There’s a Battle Brewing at Google Over Employee Speech. The Outcome Affects Us All.

The outcome of a battle heating up at Google over the limits of employee free speech will have huge consequences for all of us. Will Google shut down internal dissent and silence whistleblowers? Or will the company live up to its initial motto, “Don’t be evil?”

In 2017, researchers Meredith Whittaker and Kate Crawford founded the AI Now Institute at New York University, with the goal of “produc[ing] interdisciplinary research on the social implications of artificial intelligence [in] four key domains: rights and liberties, labor and automation, bias and inclusion, and safety and critical infrastructure.” Since then, the group has published key research on race and gender discrimination in AI, public agency accountability, litigation related to algorithms, and more. (Full disclosure: The ACLU is a proud partner of AI Now.)

Both Whittaker and Crawford have strong ties to the tech industry. The former is the founder of Google’s Open Research Group, and the latter is a principal researcher at Microsoft. Both women still work for these companies, even though their work at AI Now often critiques the tech industry’s shortcomings and offers a perspective rooted in human and civil rights, instead of profit maximization — an unorthodox perspective in the Valley, to put it mildly.

For years, I’ve been impressed that Whittaker and Crawford could simultaneously work for and offer public critiques of these big tech companies and took that as an indication that Google and Microsoft are mature, if problematic, institutions. A willingness to tolerate internal dissent is important in any organization. Fostering such an environment is especially critical for companies like Google and Microsoft in the United States, where lawmakers have largely refused to impose regulations, leaving a dangerous amount of power in the hands of an elite — and often obsessively secretive — few in Silicon Valley.

But recent events suggest that at least at Google, executive patience with democratic debate and a culture of openness is wearing thin. According to press reports, Google has in recent months retaliated against both Whittaker and a fellow activist at the company, Claire Stapleton, after their successful organizing led to policy change at the nearly trillion dollar company.

In October 2018, The New York Times reported that Google had provided handsome exit packages to executives credibly accused of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. The former head of the Android group, Andy Rubin, was paid $90 million to leave the company after he was accused of sexual wrongdoing. Google subsequently invested millions of dollars in a company controlled by Mr. Rubin. Then, in March of this year, the Times published yet more evidence that Google sought to protect powerful men accused of sexual malfeasance. The latest report showed that in 2016, Google paid executive Amit Singhal $45 million when he left the firm after an employee accused him of groping her at a work event.

But while Google provided golden parachutes to executives accused of sexual harassment and assault, the company simultaneously forced the victims of those incidents to take their complaints against the company through arbitration, denying them their day in court.

Googlers, led by activists like Whittaker and Stapleton, rebelled. In November 2018, 20,000 Googlers worldwide walked off the job, demanding the forced arbitration policy be repealed. The protest, joined by one in five Google employees worldwide, attracted global press and was devastatingly effective. Within days, the company announced it would eliminate the forced arbitration policy for people who spoke out about sexual harassment in the workplace. In February, facing further demands from workers, Google scrapped its forced arbitration clause entirely.

Whittaker’s organizing at the company hasn’t been limited to fighting for changes to the internal policy governing employee rights. She has been unapologetic in her defense of democratic values and has challenged Google’s work with the U.S. military and Chinese government. More recently, she was part of a group of concerned Googlers who protested the appointment of a transphobic reactionary from the Heritage Foundation to an external advisory board tasked with examining questions related to AI and ethics. That board was subsequently dissolved.

Now, Whittaker says, she’s facing retaliation from the company for her efforts to make Google a more accountable, equitable, and democratic institution. According to a letter she sent to co-workers, executives recently told her she would be forced to choose between her work with AI Now and her employment at the company. Claire Stapleton, one of the organizers of the anti-arbitration walkout, says she too has faced retaliation for her organizing, which included a demotion — only reversed when she hired a lawyer.

Google denies it retaliated against either employee. But last Friday, Whittaker and Stapleton organized a group of hundreds of Googlers to engage in a company-wide meeting about retaliation workers have faced across the world. According to them, over 300 people submitted their own testimonies that Google leadership has retaliated against them for their organizing. And Google employees are holding a sit-in tomorrow to protest retaliation they say employee organizers have faced.

In AI Now’s 2018 annual report, Whittaker and her colleagues wrote about the important role whistleblowers play at institutions like Google:

Technology companies should provide protections for conscientious objectors, employee organizing, and ethical whistleblowers. Organizing and resistance by technology workers has emerged as a force for accountability and ethical decision making. Technology companies need to protect workers’ ability to organize, whistleblow, and make ethical choices about what projects they work on. This should include clear policies accommodating and protecting conscientious objectors, ensuring workers the right to know what they are working on, and the ability to abstain from such work without retaliation or retribution. Workers raising ethical concerns must also be protected, as should whistleblowing in the public interest.

