Bonum Certa Men Certa

Microsoft Is an Ethical Not “Religious” Problem

Authored by Dr. Andy Farnell

"The government is not trying to destroy Microsoft, it’s simply seeking to compel Microsoft to obey the law. It’s quite revealing that Mr. Gates equates the two."

--Government official



A recent Reddit post caught my attention as a Christian, humanist and computer scientist. Allegedly, an employer claimed to be troubled by a worker citing "Religious Reasons" for their refusal to use Microsoft 1. I also refuse to use Microsoft products, but have never been inclined to so boldly claim it a matter of "Religion".



I worry this may be a step too far, and may do some disservice to the very real struggle against corporate tyranny and erosion of digital rights. Indeed, there are many perfectly good reasons to reject the wares of Big Tech companies without invoking religion as a first line. Let's step back and consider why.



"...I see the framing of the Reddit story, of a modern-day "Luddite" throwing her religious spanner into the noble wheels of industry, as mischievous."Religions are complex. They include ethical values, but also practices, habits, associations, symbolisms, traditions, and interpretations of texts. Most, though not all religions, espouse an ethical framework, but in secular modernity we bracket ethics aside. Whilst for people of faith religion and ethics are essentially synonymous, one may still have profound and unshakable ethics without subscribing to any organised religion.



It is not that religious tenets have no relevance to technology. I a troubled, through my personal religious beliefs, by our trajectory in the digital world. The greed, wrath, envy and sloth facilitated by a mindless cult of convenience and control is heartbreaking for me as a computer scientist. The bonfire of opportunity squandered in favour of technologies designed to track, manipulate, enslave and deceive feels like a tragedy of "biblical magnitude". Inseparably, with respect to positive spiritual understanding, it is religion that preserves my technological optimism, and sense of hope for humane, ethical technology.



Yet I see the framing of the Reddit story, of a modern-day "Luddite" throwing her religious spanner into the noble wheels of industry, as mischievous. It rather nicely stokes a false dichotomy between religion and technology. Not only are many technologists religious, but our 21st century digital technology is driven as much by transcendent supernaturalism and organisational ideologies as by clear reason.



Indeed there are good arguments to be heard that technology is a religion 2, and in some senses stands against 'Science' in its broadest sense - not least because Big Tech inherits many of the social control functions once associated with the brutal and punitive role of the Church, making the "Separation of Tech and State" as urgent as keeping apart "Church and State".



What is really being challenged here is not whether using Microsoft products offends one's "religious sensibilities", but whether a good-faith ethical objection to Big Tech products, whether it has roots in religion or not, is reasonable.



"What is really being challenged here is not whether using Microsoft products offends one's "religious sensibilities", but whether a good-faith ethical objection to Big Tech products, whether it has roots in religion or not, is reasonable."The issue here revolves around what I think may be a rather misguided or disingenuous attempt to leverage employment law. Law has long given broad protections to religion in the workplace including accommodation of sacred days, dress, prayer times, sanitary and Kosher provisions, respect for eating arrangements around Ramadan, and so on.



But let's be clear, according to US Government guidelines for employers;



"Social, political, or economic philosophies, or personal preferences, are not "religious" beliefs under Title VII." 3



Furthermore, most employers will likely raise the objection of "security" quite dishonestly, rather than sincerely admit that the technology choices of employees cause ordinary administrative or economic inconvenience. Again referring to US Title VII codes;



"Examples of burdens on business that are more than minimal (or an "undue hardship") include: (…) jeopardising security or health; or costing the employer more than a minimal amount."



For the case in point, proffering the nebulous catch-all of "security" is exceptionally dishonest due to the shockingly poor performance of Microsoft products in this regard. Further, I am inclined to agree with Feminist thinker Eve Ensler, that "security" has become its own religion in our times and should values clash it will most surely prevail.



"Regardless, the law seems clear, that to offer objections to Microsoft products in the workplace on the basis of religion is folly."Whether allowing reasonable workplace choice incurs more than a "minimal" cost is unexaminable given the complexity and widespread ignorance of modern technology. More importantly, given the ample opportunities - and even legal requirements - for interoperability, any such "costs" are largely the fault of companies whose strategic choices fail to anticipate reasonable expectations of choice.



Regardless, the law seems clear, that to offer objections to Microsoft products in the workplace on the basis of religion is folly. I could not help suspect this story having less than fair provenance. Would it not be a sly propaganda move if Microsoft could colour objections to its wares as the preserve of "religious crazies" and "fanatics"?



With that behind us, allow me to give my own argument as to why I refuse to use Microsoft products, whether at home, work or at leisure. It is because to do so is beneath my ethical values.



Microsoft is an unethical corporation.



Like so much of Big Tech and the commercial software industry in general, low quality products and reckless engineering are only the most visible sins. Behind that lies disregard for social responsibility, acts of theft and bribery, bullying, lying, opposition to freedom, sabotage of fair competition, disobligation to social norms like paying fair taxes and contempt for the laws of other nations.



"Behind that lies disregard for social responsibility, acts of theft and bribery, bullying, lying, opposition to freedom, sabotage of fair competition, disobligation to social norms like paying fair taxes and contempt for the laws of other nations."These are not "mere opinions" born of my dislike for Big Tech, but supported by a litany of well documented legal history there for anyone with time, care and a search engine to examine. Microsoft's greed and willingness to exploit computer users has led them, again and again, before judges and courts who have fined them hundreds of millions of dollars for their misdeeds.



That said, Microsoft are one of the nicer Big Tech companies in an industry that has become decidedly unsavoury of late. Union busting, operating dangerous sweatshops, dumping toxic chemicals, collaboration with dictators, threatening critics, arbitrary lay-offs of many thousands of loyal employees… these are all grist for the mill in the cut-throat business behind our shiny gadgets.



