Dreamforce 2019 - 30 seconds that said so much about Salesforce, ethics and a wider debate in the tech industry

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan November 20, 2019
Ethics, privacy and shaking hands with government - Salesforce co-CEO Keith Block takes a stand.

Keith Block

The opening session at Dreamforce this week was notable in part for the incursion of a number of protestors who disrupted co-CEO Marc Benioff’s keynote address, objecting to Salesforce doing business with the US Customs and Border Protection agency and its role in locking up immigrant children in cages.

The prospect of such a disturbance inside the keynote hall had clearly been planned for. No sooner had protestor number one - of three - stood up and begun shouting at the co-CEO than the corporate video that was currently showing on the overhead screens gave way to a countdown clock ticking down from 30 as Benioff calmly told his vocal critic:

OK, we’re going to let you talk for 30 seconds. But, however, at the end of the 30 seconds, you have to agree that you’re going to leave. Do you agree? We’re going to put the clock up. You have 28 seconds left.

And that was what happened. Benioff stood and faced his accuser eye-to-eye and heard out the allegations made against him and Salesforce. Then at the end of the 30 seconds, the protestor was escorted out - none too quietly - by security officials. As to why the platform for protest was offered up for 30 seconds at Salesforce’s most important presentation of the year, Benioff explained to conference delegates:

I want to tell you why I stopped the program and let him speak for 30 seconds - it’s because I value free speech in this country. I value everybody’s speech.

It was an uncomfortable situation that was well handled. It would have been all too easy for security - and there has been a noticeably higher presence of bodyguards, police and assorted security officers at this year's Dreamforce - to have manhandled the protestor out at once, but the optics of that would not have been good.

In conversation with Benioff’s co-CEO Keith Block earlier today, the incident came up again, with Block opining:

At the keynote we heard people express their feelings and, you know, I think Marc did a terrific job when he said, ‘Look, we value freedom of speech, and everybody has a right. And there can be discourse’. We just wanted to be respectful this.

But the lingering issue of the CBP contract opens up wider debate about Salesforce’s hugely-public commitment to ethical behavior in business. It’s a matter of public record that a significant tranche of Salesforce staffers have been deeply unhappy about the company working with CBP and have made their objections known, calling for the contract to canned.

Salesforce has its own Office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology that sets standards for how Salesforce and its customers use its products, with an ultimate sanction of breaking away from users who abuse the tech. (See my interview with Paula Goldman for more on this.)

To date, no customer has been terminated for this reason, although Block alludes to some situations where there has clearly been some debate:

So we honor our contracts with our customers. But we've had conversations with certain companies - and I don't want to violate any privacy - but we've had conversations with certain customers about what the future our relationship would be…at the end of the day we want to do business with companies that align with our values.

Government v industry?

With ethical policy debate now out on the table, Block warms to the theme, widening the discussion to a crisis of trust that encompasses the technology industry and government and policy makers. That being so, the question arises of how to fix that? Block posits:

It's one of these things where the world has become so complex, I don't think that anybody can do it by themselves. I think it's unrealistic for us to expect the government in this world of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to understand all the nuances, all the implications, of the use of technology.

He adds:

As CEOs in the private sector, we have an obligation to meet the government half way. Sometimes we have to step forth and fill the breach of leadership void where the government may not, for no other reason than they don't understand the use of technology, they don't understand the implications of tech ethical use. We have to work with them together to establish a new set of policies and a new set of guidelines and a new set of cultures.

As for the private sector's own responsibilities, Block has a call to action there as well:

I also think that the corporations have to change the way that they think. It’s about becoming more of a modern corporation and really embracing the notion of stakeholder theory, not shareholder theory anymore. I think that was the old way of doing business. I think our children and future generations will demand this and I think candidly the planet will demand it, that's just the way it is. It's just a different world.

But, as he admits that’s all “easily said, very difficult to do”, although he points to Salesforce setting out to provide leadership in this respect.

But while the CRM giant might get plaudits for its behavior, recent times have thrown an unflattering spotlight on others, most notably Facebook with its data handling abuses.

