Thomas is a writer at TNW. He covers the full spectrum of European tech, with a particular focus on deeptech, startups, and government polic Thomas is a writer at TNW. He covers the full spectrum of European tech, with a particular focus on deeptech, startups, and government policy.
Update (December 4, 2021): Microsoft’s Annual Shareholders Meeting, which is mentioned in this piece, took place subsequently after we published this story, and the votes on proposals presented there have been counted. We’ve updated this story with the results.
Microsoft has survived brutal battles against Apple and Google, but the company now faces a more formidable foe: the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.
The congregation is leading a group of Microsoft investors who want to hold the firm accountable for its tech. The campaigners urged Microsoft shareholders to vote for two proposals at an annual shareholders’ meeting on November 30:
- Ask Microsoft to ensure its lobbyists live up to its values and policies on racial justice, human rights, and privacy.
- Call for Microsoft to stop all sales of facial recognition to government entities.
The sisters may not look like your stereotypical digital activists, but they’re more tech-savvy than you might expect. Oh, and at said meeting, 38% of Microsoft’s shareholders supported the first proposal, which requested the tech giant report on alignment between its lobbying activities and company policy.
Who are the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace?
The Roman Catholic order was founded in 1884 in Nottingham, England by Margaret Anna Cusack, and has a history of promoting social justice as a way to peace. The congregation currently serves in the US, UK, and Haiti.
The sisters are also seasoned shareholder advocates. This year, they’ve zeroed in on Microsoft’s lobbying efforts.
Tech isn't neutral. We filed a shareholder resolution asking #Microsoft to report on #lobbying alignment. Despite its #racialjustice policies, Microsoft lobbies for bills enabling police surveillance. Watch this 2 min video with Sister @susanfrancoishttps://t.co/DJM46AmIvV
— CSJP Sisters (@SistersofPeace) November 22, 2021
Sister Susan Francois has been the order’s most prominent campaigner.
The assistant congregation leader was once an election official in Portland, Oregon. In her blog, Sister Susan says the 9/11 terrorist attacks laid the seeds for her “transition from bureaucrat to Gen-X nun.”
“As shareholders, as tech workers, as campaigners for justice, we can and must hold these companies accountable,” she said in a campaign video. “New innovation should support human dignity and a fair and just society, not magnify division and discrimination.”
Sister Susan is also a prolific user of Twitter. In 2018, she was interviewed by The New York Times after tweeting daily prayers to Donald Trump for more than 650 days.
The beef with Microsoft
As racial justice protests swept across the US last year, Microsoft pledged to restrict sales of facial recognition tech to police. However, the firm made no mention of other contentious government clients, such as ICE and authoritarian regimes.
The company is also is also attempting to shape the regulations that governs it. Microsoft lobbied hard for facial recognition laws that were adopted in Washington last year — which is unsurprising, given the bill was sponsored by one of its own employees.
“Despite what it says publicly, Microsoft is spending its $9.5 million annual lobbying budget on fighting a bill that would ban discriminatory facial recognition,” said Sister Susan. “In fact, it lobbies states to pass laws that would increase police use of dangerous surveillance tech.”
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace had previously asked Microsoft for a report on how its lobbying aligns with its stated principles, The Hill reported in June. They have now called on the company’s shareholders to hold the firm accountable.
Good luck, sisters. Whatever the vote, you’ve already raised awareness of Microsoft’s facial recognition lobbying — and countered some stereotypes about nuns in the process.
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