In recent months, Chinese tech workers have used the Microsoft-owned codesharing platform GitHub to coordinate the “996.icu” campaign against the long work hours demanded by many of their employers. Because of the site’s https encryption, which prevents selective blocking, and its immense value to the tech industry, which deters a site-wide block, it has increasingly been adopted by Chinese users as a haven for various kinds of sensitive content. Amid fears that the 996.icu movement might disrupt this situation, dozens of workers from Microsoft and other U.S. tech firms issued a letter this week expressing solidarity with their Chinese counterparts, and urging Microsoft and GitHub to resist any pressure to help stifle the movement. The letter follows the apparent success of protests by Google employees last year against the company’s plans for a new search product that would offer censorship and surveillance features in exchange for access to the Chinese market.
Tech workers in China started a GitHub repository titled 996.ICU, a reference to the grueling and illegal working hours of many tech companies in China – from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week. “By following the ‘996’ work schedule, you are risking yourself getting into the ICU (Intensive Care Unit),” says the 996.ICU GitHub project description. The project calls for Chinese tech companies to obey the labor laws in China and the international labor convention.
This initiative has garnered massive support within China. GitHub users have been starring the repository as a way of showing their support. In the span of a few weeks, the project has been starred over 200,000 times, making it one of the fastest growing GitHub repositories in the service’s history.
The code-sharing platform GitHub, owned by Microsoft, is a place for developers to save, share, and collaborate on software projects. Most important for the 996.ICU movement is that GitHub is accessible in China. It is the dominant platform for developers to collaborate and is a crucial part of Chinese tech companies’ daily operations. Since going viral, Chinese domestic browsers, such as those by Tencent and Alibaba, have restricted access to the 996.ICU repository on their web browsers, warning users that the repository contains illegal or malicious content. We must entertain the possibility that Microsoft and GitHub will be pressured to remove the repository as well.
In response to these events, we, the workers of Microsoft and GitHub, support the 996.ICU movement and stand in solidarity with tech workers in China. We know this is a problem that crosses national borders. These same issues permeate across full time and contingent jobs at Microsoft and the industry as a whole. Another reason we must take a stand in solidarity with Chinese workers is that history tells us that multinational companies will pit workers against each other in a race to the bottom as they outsource jobs and take advantage of weak labor standards in the pursuit of profit. We have to come together across national boundaries to ensure just working conditions for everyone around the globe.
“It’s hard to overstate how critical Github is for developers,” explains Christian Grewell, assistant professor of interactive media arts and business at New York University’s Shanghai campus. “Many, if not most, developer teams around the world are collaborating over Github, and the open-source code on the platform allow teams to develop products in days that would otherwise take months… life as a developer without Github is like life in a Chinese city without Wechat.”
[…] While past clashes between Github and Chinese authorities have centered around code and projects under development, it appears that speech on the platform may be emerging as an equally sensitive issue.
A May 2018 Quartz article pointed out that of the top 25 Github projects, four were written in Chinese, and six contained no code. While its community of users is relatively small compared to the world’s major online social networks, the developers on the site hold coveted skill sets, which China must attract in order to achieve its technological ambitions.
[…] There is also speculation that Chinese authorities may place additional pressure on Microsoft, who acquired Github last year, and has significant business interests within China. However, censorship concerns were voiced loudly by Github users at the time of the acquisition, and nearly religious fervor for open sharing of information underpins the open-source developer community. Any seemingly Beijing-influenced attempt to manage the platform would be a very hard sell for Microsoft to make to its user base.
