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How tech workers feel about China, AI and Big Tech’s tremendous power
Tech Employee Survey

How tech workers feel about China, AI and Big Tech’s tremendous power

Protocol's inaugural Tech Employee Survey dives deep into how employees across tech feel about the existential issues facing their industry.

Image: Cameron Smith / Protocol

Big Tech executives do a lot of talking. On their platforms, in interviews and on Capitol Hill. But Silicon Valley's uber-rich and powerful CEOs don't speak for the whole tech industry or even their own employees, who are increasingly finding themselves at odds with their companies' most senior leadership.

To take a pulse of where tech employees across the country stand on key issues facing the industry, Protocol is introducing its first Tech Employee Survey, a survey of 1,578 employees nationwide, from C-suite level executives to associates. They hail mostly from large tech companies — almost 40% of respondents work at companies with annual revenue over $500 million and most of the companies have more than 1,000 employees.

We asked about a range of issues, from the threat posed by China to whether Big Tech should be broken up, to see how their answers align with or diverge from the industry party line.

Here's what we found:

Tech is too powerful

A whopping 78% of the tech employees we surveyed agreed that the tech industry is too powerful, with just 11% disagreeing. The same goes for Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet and Apple. Over 77% of respondents said those companies have too much power, and just over 8% disagreed.

Not only did the majority say that the industry is too powerful, but around 40% also said that tech does more harm than good. Only about 45% of tech employees disagreed, signaling that even within the industry, tech workers worry about the negative impact technology is having on the world.

And yet, remedies are in short supply. More than 68% want their companies to partner with or be acquired by a Big Tech player, and three quarters said Big Tech companies should be allowed to acquire other firms. Just over 40% think that Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet and Apple should be broken up. Despite their concerns about tech's power and negative influence, tech employees don't see antitrust enforcement as the solution.

Big Tech shouldn't work with law enforcement

Following last summer's Black Lives Matter protests, tech giants including IBM, Amazon and Microsoft announced they were cutting ties or suspending certain work with police departments, particularly with regard to selling facial recognition technology. Now, over 40% of the tech employees we surveyed agree that Big Tech should stop working with law enforcement altogether. A smaller percentage — just under 34% — disagree. This is in keeping with a trend of tech employee activists at companies like Microsoft and Google, who have called on their employers to end contracts with both law enforcement and the military in recent years.

A majority want Section 230 reform – but it's complicated

Even people within the tech industry agree it's high time to reform Section 230, the law underpinning the modern internet — that is, if they know what it is.

Only 62% of respondents said they know what Section 230 is (the rest said they either don't know or are neutral). But of that 62%, nearly three quarters — 71% — said they agree the law needs to be reformed.

But it appears that most respondents believe the core of Section 230 should remain intact. Sixty-five percent of those who said they know what the law is agreed that "tech companies should not be held liable for the content on their sites and products." Only 23% outright disagreed.

Tech industry respondents also appeared attuned to the wide-ranging implications of Section 230, with 82% agreeing that the law impacts "more than just big tech companies."

On the whole, the tech employees' views appear to track with congressional proposals: There's agreement that something needs to change, but not a lot of understanding about what change should look like.

Tech companies should work with China

The Trump administration adopted a hawkish stance toward China's tech industry, placing dozens of companies on the country's trade blacklist and signing multiple executive orders aimed at barring Chinese social media apps — most notably TikTok — from the U.S. Tech employees by and large said they think the standoff should end, expressing an openness toward working more closely with Chinese tech firms.

Fifty-six percent of respondents said they agree that U.S. restrictions on Chinese technology companies have gone too far, while 28% said they're neutral on it. And 60% agreed that U.S. tech companies should work more closely with Chinese tech companies. Ultimately, a majority of respondents said they believe the future of the tech industry is at stake, with 58% agreeing that a cold war with China could "cripple U.S. tech companies."

There are limits to their openness to Chinese tech, however — 46% said they agree Chinese telecom company Huawei should be banned from the U.S.

It's time to regulate AI

Congress is spending more than ever on AI-related initiatives, and the Biden administration has named investing in artificial intelligence R&D as a top priority. The key now is passing regulations to establish parameters around how the government and private entities can use AI, which can supercharge real-world biases and disproportionately harm people of color.

Seventy-three percent of respondents said they agree that the government should regulate AI. Only 9% disagreed, and 18% said they are "neutral."

What would you like to ask tech employees for Protocol's next Tech Employee Survey? Email us your suggestions at policy@protocol.com.

Interested in learning more about our tech employee surveys? Email us.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of survey respondents. This story was updated March 16, 2021.

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