EXCLUSIVE-Pilots say Qatar Airways is monitoring and muzzling staff online

By Maya Gebeily Jan 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Qatar Airways staff who raise workplace concerns online say the national airline is hitting back with legal threats and job cuts – part of a growing trend companies to monitor and muzzle employees who dare to speak out.

Defenders say the carrier’s attempts to silence employees and remove critical posts — whether in private or public forums — violate staff rights to privacy and free speech. “This is a very simple case of violation not only of labor rights, but also of human rights – freedom of association and freedom of expression,” said Thulsi Narayanasamy, labor rights officer at the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, which tracks the human rights policies of companies around the world. .

The airline, which sponsors the 2022 FIFA World Cup to be held in Qatar, would not comment on allegations that it shut down a legitimate debate or ousted those who led it. But defenders say his reliance on lawsuits and firings is part of a growing trend by companies to monitor the private conversations of staff and then unmask their anonymous critics online.

“It’s incredibly sinister,” added Narayanasamy, who said the trend had exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to three current or former employees of the state-owned airline who believe they were directly punished for voicing their concerns online.

In June, Qatar Airways (QA) filed a personal injury lawsuit worth more than $25,000 in a Los Angeles court against at least two anonymous accounts that had been posted on a forum known as the Professional Pilots Rumor Network, or PPRUNE. According to court documents, QA believed the two accounts belonged to employees who shared “confidential information” about the company’s hiring and firing processes.

The airline has issued a subpoena to Google in a bid to find out which Gmail addresses are hiding behind the critical accounts. Neither Google, PPRUNE, nor QA’s US attorney in the case, Shelley Hurwitz, responded to interview requests. Internet Brands, which hosts PPRUNE, also declined to comment.

LEGITIMATE DISCUSSION A pilot said he and others had indeed posted on PPRUNE internal processes and extreme crew fatigue https://news.trust.org/item/20220127130241-c9q43 – but said the Information sharing was essential as pilots faced mass layoffs.

“These talks are not gossip. These talks are reality,” the pilot told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. In September, Google informed him that he had been subpoenaed to disclose his identity but could object by filing a motion with the Los Angeles court hearing the case.

He told the Thomson Reuters Foundation he could not afford the application fee and feared it would reveal his identity. “PPRUNE used to be the only place where people could talk and say things without fear of being sued. But now they even go there and try to find people,” a second pilot told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, after heard officials discuss the matter.

QA dropped the case in October, conceding in court papers that “the defendant has not been identified” despite efforts to find out which staff handled the anonymous accounts. DAVID AND GOLIATH

QA isn’t alone in trying to stamp out dissent, with more companies now using their clout to silence employees. “When I look at a case like this, I see an example of someone using online anonymity to make a big statement about their employer,” said Aaron Mackey, attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) who has worked on several such cases. .

“Then I see an employer with much more power and resources using the legal system to identify employees who criticize them.” The EFF – a non-profit digital rights organization – says “unmasking can cause serious harm to anonymous speakers, exposing them to harassment and intimidation”.

“This type of behavior is a form of retaliation and violates the rights of people speaking online,” Mackey said. Other airlines have pursued similar cases.

Ten years ago it was Etihad Airways that filed a personal injury claim https://unicourt.com/case/ca-la2-etihad-airways-et-al-vs-does-1-through-100 -259799 in US court against his anonymous critics, retaining the same attorney as QA in his recent case. They dropped the case – but ultimately the forum blocked Etihad’s criticism.

“PPRUNE will no longer allow discussions about Etihad Airlines, its employees, officers, agents or other representatives. These threads will be deleted,” the site said. “Recent high-profile defamation events illustrate that there are ways in which third parties can force personal data, including the content of personal messages, to be disclosed by owners of message boards.

“PPRUNE will not guarantee your anonymity in such situations,” he posted three months after the trial. The practice extends far beyond the airlines.

Cryptocurrency exchange companies, clinical research labs, and even law firms have all attempted to identify former employees who posted unfavorable stories about them on Glassdoor https://help.glassdoor .com/articles/en_US/Article/Tell-me-about-some-of-Glassdoor-s-successful-legal-efforts-to-defend-user-anonymity, a website where people share their opinions about their current employers and old. FACEBOOK, WHATSAPP

Some quality assurance staff accuse the airline of terminating their contracts because they were handling group chats on Facebook and WhatsApp that included criticism of the company. QA declined to discuss why these employees lost their jobs.

A former flight crew member, Alex, ran a private Facebook group for QA staff to share advice on layovers and shift changes. “These groups are really innocent stuff — what guides to use on vacation, what to do during layovers, some shift swaps,” Alex said.

As the company ramped up layoffs amid the 2020 travel crisis, the conversation increasingly turned to labor issues and growing job cuts, with one former employee particularly vocal about her layoff . Alex, who asked to be identified only by his first name, said management asked him to log into his Facebook account from a company computer and delete the post.

He complied – and also removed his own admin privileges to spare him more removal requests. “They got mad and said, ‘Why are you doing this? You were fine, you were out of trouble,'” Alex recalled.

A few weeks later, he was fired; no reason was given. Another former flight crew member said he was fired after leading a WhatsApp group used by quality assurance employees, whose discussions in 2020 turned to reducing hours and the risk of dismissal.

Ivan said he was asked to come and meet with management – a first in almost 10 years of work. “I was shocked that they asked questions on WhatsApp – I expected (to discuss) technical things,” he said.

One of the managers had printed screenshots of the WhatsApp group and asked about his criticism of pay cuts, documents showing the company’s overall layoff figures and jokes about layovers due to technical problems . Ivan said he and a dozen colleagues who were either fellow administrators or members were suspended and then fired, a decision their managers attributed to COVID-19.

Now Ivan works at another airline, in another country – but still feels too bruised to speak out on WhatsApp. “My privacy was violated. It affected me a lot,” he said.

(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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