By Matt Day. Updated January 12, 2017.
Two former Microsoft employees, in a suit against the company, say their work reviewing videos of child pornography, abuse and other graphic material flagged for removal gave them post-traumatic stress disorder.
Henry Soto and Greg Blauert, the plaintiffs, worked on teams charged with reviewing and removing child pornography, depictions of killings, bestiality and other disturbing images, videos and accounts. They sued the Redmond company in King County Superior Court on Dec. 30.
The men say they were not given proper mental-health support as they suffered the psychological impact of reviewing the graphic depictions, the complaint said. The complaint alleges Microsoft was negligent and violated prohibitions of discrimination based on disabilities.
In a statement, a Microsoft spokeswoman said the company disagreed 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," the company said.
Microsoft says it provides employees who review such images over the course of their job mandatory meetings with a psychologist, as well as group meetings and training to mitigate the trauma of viewing the material.
Employees who review such material cannot do it from a personal device or at their regular workstation, the company says, and technological means such as blurring and removing color are designed to render images less graphic.
Employees who don't want to do that work are reassigned to other tasks, the company said.
It is unclear if those practices were in place at the time Soto and Blauert were working with Microsoft's online safety team, which reviews online content for removal in accordance with child-pornography laws and Microsoft's policy guidelines.
Soto started working at Microsoft in 2007, and in 2008 was transferred to the online safety unit.
Microsoft began providing the team a form of counseling in 2009, the complaint says. Soto asked for and received a transfer from the unit in 2014, and went on medical leave the following year. He says he still suffered panic attacks, depression and hallucinations, and grew unable to be around computers or children.
Blauert worked at a Microsoft call center from 1999 until his unit was laid off in 2010. He rejoined Microsoft in 2011 under the employ of a contracting firm, Society Consulting, but supervised by Microsoft employees. He was assigned to review explicit content for the online safety team and was hired on by Microsoft the following year for work on the same team.
He suffered a physical and mental breakdown in 2013, the complaint says, and struggles with debilitating PTSD that has prevented him from returning to work and undermined his relationships with his wife and children.
The Washington state Department of Labor and Industries rejected an injury claim Soto made in 2015, the complaint says, contending the complaint was not filed within one year of the alleged injury and that the condition was not an occupational disease.
Blauert, the complaint says, had an application for workers' compensation rejected on a similar basis.
The men are seeking compensation for their health problems and lost wages, as well as a court order that Microsoft impose greater safeguards to protect employees doing similar work.