Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff was interrupted by a protester on Tuesday while delivering a keynote presentation at his company's annual Dreamforce conference. A man standing near the stage started reading from a piece of paper, criticizing Salesforce's contract with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
"Okay, we're going to let you talk for 30 seconds," Benioff said to the man. "But, however, at the end of the 30 seconds, you have to agree that you're going to leave. Do you agree?"
A giant digital timer on the screen then began ticking down. "We're going to put the clock up. You have 28 seconds left," Benioff said.
The protester, who was difficult to understand because he was speaking without a microphone, could be heard claiming that CBP is detaining thousands of people, including children.
The clash underscores the challenges technology companies face as they navigate controversial contracts with government agencies while trying to avoid alienating employees and partners who are concerned about the work. Last year, after Salesforce employees had joined a petition opposing the company's contract with CBP, Benioff spent time away considering about how best to address the controversy, CNBC reported. Google and Microsoft have also been forced to deal with internal dissent related to government deals.
Outside of Dreamforce, which takes over several blocks of downtown San Francisco, groups of protesters on Tuesday were outside with signs reading "Welcome to cageforce."
As the seconds ticked down inside the main hall, the protester said the federal government denies migrants their rights to seek asylum in the U.S. He was talking about Benioff's public efforts to solve homelessness while also criticizing the CBP contract. His time expired, and police ushered him out of the spotlight.
"I want to tell you why I stopped the program and let him speak for 30 seconds," Benioff said. "It's because I value free speech in this country. I value everybody's speech."
Minutes later, another protester started shouting, but the comments were inaudible.
"We've heard from your group, and we will [be] happy to have a further conversation with you," Benioff said. "We gave you your time. We will continue to give you other opportunities to speak. Thank you very much."
The crowd applauded, and Benioff continued speaking.