Policy

These nuns could force Microsoft to put its money where its mouth is

A shareholder proposal filed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace would require Microsoft to report whether its private lobbying aligns with its public statements.

Microsoft

Do the messages Microsoft's lobbyists are sending to lawmakers in private match the promises it's been making in public?

Image: Microsoft

Microsoft's lobbyists have been trolling the halls of Congress since before Mark Zuckerberg was old enough to drive. Since the late '90s, the tech giant has spent many millions of dollars every year to sway members of Congress on issues including antitrust and privacy. Last year, for the first time in a decade, Microsoft quietly outspent even Alphabet — and that's not including what Microsoft spent lobbying in states.

Now, a group of Microsoft shareholders, led by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, is trying to force the company to ensure the messages its lobbyists are sending to lawmakers in private match the promises Microsoft has been making in public.

At their annual meeting later this month, Microsoft shareholders will vote on a proposal that would require Microsoft to conduct and publish a report detailing how its "direct and indirect" lobbying efforts align with the company's professed values regarding artificial intelligence, public policy, human rights and racial justice. "In general, transparency is all that the shareholders are asking for," said Sister Susan Francois, an assistant congregation leader and also a former Portland, Oregon election official.

As a congregation, she said, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace have been shareholder advocates for decades. They are filing the proposal as part of a group called Investor Advocates for Social Justice. "In the dark, it's easy to think bad things are happening," Francois said. "If we can shine a light on good governance, then it gives us all confidence we can move ahead in good faith."

Microsoft has been particularly vocal about issues related to tech's impact on society in recent years. Company President Brad Smith has called for regulation of facial recognition and swore off selling facial-recognition technology to police last year following the murder of George Floyd. But the group behind the proposal argues that, behind closed doors, Microsoft has pushed policies that are at odds with those statements. In its home state of Washington, for instance, the company lobbied against a bill that would have put a moratorium on government use of facial recognition. The company did, however, support a less-strict facial recognition bill that was sponsored by a state senator who is also a Microsoft employee.

"What we see is the company generally portrays itself as privacy-friendly, and yet we see that it is, in many cases, lobbying against those same principles," said Michael Connor, executive director of Open Mic, a nonprofit group that uses shareholder proposals to force corporate accountability.

Open Mic worked with shareholders on this and other proposals, one of which has already been successfully withdrawn by the filers. That proposal also called for Microsoft to conduct a human rights impact assessment related to its government contracts. Microsoft took shareholders up on that offer before the proposal even went to a vote.

Francois hoped this proposal would meet the same outcome, but the company has been less receptive to the proposal regarding its lobbying efforts. "Sadly this one did not move in [our] dialogue, so we had to go the route of a proxy vote," she said. "We prefer dialogue, and we hope to get there, but if we need to start this way, we'll start this way."

Microsoft declined to comment on the proposal beyond its official proxy statement. In a statement of opposition to the proposal, Microsoft insisted it already has a "long track record of meeting best practices for disclosure on public policy engagement." The company pointed to an annual report it publishes with its public policy agenda, as well as previous promises it's made to be more transparent about spending from its political action committee.

But political donations and lobbying are two different things, Connor said, and none of these disclosures address whether all of this spending aligns with Microsoft's public statements. "They're conflating political and lobbying spending disclosures with substantive discussions of misalignment," he said.

The proposal also calls on Microsoft to assess its indirect lobbying through trade groups, including the Chamber of Commerce. Recently, Microsoft has made changes to its trade group ties, withdrawing from the Internet Association, which also represents Microsoft's archrival Google. "As our business needs evolve, we periodically review trade association memberships to ensure alignment with our policy agenda," a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement.

Tech shareholders, as well as tech workers who own stock, have become active in pushing proposals that target corporate responsibility. But those proposals face a nearly insurmountable challenge at companies like Meta and Alphabet, where a small number of executives, including founders, have dual-class shares that hold twice as much voting power as other shares.

Microsoft shareholders don't face that problem. But that doesn't make their task an easy one either, Connor said, noting that it's not unusual for shareholder proposals to be introduced several years in a row before they have an effect. "We're hoping smart people at Microsoft look at this and take it to heart," Connor said, "and maybe take action on it regardless of the vote."

Francois acknowledged that there may well be valid reasons for Microsoft to lobby on the issues it does. But existing lobbying disclosures offer little insight into what, exactly, corporations are asking for related to those issues. "We're just asking Microsoft to live out the policies that they've ensured shareholders they're living out," she said.

