with Cat Zakrzewski

Palantir, which is expected to start publicly trading stock tomorrow at a reported $22 billion valuation, could be one of the biggest tech companies to go public since Uber. The big data firm is selling investors on a promise to become the “default operating system across the U.S. government.”

But activist groups and human rights watchdogs say that the company’s track record of working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and countries with questionable human rights records makes it a bad investment. They spent the last week protesting online and in-person to highlight concerns to investors ahead of the public listing. 

“There is a high risk that Palantir is contributing to human rights violations of asylum-seekers and migrants through the ways the company's technology facilitates ICE operations,” Amnesty International said in a report released yesterday that accused Palantir of failing to guarantee its software isn’t being used to aid in human rights abuses and racial profiling against migrants. Palantir, which declined to comment for this piece citing its “quiet period” running up to the public listing, has said its software is not used for raids or deportations. 

Co-founded by Peter Thiel, a prominent donor to President Trump, the company has flourished under the Trump administration. It's picked up contracts not just in defense and immigration but also a roughly $25 million deal with the Department of Health and Human Services to work on the response to the coronavirus pandemic. But its work providing digital profiling tools to ICE that helps with raids and deportations has long made it a target of activists and even caused turmoil within its own ranks. 

Civil rights groups in the United States are now turning to the Internet to protest. 

Civil and labor rights groups Color of Change, Jobs with Justice, Fight for the Future and MediaJustice joined an online protest yesterday led by immigration rights advocacy group Mijente. The online demonstration, which followed a week of in-person protests at Palantir's offices, spread the hashtag #DefundPalantir to raise awareness about the data analytics software company's work with ICE. 

Mijente, which launched the #NoTechForICE campaign in 2018, has pushed for Palantir to cut its contract with ICE. In addition to raising awareness to lawmakers, the group's efforts have led to more than 3,000 students pledging to not working for the company and some schools dropping recruitment partnerships. 

Mijente wants investors to view investing in Palantir as just as damaging to society as investing in fossil fuels or tobacco. We think the same principle should apply to companies that are creating tech and data for police and military contractors, that are violating people's human rights and contributing to over-policing of communities of color, said Jacinta Gonzalez, field director and senior campaign director for Mijente. 

The group has also rallied with other activist groups to ask BlackRock, one of Palantir's biggest investors, to divest.

Nonprofits focused on corporate responsibility have also expressed concerns.

The Investor Alliance for Human Rights, a nonprofit initiative focusing on investor responsibility, published a risk briefing earlier this month warning about Palantir's business relationships with governments with questionable human rights records and potential challenges in complying with data privacy and anti-corruption laws. 

Essentially, what they're saying to investors is: Trust us. Yet they don't really provide a whole lot of information about how they're going to handle an enormous number of risks, Michael Connor, executive director of Open MIC, a corporate accountability nonprofit that has also worked on shareholder campaigns targeting Amazon, Twitter, Facebook and Google, told me. 

Palantir acknowledges in its filing that criticism of how the company addresses political and social concerns is a risk factor for investors. 

But despite driving significant changes in how ICE operates, the company doesn't mention its contract once in its filing, as Alvaro Bedoya, director of Georgetown Law’s Center for Privacy and Technology, notes in Slate.

If you're an investor who believes that corporate accountability and corporate governance are important to companies' long-term success, Palantir makes it very clear that you should look somewhere else, Connor says.

Palantir has made clear it's not afraid of controversy, even as Silicon Valley companies make changes in face of activist pressure. 

Palantir's chief executive Alex Karp said the company, which recently decamped from Silicon Valley to Denver, isn’t deterred by military and other controversial projects. 

“Software projects with our nation’s defense and intelligence agencies, whose missions are to keep us safe, have become controversial, while companies built on advertising dollars are commonplace, Karp wrote in a letter in the company's Securities and Exchange Commission filing. The slogans and marketing of many of the Valley’s largest technology firms attempt to obscure this simple fact.” 

Palantir's shareholder structure has also sparked concern from investor groups. 

Palantir – much like Facebook, where Palantir co-founder Thiel also sits on the board – concentrates voting power with its founders. The setup would make it impossible for investors to overrule the founders.

Several groups representing institutional investors, including the nonprofit Council of Institutional Investors which represents about $4 trillion in assets, raised concerns about this model. They say that the proposal flouts best practices for companies trying to attract institutional investors, such as hedge funds.

The group rebuked Karp for trying to distance the company from Silicon Valley while attempting to recreate its unbalanced power dynamics between founders and investors. Instead, the group urged Palantir in a letter earlier this month to include a provision that would ensure proportionate voting rights for stockholders within seven years.

Investors will be watching closely tomorrow to see what valuation Palantir enters the market with, Dan Ives, an analyst with Wedbush Securities, tells me.

Shareholder structure clearly factors in for investors, especially on the institutional side, but it's a balancing act between the valuation and the growth opportunities, Ives said. They are all ingredients in how investors chose to own or bypass a stock.

Ives says that while many investors will see Palantir's human rights issues as a contained risk, they will be more concerned about if the company can deliver on its near-term promise to grow its business in the commercial sector. Right now, just shy of half of the company's revenue comes from government agencies worldwide.

