Microsoft faces lawsuit from moderators required to view child abuse content
Two Microsoft employees required to examine uploaded photos and videos depicting child abuse, murder and bestiality are suing the company for the post-traumatic stress disorder they now suffer.
The men worked in Microsoft’s online safety team, which involved assisting the company to comply with legislation passed in 2008 requiring tech companies to report child-abuse images and other crimes to the relevant authorities. Documents revealed through Court House News shed some light on the unpleasant consequences of doing so, despite “both plaintiffs [being] instrumental in saving children’s lives and providing evidence for successful prosecutions”.
The suit accuses Microsoft of “negligent infliction of emotional distress,” explaining that the “inhumane and disgusting content” the men had to view in order to do their jobs was so extreme that the plaintiffs suffered side effects including “intractable crying, insomnia, anxiety and PTSD”. The men have also been “triggered” simply by seeing children.
A Microsoft spokesperson explained that the company disagrees with the content of the lawsuit, explaining that it “takes seriously its responsibility to remove and report imagery of child sexual exploitation and abuse being shared on its services, as well as the health and resiliency of the employees who do this important work”. It claims it also uses technology to “reduce the realism of the imagery” in order to reduce its impact upon employees.
The two men worked in the team for different lengths of time. The first was “involuntarily transferred” to work in the online safety team in 2008, while the second started in 2011. Both were required to “review thousands of images of child pornography, adult pornography and bestiality that graphically depicted the violence and depravity of the perpetrators”.
The court documents explain that although Microsoft did provide an employee wellness programme for those working on the online safety team, as well as a counsellor, the services provided were insufficient given the extremity of the working conditions. Crucially, the lawsuit reads, “they were not told that the more they became invested in saving people, the less able they would become to recognise and act on their own symptoms of PTSD”. Workers were advised to take walks and smoke breaks, and one of the plaintiffs was advised to play video games in order to manage the symptoms he was suffering from, but The Guardian reports that he allegedly later received a poor evaluation criticising him for “lack of production and too much time playing video games”.
While he eventually managed to move over to the disability answer desk following a successful application, the physical proximity to his old department meant that he was “frequently approached by members of the online safety team to answer questions or provide guidance based on his experience and expertise in the program”.
Alongside the damages sought, the suit recommends several changes to ensure those working are not overwhelmed by the job. According to the complaint, the list includes “mandatory rotations out of the program, for pre-vacation vacations, mandatory weekly meetings with a psychologist with specialized training and authority to remove employees when the content is becoming too toxic, a spousal wellness program, as well as changes designed to lessen the impact of continually viewing toxic images”.