Entertainment

Niantic is building an AR map of the world

The company’s Visual Positioning System will help developers build location-based AR games and experiences; a new social app aims to help with AR content discovery.

VPS will allow developers to build location-based AR experiences for tens of thousands of public spaces.

Image: Niantic

Pokémon Go maker Niantic has quietly been building a 3D AR map of the world. Now, the company is getting ready to share the fruits of its labor with third-party developers: Niantic announced the launch of its Lightship Visual Positioning System at its developer summit in San Francisco on Tuesday. VPS will allow developers to build location-based AR experiences for tens of thousands of public spaces, Niantic said.

Niantic also announced a new service called Campfire that adds a social discovery layer to AR, starting with Niantic’s own games. Both announcements show that Niantic wants to be much more than a game developer with just one or two hit apps (and a couple of flops). Instead, it aims to play a key role in the future of AR — and it’s relying on millions of Ingress and Pokémon Go players to help build that future.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Sponsored Content

Why the digital transformation of industries is creating a more sustainable future

Qualcomm’s chief sustainability officer Angela Baker on how companies can view going “digital” as a way not only toward growth, as laid out in a recent report, but also toward establishing and meeting environmental, social and governance goals.

Three letters dominate business practice at present: ESG, or environmental, social and governance goals. The number of mentions of the environment in financial earnings has doubled in the last five years, according to GlobalData: 600,000 companies mentioned the term in their annual or quarterly results last year.

But meeting those ESG goals can be a challenge — one that businesses can’t and shouldn’t take lightly. Ahead of an exclusive fireside chat at Davos, Angela Baker, chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm, sat down with Protocol to speak about how best to achieve those targets and how Qualcomm thinks about its own sustainability strategy, net zero commitment, other ESG targets and more.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.

Workplace

Why it's time to give all your employees executive coaching

In an effort to boost retention and engagement, companies are rolling out access to executive coaching to all of their employees.

Coaching is among personalized and exclusive benefits employers chose to offer their workforce during the pandemic.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Executive coaching has long been a quiet force behind leaders in the tech industry, but that premium benefit, often only offered to the top executives, is changing. A new wave of executive coaching services are hitting the market aimed at workers who would have traditionally been excluded from access.

Tech companies know that in order to stay competitive in today’s still-hot job market, it pays to offer more personalized and exclusive benefits. Chief People Officer Annette Reavis says Envoy, a workplace tech company, offers all employees access to a broad range of opportunities. “We offer everyone an L&D credit that they can spend on outside learning, whether it's executive coaching or learning a new coding language. We do this so that people can have access to and learn skills specific to their job.”

Keep Reading Show less
Amber Burton

Amber Burton (@amberbburton) is a reporter at Protocol. Previously, she covered personal finance and diversity in business at The Wall Street Journal. She earned an M.S. in Strategic Communications from Columbia University and B.A. in English and Journalism from Wake Forest University. She lives in North Carolina.

Enterprise

Microsoft thinks Windows developers are ready for virtual workstations

The new Microsoft Dev Box service, coupled with Azure Deployment Environments, lets developers go from code to the cloud faster than ever.

Microsoft hopes a new cloud service will address one of developers' biggest challenges.

Photo: Grant Hindsley/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Microsoft hopes a new cloud service will address one of the biggest challenges that developers have raised with the technology giant over the last several years: managing developer workstations.

Microsoft Dev Box, now in private preview, creates virtual developer workstations running its Windows operating system in the cloud, allowing development teams to standardize how those fundamental tools are initialized, set up and managed.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Enterprise

Okta CEO: 'We should have done a better job' with the Lapsus$ breach

In an interview with Protocol, Okta CEO Todd McKinnon said the cybersecurity firm could’ve done a lot of things better after the Lapsus$ breach of a third-party support provider earlier this year.

From talking to hundreds of customers, “I've had a good sense of the sentiment and the frustrations,” McKinnon said.

Photo: David Paul Morris via Getty Images

Okta co-founder and CEO Todd McKinnon agrees with you: Disclosing a breach that impacts customer data should not take months.

“If that happens in January, customers can't be finding out about it in March,” McKinnon said in an interview with Protocol.

Keep Reading Show less
Kyle Alspach

Kyle Alspach ( @KyleAlspach) is a senior reporter at Protocol, focused on cybersecurity. He has covered the tech industry since 2010 for outlets including VentureBeat, CRN and the Boston Globe. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at kalspach@procotol.com.

Latest Stories
Bulletins