Well before tech giants instituted moratoriums on selling facial recognition technology to police in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Microsoft president Brad Smith argued in his 2019 book, Tools and Weapons, that legislation was required to ensure ethical use of the tech. A 23-year Microsoft veteran, Smith also wrote that companies should protect mobile-device privacy, limit government access to customers’ data, and consider the ramifications of AI replacing people’s jobs. As the COVID-19 crisis presented unprecedented challenges to work and business, he has continued to lead by example.
Fast Company: What originally led Microsoft to opt out of competing for some facial recognition contracts?
Brad Smith: To me, the test of whether a company is principled is whether it has some deals it’s prepared to turn down. That’s how you know it has some principles other than its willingness to sell every product to everybody who’s prepared to pay for it.
FC: Do you think taking public stances on ethics gives the company a competitive advantage?
BS: I believe that all ethical [stances] create the most benefit when the industry can come together. There are lots of things that are good to compete on, but I don’t regard the protection of human rights as an element where you want to see some companies lean in and others be laggards.
FC: Microsoft was one of the first major companies to close when the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic became evident. Was it a difficult decision to keep paying hourly workers when your campuses closed?
BS: We didn’t need a spreadsheet to know that we could afford it. One of our specific goals was to generate momentum and create air cover for other companies that might be considering the same thing, so that advocates [at other companies] could say, “Well, you know, Microsoft’s done it.”