Benioff has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of Facebook, pitching it as a societally unhealthy addiction, like cigarettes, and calling for the same sort of regulatory attention to be paid to social media platforms as was afforded the nicotine pedlars of old.

Pointing out that Salesforce is not like “other tech companies who use data for a whole different set of reasons” - “That would spark a huge ethical use conversation!” - Block isn’t as full-blooded in his commentary as his co-CEO, but leaves listeners in no doubt about his point of view:

I think that a lot of behaviors in corporations are cultural and it starts at the top. And the CEO or CEOs set the tone for that company and the behavior in that company. At the end of the day, the ethical use of data should be at the top of everybody's list and privacy should be at the top of everybody's list.  This is why I will applaud the European Union for GDPR. Now is GDPR perfect? I don't know. The passing of the first set of laws is never perfect. What will be interesting to see is how the European Union will go back and improve.

That brings into the spotlight the lack of a ‘GDPR-US’, something that Benioff has openly called for in recent years. Block also laments the lack of federal level data privacy legislation:

We have data privacy by zip code. We have the state of California doing their own thing [with the forthcoming California Consumer Privacy Act], we have the state of Washington doing their own thing. And that's not good for the citizens of the  United States, it's not good for the companies that do business in the United States. Our leaders in Washington need to figure this out and, as goes back to my earlier conversation about the public private handshake, we’ve got to help them figure this thing out, because it's just not a good outcome.

But with the prospect of federal legislation still seemingly a long way off, the tech sector has to step up to the mark, says Block, although he carefully avoids ‘the F-word’ and its leader who has called for legislators to regulate his company’s behavior, seemingly on the basis that he and his fellow executives can’t be expected to do this themselves:

Leaders of technology companies, like the one that you mentioned, they have an obligation to do the right thing with data. It has to be used the right way. You can put guidelines and regulations in place, but at the end of the day, this is a leadership crisis It is a cultural crisis and that has to be rectified. Now, it would be great if it was done, organically. But, you know, if organizations like that need a little help from the government, then good - as long as the outcome is right.

The fear among some of course is that once the regulatory floodgates are opened, how far will things go? And how is the correct balance to be struck between enough and too many rules and restrictions. Ethical attitudes are not universal absolutes, so whose worldview prevails on, for example, appropriate and inappropriate use of AI? Block says:

I'm not going to get into should AI be regulated but I do think that there's a strong conversation around ethical use of technology and where that goes. Different countries have different cultures, different corporations have different culturesl Certainly if you go to China, [you see] the power of facial recognition. If you go into any store in China, there’s facial recognition, We [in the US] have different philosophies outside of China. But there has to be, it goes back to the  idea that the private sector and  the public sector have to work together to do the right thing.

That’s going to take time to happen, he admits, but it will come to pass:

Whether it's current or future leadership people will embrace this notion that we just can't do it alone anymore. Corporations can't do it alone anymore, they shouldn't be allowed to do it alone anymore. Government should not be allowed to do it alone anymore. It's too complicated. It's too monumental a task and it's too important for the future with all these changes, all these technologies when we don't even know what's coming.  There has to be an ongoing dialogue that is very strong. When I go to Washington DC as part of the Business Roundtable, we talk about the impact of technology and policy with policy leaders, and that is just the beginning. It really has to, It really has.

My take

While I’m (considerably/proudly) less discrete on the subject of Facebook’s stance on ethical behavior than the diplomatic Block, otherwise I find myself in complete agreement with him. In the debate that will rage for years to come, he’s a powerful advocate to have on the side of the angels. He’s also, for all his articulation of the pitfalls and problems we might face, an optimist at the end of the day:

I'm excited. There's a lot of people who think technology is a bad thing. I think technology is a good thing, I really do. I don't think it’s an ‘or' conversation;  I think it's an 'and' conversation. I think it's mankind, womankind and machine. I just think the world will change and we have to be smart and open minded about what these new technologies can bring and how important is the ethical use of technology...I'm excited about it but I want us to do things in an intelligent way in an ethical way.

Yeah - what he said.

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