For now, Github seems to be the rare space that offers free speech on the Chinese internet. We’ll see how long it lasts. [Source]
As Quartz’s Youyou Zhou noted, the three codeless Chinese-language projects in the top 25 are all collections of apolitical technical or industry information for Chinese developers. Elsewhere, though, the site has been used to distribute a wide range of more sensitive content. In 2015, GreatFire.org used it to host mirrored versions of otherwise blocked sites, prompting the use of a Chinese cyber-weapon dubbed “The Great Cannon” in an apparent bid to force their removal. Since then, Github has hosted content including other censorship circumvention tools, allegations of corruption, material from labor rights and anti-sexual harassment activists and suppressed house churches, and tools for cheating in the widely (thought not always voluntarily) used Xuexi Qiangguo ideological study app.
In the case of the 996.icu repository, censorship so far appears to have been initiated by the tech industry itself, with several companies’ browsers, as the open letter notes, refusing to load it. (Censorship mechanisms at higher levels, such as the Great Firewall, cannot selectively block repositories because they are unable to see or reach inside the encrypted https connection between a user’s device and Github’s servers. The browser, on the other hand, is the gateway at the user’s end of this tunnel, and can see and filter the data passing through it.) The Economist last week cited a Weibo post observing that “996 developers at 996 companies had to work 996 to block a website about 996.” Nevertheless, some of those involved in the movement have expressed apprehension that the government could step in with stronger measures, in light of aggressive moves against labor organization in other spheres, the tech industry’s strategic and economic importance, and the expansion of censorship to include “musings about the futility of work” or “content that depicts life in China as a constant struggle.” From NPR’s Emily Feng earlier this month:
“Other groups have not been able to have their concerns raised as prominently as we have. This is because normal Chinese media and social media platforms are heavily censored by the Chinese government and so their information cannot be shared to the public,” a 996 programmer who goes by the alias Deleted Account tells NPR.
Despite his involvement through GitHub, the programmer said he was “scared to death” of political retribution: “I am not optimistic about our long-term prospects. I think the Chinese Communist Party will see us as terrorists and use the most modern weaponry to make us obey.”
The 996 campaigners face risks in their efforts for better working conditions. In the past year, labor activists in China have encountered a new wave of suppression. More than 30 students, activists and factory workers are still being held incommunicado after they were detained last summer for trying to unionize factory workers.
This year, local authorities arrested eight more labor advocates across China, including three editors at a well-known labor rights website.
But the campaigners insist their campaign is not political. They simply want companies to follow existing labor laws, which limit work schedules to 44 hours a week. [Source]
The broader labor crackdown has been not only harsh, but increasingly unpredictable, as Kevin Lin wrote in an account of the possible “end of ‘labour NGOs’ as an actor of change” in the new edition of the Made In China journal.
First, as the repression widens, it is becoming increasingly arbitrary. Previously, if labour activists were harassed, questioned, or arrested, it was usually in relation to a recent and specific action they had taken part in. This did not mean that the boundaries of what was acceptable to the authorities were always clear—quite the opposite—but there was some clarity about the reasons for the repression. This time the authorities have not provided any explanation, nor are they even pretending to have a serious legal case against the arrested activists.
Second, the increasing arbitrariness in the widening repression is underlined by a decisive turn from punitive—where people are arrested as a response to their specific actions—to preemptive, where arrested activists may not be currently or recently engaged in any activism on a significant scale. Instead, the potential for their activism based on their past history is sufficient grounds for the Party-state to criminalise them. [Source]
Meanwhile, industry protest organizers in the U.S. have suffered reprisals. Allegations emerged this week that Google has retaliated against some of the employees behind last November’s 20,000-strong walkout protesting the company’s handling of sexual harassment. Meredith Whittaker, one of the early signatories of the open letter supporting 996, was told “that to remain at the company I will have to abandon my work on AI ethics and the AI Now Institute, which I cofounded, and which has been doing rigorous and recognized work on these topics.”
In a New York Times op-ed under the paper’s new Privacy Project banner, Tech Inquiry’s Jack Poulson examined the history of worker activism at Google against sexual harassment, Chinese censorship and surveillance, and U.S. military contracts, and explores how it might be protected and promoted.
“We can forgive your politics and focus on your technical contributions as long as you don’t do something unforgivable, like speaking to the press.”
