Last week, Ariel Koren (a Google employee) quit saying the company 'silences Palestinians.' She was the first person to bring attention to Project Nimbus, which was a joint venture of Google, Amazon and the Israeli military worth over $1 billion.
The undertaking is an effort by the Israeli government to offer a total cloud computing solution to all of its government departments, including the military. As the deal appears to allow increased surveillance of Palestinians, it's drawing condemnation.
Ariel had been engaged over the last year in organising protests, lobbying and petitioning against Google's partnership with Israeli military. Her goal was to get Google to abandon the contract. Yet, rather than addressing her concerns, she was met with an ultimatum.
In a tweet on 30 August, she described the reason for her resignation: "I am leaving @Google this week due to retaliation & hostility against workers who speak out. Google moved my role overseas immediately after I opposed its $1B AI/surveillance contracts with Israel. And this is far from an isolated instance."
In fact, this is hardly an isolated or a new event.
Such allegations have been made for some time now and her resignation has shone renewed light on the tech giants' alleged suppression of Palestinian activism.
In many cases in recent times, tech companies have been the saviour for people who were overlooked and neglected by the mainstream media. Yet social media now seems to deliberately silence Palestinian voice on their platforms.
Take, for example, last year's Israeli hostilities against the Palestinians. Facebook and Twitter were condemned for censoring pro-Palestinians voices. Both social media incorrectly restricted millions of posts and accounts linked to the crisis of May 2021.
Both Twitter and Facebook, however, shifted the blame on bugs in their AI algorithm.
Twitter admitted that its algorithm had wrongfully continued to categorise the pro-Palestinians tweets as spam. And as a direct result of this mistake, tens of Twitter profiles were either locked for the moment or their tweets engagement were limited or didn't show up in searches.
At the same time, Instagram's parent company Facebook hurriedly came up with multiple reasons for its software's mistakes. The company said that a bug in their system made some errors in identifying hashtags as hate speech linked to radical groups that resulted in temporary block in sharing videos.
One might wonder why such mistakes and bugs disproportionately affect the disenfranchised Palestinians.
The complaint against the AI that they maintain stereotypes or uphold the view of the majority is serious. In fact, the big tech companies are under intense backlash because of their bias, from activists and campaigners across the world.
The question is – which is also crucial for the route of the future world – whether the tech giants would allow us access to see an event through the lens of the afflicted community, or through the eyes of the powerful perpetrators.
Although the firms were swift to issue apologies saying that these issues were fixed, many still argue that their activism continues to be suppressed across social media platforms.
Proponents of free speech, along with many tech experts, tie these flaws to a bigger problem, which is that these software companies are winding up punishing marginalised groups rather than protecting them.
From the start of the internet era and the wide use of social media, people across the world had relied on these sites to garner support. In the early days, they were treated with much fanfare amongst the activists.
Such bias, however, appears not just limited to Palestinians.
Black Americans living in the United States continue to raise the grave issue of tech AIs routinely mistreating race-related articles, videos and other content on the internet - a clear indication of discrimination.
For Facebook, the controversy is not new.
The social media giant has long been accused of taking a position that aligns with the occupier. Facebook, the most dominant player in the social network market, faces the greatest scrutiny for its long history of working closely with the government of Israel.
For example, in the year 2016, the government of Israel and Facebook came to an agreement to collaborate in order to figure out how to combat incitement on the social media platform. It goes without saying that Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians who rejected Israeli occupation became the greatest collective target of the collaboration.
This instance of clear "digital apartheid," however, is not only limited to social media. Other tech companies are also complicit in similar ways.
In September last year, Zoom and YouTube blocked an online conference hosted by San Francisco State University's students and teachers. The conference was supposed to feature Leila Khaled, an icon for the Palestininan resistance movement.
Palestinians were placed at a disadvantage even when it came to entering the digital economy. A prime example is Amazon. The company began its operations in Israel in 2020. Although it grants Israeli settlers permission to create seller accounts, Palestinians in Gaza and those in the occupied territories are not allowed to register.
Adding to Palestinians' misery, there's a boom in the tourism industry - of which, only Israelis are exclusively able to reap benefits, leaving out Palestinians altogether from the equation. This fact alone only exacerbates the economic climate for Palestinians.
For example, according to UN data, Airbnb (including 100 more global companies) run businesses in occupied territories and with Israeli settlers, but not with the Palestinians. Yet another clear evidence of the digital apartheid.
In the real world, the 4.8 million Palestinians are subject to Israeli military checkpoints. In the virtual world of the internet, until now, these checkpoints used to disappear to some extent. But this scope (for an open and equal space for expression and information) is now being gravely limited. With time, it seems to only worsen and, currently, remains under a threat of extinction.
This has been made largely possible by the Silicon Valley companies' willingness to suppress the Palestinian cause to avoid any conflict of interest with the Israeli government. This proves how an apparently democratic country can silence a movement that garnered global attention and momentum (case in point summer of 2021) with the support of some groups in the Silicon Valley.
And how long will it take to replicate the playbook around the world?
The future of Palestinian activism is bleak unless there is a drastic change in the in-built system that perpetuates the digital apartheid. While the internet (social media moguls) had long been an ally of dark-horse activists and underdog dissidents, its role seems to have reversed in the case of the Palestinians.
The Palestinian struggle of self-determination faces a bleak fate, even in the digital world.
The Israeli authorities continue to install powerful mechanisms to stifle the Palestinian cause, and now with, they seem to have intensified their reach and influence across the digital space.
Technology companies are complicit, partly due to their unwillingness to partake in political issues with powerful regimes. And, the ultimate result is the widening scope of the digital apartheid and infringed space for the Palestinian cause in the digital space, much beyond the physical checkpoints that occupy Palestine.