TERRIFYING

Microsoft Anti-Porn Workers Sue Over PTSD

Ex-employees of the company’s online safety team say they had to watch horrific online videos of child abuse, bestiality, and murders—and that Microsoft ignored their PTSD.

01.11.17 6:00 AM ET

When former Microsoft employees complained of the horrific pornography and murder films they had to watch for their jobs, the software giant told them to just take more smoke breaks, a new lawsuit alleges.

Members of Microsoft’s Online Safety Team had “God-like” status, former employees Henry Soto and Greg Blauert allege in a lawsuit filed on Dec. 30. They “could literally view any customer’s communications at any time.” Specifically, they were asked to screen Microsoft users’ communications for child pornography and evidence of other crimes.

But Big Brother didn’t offer a good health care plan, the Microsoft employees allege. After years of being made to watch the “most twisted” videos on the internet, employees said they suffered severe psychological distress, while the company allegedly refused to provide a specially trained therapist or to pay for therapy. The two former employees and their families are suing for damages from what they describe as permanent psychological injuries, for which they were denied worker’s compensation.

Contacted by The Daily Beast, Microsoft declined to specifically comment on the suit.

“Microsoft applies industry-leading, cutting-edge technology to help detect and classify illegal images of child abuse and exploitation that are shared by users on Microsoft Services,” a Microsoft spokesperson wrote in an email. “Once verified by a specially trained employee, the company removes the image, reports it to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and bans the users who shared the images from our services. We have put in place robust wellness programs to ensure the employees who handle this material have the resources and support they need.”

But the former employees allege neglect at Microsoft’s hands.

Soto, one of the Online Safety Team’s first members, claimed he did not ask to join the seedy department. Already a Microsoft employee, he was “involuntarily transferred” to the Online Safety Team in 2008, he alleged in his lawsuit. Soto “was not informed prior to the transfer as to the full nature” of his work, and was allegedly told that he would be reviewing “terms of use” violations. A Microsoft employee policy mandated that he and all other Online Safety Team members remain in their new posts for at least a year and a half before transferring again, he claims.

Soto and his wife, also a Microsoft employee, had wanted to work for the company for years, and moved to Washington state specifically to take Microsoft jobs. He was stuck in the job for another 18 months, at least, he claims in the lawsuit.

When Soto began working with the newly created team, he says he learned he’d actually be sharing information on crime rings and child pornography with police. The job required him to view photos and video showing “horrible brutality, murder, indescribable sexual assaults, videos of humans dying and, in general, videos and photographs designed to entertain the most twisted and sick-minded people in the world,” his suit alleges.

“Many people simply cannot imagine what Mr. Soto had to view on a daily basis as most people do not understand how horrible and inhumane the worst people in the world can be.”

Soto knew little about post-traumatic stress disorder when he began his work. But as he viewed and reported the web’s worst every day, he says, the job began to take a toll on him. “He had trouble with sleep disturbance, nightmares,” his suit alleges. “He suffered from an internal video screen in his head and could see disturbing images, he suffered from irritability, increased startle, anticipatory anxiety, and was easily distractible.”

After viewing one “indescribable” video depicting the abuse and murder of a child, Soto began suffering auditory hallucinations. He wanted to continue reporting abusers. But he also knew he needed help if he was to continue the harrowing work.

From the outset, Microsoft knew the Online Safety Team’s work would be taxing on employees and their families, the lawsuit alleges. Microsoft even had a comprehensive mental health program for employees of a similar department—the company’s “Digital Crimes Unit,” which also reported crimes to law enforcement, and which allegedly offered its staff a number of protections.

But the company allegedly didn’t extend the funding to Soto’s team. Instead, when employees began to complain of emotional burnout, Microsoft offered them a “Wellness Program,” in which a counselor diagnosed employees with a condition called “compassion fatigue,” according to the lawsuit. The condition, characterized by stress, anxiety, and desensitization to suffering, is sometimes attributed to nurses and first responders, but is not an officially recognized mental disorder. Meanwhile, the allegedly under-trained counselor did not address the more severe symptoms employees began suffering, the lawsuit claims.

Employees “were not told that the more they became invested in saving people, the less able they would become to recognize and act on their own symptoms of PTSD,” the suit claims. Microsoft’s compassion fatigue counselor allegedly “lacked sufficient knowledge and training regarding vicarious trauma or PTSD and lack the authority to take employees off content or rotate them entirely out of the department.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

Greg Blauert, another plaintiff and Online Safety Team member, said he experienced similar trauma after being made to review “thousands of images of child pornography, adult pornography and bestiality that graphically depicted the violence and depravity of the perpetrators.” He began experiencing nightmares and intrusive images. If he or a co-worker broke down at work, their employers allegedly encouraged them to merely “leave work early” as part of the department’s “Wellness Plan.”

A half-day is not the same as a comprehensive mental health plan. When Blauert approached superiors for help with his trauma, they allegedly told him that “limiting exposure to depictions, taking walks and smoking breaks, and redirection [of] his thoughts by playing video games would be sufficient to manage his symptoms,” his suit alleges. He was later penalized on a performance review for playing video games at work, he claimed.

Both Blauert and Soto say they tried to improve their department’s mental-health program. They allegedly went to superiors with suggestions, including weekly meetings with a qualified psychologist, time off from viewing toxic images, and a wellness program for spouses, who experienced the team’s trauma second-hand. But the recommendations, some made as early as 2007, went ignored, the employees allege.

Years into their work, the lawsuit says, doctors recommended medical leave for both men, who were diagnosed with PTSD. Before he left the company, Soto tried transferring to another department, but was allegedly seated near the Online Safety Team where people still approached him with questions on traumatizing material. Blauert hoped to return to Microsoft after his leave, but has required continued treatment for PTSD, and purposely restricts his computer usage, the suit alleges.

Both men applied for worker’s compensation for their leaves, but were allegedly denied coverage. “The worker’s condition is not an occupational disease,” denial letters from a worker’s compensation agency read, according to the lawsuit.

Neither man has returned to work.