Despite amassing more than half a billion dollars in contracts with U.S. government agencies including ICE, HHS and DOD over the past four years, Palantir acknowledges in its SEC filing that it has incurred losses since it was founded and it might not become profitable in the future.

A possible turnover in the White House combined with growing government scrutiny could further jeopardize its revenue streams.

Either way, Palantir will have to reckon with the pressures of increased transparency if it wants to succeed as a public company, Ives said. 

It's been an enigma to many tech investors over the past decade because their technology is so unique, but it's been hard to see behind the curtains, Ives said. Now that they're going to the public, clearly transparency and openness will come with the territory.” 

Our top tabs

Joe Biden is pressing Facebook to remove posts by President Trump ahead of debate night.

The letter points to the platform’s refusal to remove several recent Trump posts that cast doubt on the legitimacy of mail-in voting, Axios reports.

"Your platform is the nation's foremost propagator of disinformation about the voting process,” Jen O' Malley Dillon, Biden's campaign manager, wrote in a letter to Facebook. "If Facebook's goal is to accomplish what it has publicly committed to do -- ie ‘clear up confusion about how this election will work’ -- the solution should have been simple: remove Mr. Trump's posts which violate your policies."

The Biden campaign wrote a similar petition to Facebook in June.

New Cambridge Analytica revelations are likely to revive concerns about Facebook’s role in voter suppression. 

A database that the Republican-aligned firm built disproportionately identified Black voters as ripe for “Deterrence” in profiles created for Trump’s 2016 campaign, according to a report yesterday from Britain’s Channel 4 News. 

An aide who handled data in 2016 said the material went unused by the Trump campaign, my colleagues Craig Timberg and Isaac Stanley-Becker report. 

Yet the profiles’ existence could spark greater scrutiny of Facebook’s powerful advertising tools, which allow politicians to narrowly target certain demographics of voters. Channel 4 alleges that the Trump campaign did target Black voters with negative ads designed to limit turnout for Hillary Clinton. 

The Channel 4 report criticized the social network for its role in disseminating the ads and for being the original source of information apparently used to help segment Americans into categories. Facebook has said Cambridge Analytica violated its policies in obtaining that information.

“Since 2016, elections have changed and so has Facebook — what happened with Cambridge Analytica couldn’t happen today, Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told my colleagues. “We also have rules prohibiting voter suppression and are running the largest voting information campaign in American history.” 

Google will no longer let apps work around its App Store payment system. 

Companies such as Netflix and Spotify will now be required to give Google a 30 percent cut of in-app purchases, Daisuke Wakabayashi reports for the New York Times. The company has long demanded this cut, but some developers had been bypassing the system and prompting users to pay them directly.

Google said in a blog post yesterday that companies have until Sept. 30, 2021, to adopt its billing system. 

App Store fees are increasingly under scrutiny, especially after Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite, sued Apple and Google on antitrust grounds to challenge the fees. A federal judge in California heard testimony from Epic Games and Apple on Monday, offering a preview of the case before it heads to trial in 2021. 

The Trump administration may have overreached in its attempted TikTok ban, according to a judge. 

The proposed ban may “likely exceed” the law’s scope, Judge Carl Nichols wrote in a decision unsealed yesterday. He wrote that the law that Trump cited in his executive order does not allow certain personal communications to be banned, Rachel Lerman reports. 

“It is undisputed that the Secretary’s prohibitions will have the effect of preventing Americans from sharing personal communications on TikTok,” wrote Nichols, a federal judge in Washington who was appointed by Trump last year.

Nichols added it was clear from the Trump administration’s filing that China presents “a significant national security threat.” But he also said the evidence that TikTok is a threat, and whether a ban is the only way to address that, “remains less substantial.”

Yet the ruling doesn’t affect an additional presidential order that would require TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, to divest from the video app in the United States. That order has a Nov. 12 deadline. 

Rant and rave

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong's latest Medium post about politics in the workplace is dividing Silicon Valley. 

He argues that focusing on broader societal issues or political causes internally can distract from a company's core mission — a divisive stance as a national reckoning on race, a contentious election and the global pandemic are shaping daily business in the tech industry. 

Joelle Emerson, the chief executive of Paradigm, warned this position could have a negative impact on company culture: 

Developer Maia Singletary called out the company for treating race discussions as a distraction:

My colleague Nitasha Tiku noted this stance might be difficult given the company's stated mission:

Yet some prominent venture capitalists applauded the move. Cyan Banister, partner at Long Journey Ventures, said: 

Trending

Mentions

  • Twitter appointed Rinki Sethi as its new chief information security officer. Sethi previously worked as chief information security officer at Rubrik and vice president of information security at IBM and Palo Alto Networks.
  • TechNet added DoorDash co-founder and CEO Tony Xu to its Executive Council, the trade group announced in a news release.

Daybook

  • The first presidential debate will take place today at 9 p.m.
  • New America's Future Tense will host an event, “Free Speech Project: So Long Internet, Hello Internets,” on Wednesday at noon.
  • The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on proposals to strengthen antitrust laws and restore competition online Thursday at 1 p.m.
  • New Americas Open Technology Institute will hold a virtual panel exploring how Internet platforms are addressing the spread of election-related misinformation Thursday at 1:30 p.m.

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