back their contracts with the Israeli government if tech workers and civil society continue to mobilize seriously on the issue. He noted that Google dropped an artificial intelligence contract with the Pentagon three years ago amid employee pressure. Microsoft also divested from Israeli firm AnyVision following pressure from employees, activists and press reports in 2020.
But it’s a fraught political and economic minefield for the U.S. tech companies, which have been forging ties to the bustling Israeli tech industry for years. Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple have built offices and R&D centers in the country, creating lucrative partnerships with companies and engineers in the so-called startup nation.
U.S. companies accounted for 80 percent of all acquisitions of Israeli tech firms in 2019. Businesses including Intel, Google and Microsoft have bought tens of billions of dollars’ worth of Israeli companies over the last decade, including Waze, the popular GPS navigation software app purchased by Google, and Onavo, the Israeli spyware app that Facebook acquired and then shut down following a privacy controversy. The tech giants have also become more bullish on snapping up cloud contracts with other Middle Eastern governments like Saudi Arabia.
But those relationships are drawing new scrutiny amid the most recent escalation in aggression and violence in the region, which killed more than 240 Palestinians and 11 Israelis. And that has created an opening for Palestinian-rights groups such as the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which has spent years urging governments, businesses and artists to distance themselves from Israel.
“Israel’s apartheid government relies on major tech companies to administer and control its regime of occupation, colonialism and apartheid,” said Mahmoud Nawajaa, general coordinator of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, which has taken part in strategizing how to pressure the tech giants. “Big tech has an obligation to not assist apartheid and to not be complicit in human rights violations.”
A May 21 webinar for activists interested in demilitarization in the Palestinian territories, which BDS organized, included a breakout room devoted entirely to tech worker activism on the issue. Conversations are also bubbling up within major human rights groups and among tech employees about how to criticize U.S. companies’ partnerships with the Israeli government without inflaming allegations of antisemitism, said two people familiar with the discussions who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Maria Jeffrey Reynolds, a spokesperson for Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, in a statement criticized the growing pro-Palestinian activism among tech employees. “A bunch of privileged people in Silicon Valley, 7,400 miles from Israel, have the audacity to push Big Tech oligarchs to participate in the anti-Israel BDS movement,” she said. “It’s absurd.”
Some activists hope to emphasize that the campaign is not about Israel specifically — it’s about the broader trend of U.S. tech companies partnering with entities that have a spotty human rights record, such as the Saudi government or even the American military.
“Amazon’s deal with the Israeli Defense Forces is part of a pattern of militarization that has included contracts with the US military, [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and federal and state policing agencies,” tweeted Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, a group of activist Amazon workers. “Amazon workers didn’t sign up to work on projects that support militaries and policing forces. We didn’t sign up to be complicit in state killings and human rights abuses in the US, Israel, and around the world.”
Marwa Fatafta, the Middle East-North Africa policy manager with digital rights group Access Now, said U.S. tech companies have shown a broader trend of “wanting to provide cloud services to governments known for their egregious human rights violations.” That is the increasing focus of groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
A major target of pro-Palestinian activists’ ire is a $1.2 billion cloud contract called Project Nimbus, which the Israeli government awarded to Amazon and Google last month. Though public information about the contract is scarce, Israel has said the companies will help provide cloud services to government agencies and the Israeli Defense Force. Shahar Bracha, the acting CEO of a technology-focused unit within the Israeli prime minister’s office, lauded Amazon’s cloud-computing unit and Google as “the Rolls-Royce and the Maserati of the cloud world.”
Lau Barrios, campaign manager at Muslim-led civil rights group MPower Change, said her group is strategizing internally and with other organizations in the anti-Amazon Athena coalition to figure out the best way to pressure the companies to drop the contract. “There are multiple strategies we’re considering at the moment,” Barrios said. “This is a priority.”
Google said in a blog post on Tuesday that the cloud services will help Israel address “challenges within the public sector, including in healthcare, transportation, and education.” It said they will run for an initial period of seven years.
Google is also separately setting up a new Google Cloud region in Israel, which will allow the company to provide cloud services to a broad swath of Israeli companies.
Ellery Biddle, an editorial director with the human rights project Ranking Digital Rights, said her group and others are pushing Amazon and Google to conduct and publicize human rights impact assessments of those cloud contracts. “We’re pushing them to be as transparent as possible about what they’re agreeing to do and how they’re going to treat peoples’ data, what kinds of protections and due process mechanisms are in place to protect peoples’ privacy,” she said.
While Israel has pledged to ensure that the data stored on the cloud services will “remain within Israel’s borders under strict data security regulations,” little public information has emerged about how or whether it would protect Palestinians’ data.
At Google, a group of Jewish employees and allies has been circulating a letter to CEO Sundar Pichai and his executive team that calls for the company to support Palestinian rights and review all its “business contracts and corporate donations.” It says Google should also consider terminating “contracts with institutions that support Israeli violations of Palestinian rights, such as the Israeli Defense Forces.” The group split off from a larger Jewish employee resource group at Google amid divisions over whether it was antisemitic to target Israel with criticism.
The pro-Palestinian letter had almost 600 Google worker signers as of last week, according to the employee. Google has not yet responded to the letter internally.
A Google spokesperson told POLITICO that the company is “proud” that the Israeli government selected Google Cloud for the contract but added that the company’s services will not be “directed to highly sensitive or classified workloads” in the country.
“The services cannot be used for high risk activities, and customers must adhere to Google’s acceptable use policy, including when processing personal data,” the spokesperson said.
Amazon, which is in talks to set up three data centers in Israel, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Facebook, meanwhile, is facing an entirely different set of criticisms from pro-Palestinian groups: allegations that the company is disproportionately removing posts from Palestinians and their supporters. Facebook’s Instagram during the latest violent clash mistakenly removed content referring to Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam, BuzzFeed News reported. Facebook has apologized for the error.
But tensions continue to be high, even after Facebook executives met in the past week and a half with Israeli and Palestinian officials to discuss online threats and violent rhetoric. A coalition of civil society groups including Access Now emailed Facebook directly earlier this month asking for an “urgent” meeting about the alleged censorship of pro-Palestinian voices on the platform.
“As you know, Palestinians are under siege physically and thanks to the systematic and egregious silencing of their voices on Facebook, they are now being erased from the internet,” the groups wrote in the email, which was addressed to CEO Mark Zuckerberg and obtained by POLITICO. The groups had a meeting with Facebook on Wednesday, several weeks after their initial outreach.
Fatafta, who participated in the meeting, said the groups asked Facebook to conduct a public audit of its policies and actions related to the Israeli-Palestine region, data on how it handles requests from Israel’s cyber unit and transparency around how it uses artificial intelligence to moderate posts from Palestinians.
“We were not given any satisfactory or transparent answers on their actions,” Fatafta said.
Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said the company applies its policies equally regardless of the identity of who is posting. He said the meeting on Wednesday “was an important opportunity to hear their concerns directly and to explain our consistent global content policies and enforcement practices, clarify recent technical issues and explain our process for reviewing government requests, which is the same around the world.”
“We share an interest in making sure Facebook remains a place for Palestinians and others around the world to discuss the issues that matter to them, and we look forward to continuing this conversation,” Stone said.
The scrutiny is not going away anytime soon, the activists said.
“These companies made human rights commitments and we need to see them upholding them,” said Biddle with Ranking Digital Rights.