Ethics In Tech & Lack Thereof

Sleeping Under The Cell Tower

By Vahid Razavi

Ethics In Tech: An Activist Reborn

I wouldn’t have to look very hard to find Ethics In Tech’s first target. Amazon has its pick of business partners. It is the industry leader and has a global consumer and a business brand. Why they would want to partner with the worst assholes of the tech industry that had committed crimes against humanity is beyond my understanding. If I am denied working at my own startup over fears of intellectual property theft, and if I am denied employment based on McCarthyesque efforts to stifle my freedom of expression, then I was left with only one choice: look deep into my roots and values and think about the possibility of restarting Ethics in Technology as a non-profit organization. In theory, I could run Ethics in Tech as a non-profit focused on five areas of public interest. These are:

  1. Equality in tech
  2. Employee-employer labor relations issues in the tech sector
  3. Environment, specifically the environmental impact of technology development
  4. Privacy and privacy rights — How technology can empower or hinder our personal freedoms in the digital age
  5. Artificial Intelligence — The impact of AI on human evolution and development

I believe that these five areas require special attention in the tech community. I have worked on the business end of the tech sector for over 20 years. I am Iranian-American and a very proud citizen of both countries. Over the coming years and decades the decisions that tech companies make every day will impact us all. My goal is to bring the voice of the masses to the tech community by organizing a dialogue through events, content, and all available social and press tools to create awareness and drive public policy. Certain acts do not belong in the tech community. Rendition and torture are not part of the service offerings of most tech companies. The ones that do choose to profit from these kinds of crimes and other cold-blooded business practices need to be named and shamed — and believe me, I’ve done plenty of both.

Luckily for me, I’ve been an activist for most of my life. Back in the 1970s when I was just a little boy, my father would set me atop a stroller and take me with him to protests against the brutal monarch, the Shah. The Shah’s family had ruled with an iron fist for decades thanks to the staunch support of successive US administrations and the CIA. It’s always funny to me when I hear American leaders talking about the need for democracy in Iran. Well, Iran had a democracy once, and it was great until the US destroyed it. Back in 1951 the people of Iran, perhaps taking President Harry S. Truman’s promise to “assist free people to work out their own destinies in their own way,” elected Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh as their new prime minister. Mossadegh won the hearts of his people by fighting to end Western exploitation of Iran’s oil and other vast natural wealth. He nationalized Anglo-Iranian Oil (known today as BP) and kicked out a bunch of British technicians while severing diplomatic ties with London. Mossadegh was the most popular leader Iranians have ever known. Time magazine even named him Man of the Year in 1951, calling him the “Iranian George Washington.”

Britain, the United States, and other Western imperialist powers were shocked and infuriated, and it wasn’t long before the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration was planning a CIA-orchestrated coup to depose Mossadegh. Operation Ajax was a wild success, with the Shah swiftly restored to his throne, where his family would rule for more than another quarter century. In order to help the Shah keep order, the CIA, working with Israel, created SAVAK, the notoriously brutal internal security force that specialized in horrific tortures, sometimes taught by the CIA. Five successive US presidents lavished the Shah with aid and friendship over the decades, with Jimmy Carter, the socalled “human rights president,” fêting the dictator at a White House New Year’s Eve soirée in 1978.

It was around this time that my dad was taking me to street protests in Tehran. Things were about to fall apart in Iran but to a small boy what I saw and learned was that people united in a righteous cause could force real change in the world. But there are things that are more important than even the most righteous cause, namely, the safety and well-being of one’s family, and so my parents decided that the best thing for us to do was to leave our beloved homeland behind and seek refuge in the United States. I was eight years old. The first time we tried to leave Iran we went to Switzerland, where we were denied US visas. The second time I was in Germany, where I was able to obtain a tourist visa to travel to the United States. Eventually I was able to attain legal US residency.

But before that I had a war to survive, and surviving it ensured that I would be vehemently opposed to any and all future wars. My mom was a nurse who served during the Iran-Iraq war. After the Islamic revolution, during the US Embassy occupation and hostage crisis, the administration of Jimmy Carter cozied up to Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq, encouraging him to invade Iran in a bid to destabilize and ultimately destroy the nascent Islamic Republic. What followed was a horrific eight-year war of attrition that claimed well over a million lives. My mother was a chemical warfare nurse. One of the more grotesque chapters of the war involved Iraqi use of weapons of mass destruction. You may remember the famous photo of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad back in the early 1980s. The Reagan administration had just removed the Iraqi dictator from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. This move opened the door for greater cooperation between the US and Iraqi militaries, as well as for greater trade and investment opportunities.

It was during this period that the Iraqi regime began acquiring components from US and other Western corporations that it used to build its chemical arsenal. This arsenal would include the deadly neurotoxins Taub and Sarin, as well as mustard gas. These weapons had been internationally banned for generations. They were too horrific even for Hitler, who experienced their ghastly effects as a young solider in the trenches of World War I. But the US and other Western nations turned a blind eye as Saddam’s forces unleashed these weapons of mass destruction against not only Iranian troops and civilians, but against his own restive Kurdish population. In the most infamous of these attacks, some 2,000 Kurds were massacred at Halabja on March 16, 1988. The Iraqi army spared no one from its godawful WMDs; even hospitals and medical facilities were targeted. Around 20,000 Iranian troops and medical personnel were killed by Iraqi chemical weapons.

