Ex-Microsoft Online Safety Workers File Suit Alleging Horrific Porn And Violence Exposure Caused PTSD

There are some horrific things that get posted on the Internet; we're talking downright disturbing. Unfortunately, for a pair of former Microsoft employees whose job it was to sift through the worst of the worst and report illegal activity—rape, murder, and all kinds of sick, twisted content—it left them suffering with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), according to a lawsuit filed against the Redmond outfit. Not only was the job mentally disturbing, the lawsuit further alleges that Microsoft took a dismissive attitude towards worker complaints and failed to provide adequate health care coverage.

Plaintiffs Henry Soto and Greg Blauert were part of Microsoft's Online Safety Team. Their job was to scrounge the company's online services for illegal content, including child pornography and violent crimes. Soto says he came by the job through an involuntary transfer in 2008 and claims he "was not informed prior to the transfer as the full nature" of what he would be doing and subjected to. According to Soto, Microsoft simply told him he'd be reviewing "terms of use" violations. He also claims there was a company mandate for him and all Online Safety Team members to stay at their position for a year and a half before being eligible for a transfer.


"He did not understand the level of activity in the following areas: assisting law enforcement efforts to break up significant crime rings, the mob, the triad, and other violent groups; reviewing photos and video requiring him to witness 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," the lawsuit states.

Soto was not especially familiar with PTSD when he started working for the Online Safety Team. However, viewing gruesome and disturbing videos on a daily basis took its toll. Soto claims he suffered "sleep disturbance" and had nightmares from his work. One incident in particular that he recalls, an "indescribable" video of a child being abused and murdered, led to auditory hallucinations, the lawsuit alleges. That is on top of suffering from "irritability, increased startle, anticipatory anxiety," and being "easily distractible."

The lawsuit says Microsoft knew that the job would be taxing, adding that Microsoft had a comprehensive mental health program for employees working in a similar department—Microsoft's Digital Crimes Unit—but did not offer the same services to the Online Safety Team. Instead, the lawsuit says Microsoft rolled out a "Wellness Program" with a counselor diagnosing employees with "compassion fatigue," which is not officially recognized as a mental disorder.

Blauert alleges experiencing similar trauma after being made to review "thousands of images of child pornography, adult pornography, and beastiality that graphically depicted the violence and depravity of the perpetrators." Like Soto, he claims to have experienced nightmares. He also says that if an employee had a breakdown at work, they would simply be encouraged to "leave work early" as part of the Wellness Program.

Microsoft released the following statement regarding the lawsuit:
We disagree with the plaintiffs’ claims. Microsoft 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.

Microsoft applies industry-leading technology to help detect and classify illegal imagery of child abuse and exploitation that are shared by users on Microsoft Services. Once verified by a specially trained employee, the company removes the imagery, reports it to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and bans the users who shared the imagery from our services.

This work is difficult, but critically important to a safer and more trusted internet. The health and safety of our employees who do this difficult work is a top priority. Microsoft works with the input of our employees, mental health professionals, and the latest research on robust wellness and resilience programs to ensure those who handle this material have the resources and support they need, including an individual wellness plan. We view it as a process, always learning and applying the newest research about what we can do to help support our employees even more.
The plaintiffs are seeking damages and also want Microsoft to commit to making changes to how they handle employee wellness and what mental health services are offered. You can read the full lawsuit here (PDF).