Big tech silencing Palestine

Amira Saber
Thursday 22 Sep 2022

Employees of Google and other US big-tech companies are being punished for speaking out on behalf of Palestinian lives.


“Google has signed a contract with the Russian army offering it advanced technologies amid the war on Ukraine: the company’s employees are forced to choose between silence or retribution.”  

How’s that for a story? How would the global media and world leaders respond to such troubling news? The news of course is false, but only when it comes to the protagonist. Russia is not partnering with Google, but Israel’s army is. The rest of the story remains true: critics inside Google are being punished for speaking out on behalf of Palestinian lives and rights.

In late 2021, it emerged that Google is supplying the Israeli military with advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies through the so-called Project Nimbus. That will help Israel to expand its unlawful surveillance of Palestinians and support its illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories.

A number of Jewish and Arab Google employees have voiced their concerns – anonymously of course, in fear of retaliation – against their company’s newest client who is subject to investigation for suspected grave violations of human rights by the UN and for alleged war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The project, signed at the same time as the deadly 2021 Israeli war on Gaza that led to the killing of 66 children, has prompted Google employees to speak out about their company’s ethical and legal obligations. The same has been true of Amazon employees. As more and more workers have spoken out, Google has responded by retaliating against one of the Jewish employees who spearheaded the activism against the company by transferring her to San Paolo in Brazil.

Former Google marketing manager Ariel Koren resigned last month in protest against the repressive environment and patterns of intimidation against pro-Palestine employees by using “HR warnings, harassment, even pay cuts and negative performance review feedback.”

If you think this is merely a workplace dispute, think again. The case here is about freedom of speech writ large. Silencing employees who speak truth to power is a logical consequence of years of normalising the suppression of Palestinian speech on social media. This censorship applies to everyone, from ordinary citizens who have witnessed the heavy hand of algorithmic bias against Palestinian content on Facebook, to celebrities like US model Bella Hadid who had her father’s Palestinian passport photograph “mistakenly” deleted by Instagram.  

What can be done to claim back our digital rights? First, we should call a spade a spade. Israel is an apartheid regime, as per the findings of internationally respected human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Israel-based B’Tselem. But what are human rights to a state that raids six humanrights organisations and then claims to be the “democratic oasis” of the Middle East?

Second, social media users should continue to express their opinions and speak out against violations of human rights. The companies concerned will eventually act, albeit slowly. We have seen the Facebook Oversight Board, established as an independent body to review Facebook’s moderation policy, admitting that there is bias against pro-Palestine content at the company and instructing it to restore removed content. We have also seen Facebook-owned Instagram changing its algorithmic policies over public anger about removed posts relating to Palestinian content.

Any talk about digital rights must start with what these rights look like in offline space. For decades, liberal policies had an impact on every major social justice issue in the world today, from racism to gender equality, sexual identity, and fighting authoritarianism at home and abroad, except for Palestine, made in a new and highly-recommended book of the same name by US commentators Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick.

Liberal politicians worldwide should translate the UN General Principles of Business and Human Rights into their domestic law in order to ensure that due diligence on human rights is part of every contract with any foreign military, especially ones allegedly involved in the killings of civilians and children.

*The writer is a member of parliament.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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