I therefore think it is hardly debatable that we each have a solid and just right to make choices about digital products we use, which organisations we support, and to whom we give our money. My choice to not, even indirectly, financially support reprehensible bodies is my inalienable right.



"My choice to not, even indirectly, financially support reprehensible bodies is my inalienable right."Like many in the 1980s I chose not to support South African Apartheid, joining a widespread boycott that eventually unseated the regime. Is it not the quintessential essence of free market capitalism that we may each choose the products of companies and nations not only for economic reasons but for personal, moral and political reasons? Would it be right to force anyone to purchase products of human suffering such as "blood diamonds" or other unethically sourced goods?



I claim that, if we still believe in markets at all then we are compelled to respect individual choices, including those around digital technology as sacrosanct. Without this commitment what are we left with in our Western world but a form of "Consumer Communism", different only in flavour to its Chinese counterpart?



But just how much impact do ethical choices around technology really make to people? Can't we just go along to get along, put the nature of companies like Microsoft out of mind and, as my estranged aunt used to say, "play the white man"?



As I wrote in Digital Vegan 4;



Roughly, according to the American Time Use Survey and the 2014 Pew Research Social networking fact sheet, we spend on average, 0.5 hours a day in prayer and group worship, 0.5 hours engaged in social and conversational activities, 0.35 hours in romantic and sexual activity and 8.0 hours of screen time, of which 3.0 hours is interactive [Pew14]. This places computing, and the choices of operating system, applications, and workflows right at the centre of a Western adult's life.



So, we are not talking about choosing which flavour of ice-cream to eat. At issue here are some of the most profound life-choices we can make, and ethics ought to be right at the heart of those.



Added to the fact that, as discussed above, ethics extend beyond religion to the concerns of secular individuals, we can confidently claim common ethics to be a superset of religious principles. So I would say;



Refusal to use Microsoft products is much more than a mere "religious choice".



The response that "technology companies are all alike" is no argument. The moral individual is simply left with an obligation to choose the least evil digital technologies. Today that choice seems very clearly to be independent technology born of the Free Software movement, like GNU and the Linux kernel.



In a world increasingly indifferent to human values, lived experience and common morals, Microsoft and other Big Tech companies are more than simple businesses. They are symbols and receptacles of the underlying anti-humanism of our epoch. Yet they continue to aggressively insinuate themselves into our daily lives.



"To fire an employee for refusing to use a product on sincere moral grounds is reprehensible. Such companies should be called-out for that."Further, and perhaps more on topic, we should recognise that companies who coerce employees into unethical choices are themselves unethical. If they have cornered themselves into a captive monoculture through their own poor strategy, that is not an excuse which discharges them of moral obligation.



In tech we used to say, "Nobody ever got fired for choosing Microsoft." Let's see if this is about to take on a new meaning. To fire an employee for refusing to use a product on sincere moral grounds is reprehensible. Such companies should be called-out for that.



Regardless of the truth behind this story it remains important. Wit all the ethical implications of so-called "AI" expanding into our lives these choices are going to become bigger issues. Laws concerning religious choice in the workplace may need expanding to encompass secular ethical choices with deep societal implications.



"Those who sincerely believe Big Tech is a threat to freedom and liberal democracy find ourselves on the newest wave of an ancient battle with corruption."As these technological problems encroach into politics, policing, healthcare, education and employment we will see more examples of this tension. Those who sincerely believe Big Tech is a threat to freedom and liberal democracy find ourselves on the newest wave of an ancient battle with corruption. Anti-Microsoft lobbyists find themselves in good company with Secular Humanists who have long struggled for equity of ethical value informed by reason as much as tradition or association.



In support of the employee, I think raising the question of religion has been a good way to temporarily escape the parochialism of our corporate workplaces. In an update to the original post 5 the employee has now, after meetings with HR, Legal and IT, had her requests accommodated, despite her company apparently having good grounds to claim "undue hardship".



We should not take the US legal position as some sort of universal standard. In contrast, the Brazilian constitution equates the protections to religious and philosophical beliefs. Whilst UK laws have long favoured industrial and commercial interests, creating an ideal environment for Big Tech to foist its values upon us, our Equality Act 2010 offers surprising leeway for non-religious ethical objections 6. Under UK law it is unnecessary to 'prove' the validity of one's belief for the belief to be protected by law; only to observe that it is sincerely held.



While not harmful to use religion as a specific reason for eschewing products or services, for now I would suggest those who are passionate about the problem need not lean too readily on established religious identity. Rather we must drag our opponents out into the clear daylight of more widely shared feelings. Let's call this what it is: an ethical objection.



Sincere ethical objections ought to be grounds enough to insist on meaningful digital choices without fear of exclusion or retribution. Digital monocultures and cavalier assumptions around them threaten our long-established classical liberal freedom from tyranny.



"Nobody should be forced to support systems and companies they find morally objectionable, and no coercion on the grounds of compatibility, policy, security, or mere convenience is acceptable."Amidst the apparent bounty of technological choice we have neglected "negative freedoms". We must again mobilise to restore equity and protection under the law for digital rights of abstention as well as choice. On a positive note, this will surely bolster the case for interoperability, greater user-control and anti-monopoly which will in turn stimulate and strengthen our economie



Nobody should be forced to support systems and companies they find morally objectionable, and no coercion on the grounds of compatibility, policy, security, or mere convenience is acceptable.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Roy Schestowitz, Alexandre Oliva, Daniel James, Edward Nevard and Richard Stallman for your kind comments, suggestions and corrections.





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