This was the parting advice given to me during my exit interview from Google after spending a month internally arguing, resignation letter in hand, for the company to clarify its ethical red lines around Project Dragonfly, the effort to modify Search to meet the censorship and surveillance demands of the Chinese Communist Party.
[…] Despite negative press received by Google, direct calls from Vice President Mike Pence to end the project and two congressional interrogations of executives, the only major setback to Project Dragonfly came from Google’s privacy team standing up to management.
[…] Direct action from tech workers has been undeniably effective. Human rights organizations must therefore continue to advocate the legal protection of whistle-blowers and conscientious objectors, including protecting the organizing required for an effective collective action. Further, the broader civil society could increase the frequency of whistle-blowing by creating a dedicated legal defense fund.
[…] If it is morally defensible, tech companies should have nothing to fear from discussions of the human rights implications of their work, whether that discussion happens in the boardroom or public square. [Source]
Responding to Poulson’s proposal of a legal defense fund, The Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher, who first reported Project Dragonfly’s existence, commented:
This is a good idea. A lot of sources I've dealt with in the tech industry are terrified to speak out because they lack any kind of support network. Some sort of whistleblower defence fund would be a big help to them & would embolden workers to come forward & expose wrongdoing. pic.twitter.com/1GS8uSoV7P
— Ryan Gallagher (@rj_gallagher) April 24, 2019
There are already some orgs that can offer tech whistleblowers support, like @TheSignalsNetw. Would be great to see others founded with similar goals & high visibility, especially in Silicon Valley.
— Ryan Gallagher (@rj_gallagher) April 24, 2019
I believe “high visibility” is the key. There will be a phase change in engineer behavior if they immediately think of a trusted human-rights/ethics/whistleblowing/labor group to confidentially reach out to when they spot wrongdoing.
Otherwise, they ‘get back to work’.
— Jack Poulson (@supernodal) April 24, 2019
Both Google and Microsoft have been among the recent targets of heightened scrutiny of Western firms, investors, and institutions involved in AI research with ties to China’s military, intelligence, or domestic security apparatus. (The Wall Street Journal this week reported similar concerns involving satellite bandwidth rental.) A Washington Post editorial this week reviewed related reports, and examined possible policy responses:
The Financial Times reported April 10 that specialists at Microsoft Research Asia published three papers over the past year with co-writers affiliated with China’s National University of Defense Technology, controlled by the country’s Central Military Commission. Critics say the research could aid China in repressing its citizens, not to mention in throwing its Uighur minority into reeducation camps. Microsoft counters that the projects aim to solve artificial intelligence conundrums that academics around the world are working on together, and that the technologies have no closer relation to surveillance than WiFi or a Windows operating system.
The truth may be somewhere in between. Artificial intelligence research has always been characterized by global collaboration, and the default for academies and companies alike is to make their findings and code available to the public so that others may build on what they have discovered. Because machine-learning technologies are usually dual-use, the same discoveries that could, say, help doctors detect skin cancer could also allow a repressive regime to track its civilians. Distinguishing a technology’s military applications from its civilian ones is always tricky in the AI space. It is trickier still in China, where the line between private and public is institutionally blurred.
The Trump administration’s plan to restrict technological exports to China will almost certainly mean keeping some sensitive products and services away from that country, or at least imposing licensing rules. But it could also mean barring certain types of research. The Microsoft case is interesting because it falls in exactly the gray area officials will have to confront: The United States benefits immensely from the open exchange of ideas in AI — including access to top talent found in the most prestigious Chinese universities. Stopping up that pipeline would be a mistake. But China is also an egregious human rights offender, and using AI research for military gains is at the core of its stated strategy.
[…] The current model of near-limitless cooperation with Chinese firms and researchers may need rethinking. Still, officials in the United States eager to fire at companies for foundational work on groundbreaking technologies should take care to avoid shooting themselves in the foot. [Source]