As Whittaker and her activist colleagues have demonstrated over the past few years, the world is watching Google and other big tech companies. The decisions these companies make about product design, political lobbying, and which technologies they’ll build and sell to which types of governments impact all of us and future generations. That’s why retaliating against Big Tech employees who push their employers to do the right thing isn’t just a threat to the individual livelihoods of those workers — it’s a threat to us all.

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Anonymous

Google Ethics & Compliance, Google Employee Relations, and Google Human Resources collude to quash any complaints or concerns raised. To protect corporate liability, they will do whatever it takes to silence/discredit/humiliate the complainant and protect Google and/or the abuser. The personal vulnerabilities of the Googler will be used against him/her. For example, the complainant will be reminded how he/she is on an immigrant visa and choosing to not withdraw the complaint/pursue the concern can affect the Googler's immigration status. Meeting notes will be fudged/minutes changed/evidence wiped/evidence altered to protect Google and/or Google's illegal activities that the Googler had raised concerns about. The Googler violating the policies/laws will be protected (to protect Google).

Anonymous

I was working at Google as a low set security guard on contract from another company. One of the other guards sexually assaulted me, and I made the mistake of reporting it. Within a few days, I was having trouble in the work place. I was being mobbed, and made fun of. I had many people treating me horribly, from both Securitas - and Google. I as accused of sexual harassment myself! And demoted from the position Id worked hard to get. From there, my life took a downward spiral. They track my searches, and shared my information with a lot of different companies. This resulted in their in house security, SureFox running PsyOps on me for the last year. I have since lost my job, and am blocked from any help as people are to afraid to speak up, They ruined my life, doxxed me, and slandered my name.

Ms. Gloria Anasyrma

"Only you can prevent forest fires and don't bite the hand that feed's you.": Smokey the Bear circa 1954.

RGC

Ms. Anasyrma, I find your trolling comments on every story in the ACLU weekly roundup. I wonder that you are allowed to continue posting. I also wonder if you were not previously using other acronyms, since your remarks are always inflammatory and inappropriate, as theirs were. Were you previously using a the name of an inamous and horrible Nazi doctor? Will you previously using the name of Dr. Timothy Leary? Your remarks are always so similar to those which were published under those other acronyms.

Anonymous

"...hand that feeds" [the feed doesn't own anything] Smokey the Bear, created by the U. S. Forest Service & the Ad Council, is a fictional character who never actually said anything. He was a logo on posters with the phrase "Only you can prevent forest fires," with the idea that this visual would prevent campers, hikers, etc. in national forests from doing anything stupid that could cause a fire. The logo and phrase never mentions biting anything, as Smokey is by necessity a benign figure that would not frighten children. Smokey has absolutely nothing to do with being threatened by Google to cut off your income for exposing flaws. Anyway, Socrates would call this continuous "feeding" at the hands of a tyrannical, elephantine, and for-profit-only corporation an unwanted desire that instead of replenishing the body kills the soul.

Dr. Ernesto Guevara

What's it to you RGC? Do you or don't you believe in freedom of speech?

Carl Edwards

Unions got a well-deserved bad reputation because of mob involvement. However, mob involvement has been reduced because of the actions of law enforcement. Unions stated purpose is to promote the welfare of its members. Corporations purpose is to promote the welfare of its investors. The decline of unions has coincided with an increase in corporate mistreatment of employees. Currently, many corporations require arbitration which removes employees' access to the courts and to class-action lawsuits.
While unions may not be the best answer at least they support worker rights.

Anonymous

It would be great to see a competitor like Bing.com or Yahoo.com lead on this issue. Losing customers might instill America’s Founding values onto Google.

Anonymous

Google's employees should be allowed to speak freely, as should any American citizen, without fear of sanction from their employer, or any other person/entity. So too, should Americans like Alex Jones (whom I detest,) Laura Loomer, Paul Joseph Watson, Milo Yiannopolous, and Farrakhan (whom I also detest.)

I remember when the ACLU stood up for the rights of actual Nazis to march on the streets of Skokie Illinois. The Republic survived, indeed thrived, when their voices were opposed by other Americans in the public square. Suppressing speech, even of the most vile nature, is anathema to the intentions of our Founders, whose own "unacceptable" speech earned them the brand "traitor" by the British.

The ACLU should definitely stand up for the rights of the recently "unpersoned," or it's purpose to exist is gone forever.

~

Well then.

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