In the wave of protests which consumed the Bay Area against Donald Trump’s inauguration, one of the most interesting protests from last week came and went without much media fanfare.
Last Wednesday, over 60 tech workers gathered in Palo Alto to protest Palantir, the secretive data mining company valued at $20 billion. The tech workers demanded that Palantir make themselves more transparent and accountable to the public, due to their concerns that it will provide the Trump administration data or software that can lead to a Muslim registry or be used for mass deportations.
I met the protest leaders, who created a campaign called dobetter.tech, the Sunday before the protest. As they spray painted picket signs at a South of Market loft, they shared their concerns about Palantir’s ties to Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire who co-founded Palantir and tech czar for the Trump administration. They were alarmed by its relationships with federal immigration agencies like U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security Investigations in collecting, profiling and analyzing data of citizens and travelers.
Last month, a petition called neveragain.tech went viral in Silicon Valley circles urging tech workers to pledge to never aid in building a Muslim registry. Dobetter.tech, a separate campaign to neveragain.tech, wanted to expand the pledge into protests.
“Tech people don’t usually protest things,” said Jason Prado, a product engineer at Facebook. “We wanted to raise awareness. Even in the tech community, many people don’t know what Palantir does.”
Dobetter.tech and similar progressive groups composed of tech workers are trying to bring awareness not only for Palantir’s shady dealings, but a host of issues the tech community has felt uncomfortable engaging in for years. The Tech Workers Coalition, which participated in the Palantir protest, has been vocal about better pay and working conditions for the low-wage service workers who clean, feed and protect tech employees in Silicon Valley. They urged their members to participate in protests with their “invisible workforce” brethren in tech.
With the election of Trump, there has been a political awakening in pockets of the tech community, according to Prado and his friends during the spray-painting session. They tell me progressive and social justice groups have been growing in membership. The Tech Workers Coalition, for example, saw its membership grow rapidly in the past four months from single digits to over 30, according to its organizer Matt Schaefer. They expect the growth in membership to continue in the Trump era, and their protests to resume.
But as it is unfair to paint all tech workers as one politically and locally indifferent monolith, it is also facetious to declare this as some Silicon Valley-wide political revolution. These political groups still represent a tiny fraction of the tech workforce that live and work in San Francisco. Giant tech companies, such as Palantir, Google and Uber, are going to play ball with the Trump administration. The majority of their employees will go along silently as well.
And tech, at least for the short term, will continue to remain as villains in the eyes of many San Franciscans. On Friday, at least 16 protesters were arrested outside Uber’s San Francisco headquarters on Market Street because Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is a member of Trump’s Strategic and Policy forum. Any major protests in the Bay Area — whether it be on police brutality, Google buses or the housing crisis — all seem to boil back down to the tech industry and its enormous wealth and power, one way or another.
Despite admitting to its many industry-wide flaws, Prado, Schaefer and his friends shared the same conviction that tech — especially large companies with scale, like Facebook — is still a force of good for San Francisco and the world. I know a huge swath of San Francisco who don’t see it that way at all. Will the anti-tech activists and the activist tech workers ever be able to put aside their philosophical differences if it came down to an issue they can protest together?
I’ve been thinking about how to best contextualize the significance of the Palantir protest. It certainly feels significant in that it’s so rare to see Facebook engineers and Stanford Ph.D. students gather to protest a tech giant like Palantir. But compared to the well-oiled activism apparatus in the Bay Area, where hundreds — not just 60 — can march, sing and organize at a drop of a hat, it felt small and amateurish.
But I realized I’m looking at this the wrong way. It’s supposed to be the start of something new in Silicon Valley, where its workers are checking its own industry’s increasing political power as one company after another kowtows to Trump. Trump will be in the White House for the next four years, and for those who braved the rain to protest Palantir, the battle is just beginning.
And I for one am excited to see how this all develops.
The Nexus covers the intersection of technology, business and culture in San Francisco and beyond. Write to Seung at firstname.lastname@example.org.