A Palestine reckoning is coming to Big Tech

A Palestine reckoning is coming to Big Tech. Just ask Google, Amazon and Facebook
6 min read
27 Oct, 2021
Opinion: Amazon and Google have shown no sign of reconsidering their participation in Israeli “Project Nimbus,” and seem to prefer to ignore the controversy in the hope it will blow over. But that may not be a sure thing, writes Mitchell Plitnick.
Demonstrators hold a placard reading "Google Israel - did you mean Palestine" during a rally for Al-Quds Day, an event intended to express solidarity with the Palestinian people, on 25 July 2014 in Berlin, Germany. [Getty]

Israel's plan to overhaul its cloud-based systems provoked protest among the employees of the tech giants it contracted to do the work. Workers at Google and Amazon Web Services published a letter earlier this month calling on their companies to end their involvement in Israel's so-called "Project Nimbus."

While Israel claims that the project would streamline their cloud services and enhance their cybersecurity against attack, the Google and Amazon workers say that it would "…make the systematic discrimination and displacement carried out by the Israeli military and government even crueller and deadlier for Palestinians."

Project Nimbus would integrate all the Israeli government's operations, including the military, into one cloud-based system. It was the military applications that caused the most concern among Google and Amazon employees. Indeed, even back in May, when the deal was first announced and while Israel was once again raining down destruction on the Gaza Strip, a group of 250 Jewish employees at Google, organised by the group Jewish Diaspora in Tech, sent a letter to their CEO demanding that it not use the fruits of their labour to "support Israeli violations of Palestinian rights, such as the Israeli Defense Forces [do]."

"In the two weeks since its publication, the total number of employees signing on has swelled to over 1,000"

This time around, some 400 employees of both Google and Amazon initially published their open letter opposing their participation in Israel's $US 1.2 billion tech upgrade. In the two weeks since its publication, the total number of employees signing on has swelled to over 1,000, according to the organisers of the "No Tech for Apartheid" campaign, which came together with the Google and Amazon employees to organise grassroots pressure on the tech giants.

The campaign has been endorsed by 52 non-governmental organisations to date, including MPower Change, Jewish Voice for Peace, The BDS Movement, Adalah Justice Project, American Muslims for Palestine, and more. According to the organisers, over 22,000 people have sent messages to Amazon and Google executives calling for the corporations' withdrawal from Project Nimbus through their website since it went up on 13 October.

The responses from the Israeli government and its supporters have been low-key thus far. They have "accused" the campaign of coordinating with the Google and Amazon workers to amplify the effectiveness of the campaign, an odd accusation which the organisers have done nothing to deny, as they have no reason to do so. As Jewish Voice for Peace tweeted, "Of course we're in touch with them – we literally launched a campaign to support them."

The relative lack of Israeli response to the campaign is likely an attempt to avoid drawing more attention to the issue in the hope that it will simply peter out. But if the campaign gains steam, as it seems to be doing, Israel's response will increase commensurately. 

The Israeli government seems to have anticipated protest, as it stated in May that the agreement with Google and Amazon included clauses that prevented the corporations from backing out of the deal. Whether those clauses are as iron clad as Israel claims would be put to the test if the campaign against Google and Amazon's involvement in Project Nimbus can generate sufficient pressure. Yet the very fact that Israel felt compelled to include such conditions reflects a growing concern that corporations might be more reluctant than in the past to do business with an Israeli government that has been labelled an apartheid regime.

Amazon is trying to frame the issue as one of equal access for any country, saying that they are "focused on making the benefits of our world-leading cloud technology available to all our customers, wherever they are located."

However, Amazon's statement fails to account for the specific uses that the Israeli military will put this technology to in Palestine. Even before this issue arose, their dealings with Israel have exacerbated tech gaps between Israelis and Palestinians.

The partnership between Google and Amazon with Israel, like many corporations, runs deep. Although it is largely in the background outside of Palestine, that partnership has profound effects, even before this deal. "I am a computer geek and to me, software and the latest gadgets are my whole world. But none of Google's paid services are available in Palestine," wrote Akram Abunahla, a graduate student in Gaza. 

"But, Israelis, who live on the same piece of land, have the convenience of accessing all Google services. Google signed a $1 billion contract with the Israeli government to provide its apartheid regime with cloud services for the Israeli military. This is the very same system that operates and controls the gates, cameras, and barriers [at checkpoints] that add to Palestinians' daily suffering. Not only has Google discriminated against my country, but it has also gone a step further by partnering with the militarised Israeli state."

While the Google and Amazon workers have mostly remained anonymous to protect their careers, there has been no indication to date of any backlash against those who have gone public. That could change if the number of workers standing for Palestinian rights continues to grow or if the No Tech For Apartheid campaign takes more action and gains more momentum.

"Whether Google and Amazon will prove as sensitive to public criticism remains to be seen, but the longer the campaign against them goes on, the more likely it will be a concern for them"

The tech giants, who have shown no sign of reconsidering their participation in Project Nimbus, seem to prefer to ignore the controversy in the hope that it will blow over. But that may not be a sure thing

Last year, another large tech company, Microsoft, divested from AnyVision, an Israeli company that made facial recognition software. Microsoft faced strong pushback after accusations emerged that AnyVision technology was used to surveil Palestinians in the West Bank and an investigation confirmed that the facial recognition tech was used at West Bank checkpoints.

Surveillance tech, which is, according to the Google and Amazon workers who launched this protest, an integral part of Project Nimbus, is widely viewed as an infringement on civil liberties and rights. Whether Google and Amazon will prove as sensitive to public criticism remains to be seen, but the longer the campaign against them goes on, the more likely it will be a concern for them.

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.

Follow him on Twitter: @MJPlitnick

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