Two Microsoft employees are suing the company claiming Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by having to view and moderate (remove) extreme content.
The two employees, (Henry Soto and Greg Blauert) worked in the blandly titled “online safety team” at Microsoft. This vanilla team title hides the appalling nature of the work they had to undertake, on a daily basis. As part of their jobs, the two plaintiffs had to view and remove content such as extreme sexual violence, (against adults and children), bestiality, torture and murder.
The plaintiffs allege that Microsoft failed to provide sufficient psychological support, with insufficient counselling and a failure to rotate the employees out to less traumatising work. One of the employees was “involuntarily transferred” to the unit in 2008.
The injuries suffered are recognisable as PTSD – insomnia, panic attacks, visual hallucinations, disassociation and depression. They are also said to fear for the safety of their children as a result of viewing this material.
This case poses far-reaching questions for Microsoft and other tech companies who have to remove similar content. There are also allegations of poor and dangerous working conditions at other well-known companies, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These are all companies with sufficient resources to have in place proper controls and effective support programs.
The work carried out by these teams is incredibly important and also involves liaising with law enforcement helping to track and convict the perpetrators, and ultimately protecting others from a similar and horrible fate.
The lack of support for these workers also highlights the deep-seated cultural problems at these companies where the myth of the god-like, (white, middle-class, male) “brogrammer” holds sway. Resources, money and support are all directed at the “gods”. As important as these programmers and developers are they could not be paid/overpaid and cosseted without the everyday work of tech support, customer service and online safety teams – these are the people who run the Internet and ensure everything stays on the rails 24/7. They do the difficult day-to-day work, the gritty and grim end of the Internet – without the recognition and (more importantly) the support they deserve.
From the other end of the problem, the law and law enforcement need to step-up to meet the online threat. Law enforcement needs much greater resources to investigate and coordinate across borders and continents; prosecutors need more resources to pursue cases, regardless of location.
This is a growing problem and needs to be fought.
In the meantime, those at the grim end of this work deserve much more.