My mother volunteered to put her life on the line to try to save others. I remember she would return from the front with “gifts” of shrapnel, bullets, and other macabre souvenirs de guerre. I would make collages out of them and bring them to school for show-and-tell. There was initially a certain adventure to growing up during a war, but there was also a lot of hardship. Iraq targeted our population centers and everyone knew someone who’d been killed or wounded in the war, or who had come back never to be the same again due to the ravages of post-traumatic stress disorder. There were missile strikes and funerals and a general sense of terror. Saddam’s Scud missiles weren’t very accurate, but if enough of them are lobbed at a densely-populated city like Tehran it isn’t long before one of them hits something. Or someone… maybe you or somebody you love. The adventure quickly passed.

Growing up during a war sucks. It’s probably the reason why I’m against all wars to this very day. I’ll never forget going to the hospital where my mother cared for chemical weapon victims and hearing the screams of men suffering in incomprehensible agony as their lungs burned from mustard gas and other neurotoxins. As I grew from a child into a teenager, this insanely bloody war dragged interminably on and on. It eventually ground into a lengthy stalemate spanning most of the 1980s before both sides came to their senses and put an end to the madness in 1988.

I may have left my country, but I’ve never stopped loving it. I’ve never stopped being Iranian. My country had leaped from the frying pan into the fire by exchanging one authoritarian regime for another. As is the case in so many revolutions throughout history, what began with the best of intentions to uplift society and bring liberty and prosperity to an oppressed people quickly turned into something much uglier. Anyone who’s read George Orwell’s Animal Farm or listened to the band The Who could have predicted this.

…Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…

The Iranian people have a nearly 10,000-year history. The current regime, and even the era of the Shah, are but hiccups on the timeline of our history, and will, in their time, pass from the scene like so many other despots before them. But I’ll always be Iranian, and proud.

I also never stopped being an activist after I left Iran. Quite the contrary. After all, we immigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, which everyone knows is America’s foremost hotbed of liberal politics and activism. I was the guy with peace buttons on his backpack in high school, railing against nuclear proliferation, or apartheid in South Africa, or pretty much anything Ronald Reagan did. Later, I protested against the first Gulf War, the second Iraq war, the third — how many Iraq wars have there now been? I protested all the US wars, especially after 9/11, starting with the neverending war in Afghanistan that’s claimed so much blood and treasure with no light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. How can you not be against this? When you think that a fully-grown 21-year-old adult today has no memories of a time when this country was not at war, that really puts it all in perspective. Indeed, for 238 of the 242 years of its existence, the United States has attacked, invaded, or occupied other nations. But I digress.

My activist background made starting Ethics In Tech relatively easy. In an age when our rights are under constant attack and when powerful tech companies, as well as government, can run roughshod over those rights, it’s not hard to find a receptive audience hungering for the chance to affect positive meaningful change. EIT aims to do much more than just raise awareness and call out bad actors in the tech industry. Yes, we firmly believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant; naming and shaming companies like CSC and AWS is extremely important. But affecting systemic change requires participation in the political process, as rigged as it may be. To that end we seek to find progressive political candidates from not only the two traditional parties, but also from third or no party at all who will stand up to defend our constitutional rights, not just the rights of corporations to do as they please. Is there anyone out there in their right mind who really thinks it’s a normal state of affairs in a democracy that corporations are constitutionally regarded as “people” with “free speech rights”? That they should be allowed to spend as much money as they please to influence the outcome of our elections while the same Supreme Court refuses to recognize health care as a basic human right (to which all Americans should have equal access)? In the age of Citizens United, only united citizens can restore sanity to a system gone mad. EIT will drive the candidates and campaigns that can do this.

Strong results require strong partnerships. To that end, Ethics In Tech seeks to work with organizations big and small to tackle the issues and injustices that affect our common welfare. Being that employer-employee relations is one of the five key areas on which our group focuses, we are fellow travelers with organizations composed of whistleblowers and former tech company employees. Well-known national and even international rights groups like the indispensable American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Freedom of the Press Foundation, more tech-specific groups like Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Internet Archive are also fellow travelers. We can help them raise awareness and funding for various projects they have that reflect our mutual commitment to ethics in technology.

Successful campaigns for change often require thinking outside of the box. One thing I’ve learned observing the US political scene these past couple of decades is that it’s much easier to win people over to your opinion if you can make them laugh. Nobody wants to be browbeaten by a loudmouth on a soapbox, but if you can make people laugh — even at the most outrageous or absurd crimes — you’ve got a chance to win them over. The late, great George Carlin knew it decades ago when he nailed who’s really in charge of America in his bit “The Owners of the Country,” which ends with the infamous punchline that “it’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Jon Stewart, Chris Rock and Michelle Wolf know it. And I knew it too when I came up with the idea for NSA Comedy Tour back when illegal government surveillance, aided and abetted by some of the nation’s biggest tech and telecom firms, was still making national headlines. It was a short-lived but successful tour, with over 150 people at each of our three events. We had around half a dozen comedians including Will Durst and Nato Green, as well as an expert panel that took a more serious look at some of the most pressing ethics in tech issues of the day. The audience was also treated to performances by Mike Rufo who has written lots of political songs, including “Spyin’ Eyes,” a hilarious Eagles-based parody about the not very amusing topic of government mass surveillance. Mike’s not primarily into parodies; he’s a serious singer, songwriter, and guitarist — and one hell of an activist to boot. But for better or worse, “Spyin’ Eyes” is the Mike Rufo song most activists know, and he brought down the house when he played it at one of my NSA Comedy events. I’m quite keen on reviving NSA Comedy, perhaps with a roast of ethics in tech and some of the more notorious tech companies. We might have to do this outside of the United States given the current xenophobic stance of the Trump administration as demonstrated by the mostly-Muslim travel ban.