What does it mean for a company to be a responsible corporate citizen? Does it mean companies should donate a fraction of their profits each year to charitable causes? Does it mean they should start initiatives that give back to their employees and customers? Does it mean they should manufacture their products in environmentally friendly ways? For Microsoft, being a responsible corporate citizen means none of these things: it means accepting a $479 million contract with U.S. government to develop technology to help troops kill.
In November 2018, the US government awarded Microsoft a contract for the development of an Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS), which will (per Mashable) “rapidly develop, test, and manufacture a single platform" that would provide "increased lethality, mobility, and situational awareness." This system would be using Hololens, a mixed reality device that can be worn similar to glasses and integrates simulated graphics with what one is seeing.
A letter written by over 250 unhappy Microsoft employees to CEO Satya Nadella explains why employees do not agree with the contract. They explain in simpler terms what Hololens will be used for: “The application of Hololens within the IVAS system is designed to help people kill. It will be deployed on the battlefield, and works by turning warfare into a simulated ‘video game,’ further distancing soldiers from the grim stakes of war and the reality of bloodshed.” What is disturbing is the fact that employees developed the technology for business and entertainment without being told that what they were making could be used for warfare. Microsoft employees did not sign up to build weapons; however, that is exactly what Hololens is being used for under the contract.
Is it right then for Microsoft to continue with the contract? No, it is most certainly not okay. What did Microsoft do and say in response to employee objection? Two things.
First, that employees who no longer wish to work on the military project can be moved to other departments. This does nothing to solve the problem: employees who have already worked on Hololens will have their work now used for killing, whether they like it or not. It will be something that they have to live with the rest of their lives. Microsoft is now profiting off of war.
Second, Microsoft said that it has a responsibility to support the US government.
“We made a principled decision that we're not going to withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy,” Nadella explained. "It's really about being a responsible corporate citizen in a democracy."
The only responsibility Microsoft has is to support its employees and stakeholders. There is no moral or legal obligation to give the military its technology. Microsoft is willing to put its own morality and employee’s views aside for the sole purpose of profit, using “democracy” as a veiled excuse for its actions. Microsoft, if you truly want to be a “responsible corporate citizen in a democracy,” then listen to the voices of your employees: do not accept the military contract.