Earlier this year, several employees at the leading advertising agency Edelman convinced the firm’s executives to drop work with a for-profit prison company. Now hundreds of Google employees, or “Googlers,” are engaged in a similar issue, with two big differences: They are taking their case public, calling Google to act in support of its human rights policies.
Googlers are taking preemptive action
The activism at Edelman surfaced on the public radar only after word leaked out that employees at the firm were refusing to work on a new contract with the Florida-based company Geo Group, a company specializing in the privatization of correctional facilities, detention centers and mental health treatment.
Though Edelman’s contractual status with Geo was unclear, the firm reportedly had taken Geo on as a client (Geo is no longer an Edelman client.)
Google employees are taking matters a step farther.
Rather than waiting for their company to enter into a relationship with an undesirable client, hundreds of Google employees and allies have publicly signed their names to an online petition, pledging not to work on a potential project for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
Taking a stand for human rights
The contract in question would be for cloud services for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Although Google has not yet signed the contract, that was enough to spark pushback. In a petition posted on Medium on August 14, the Google protest group laid out a carefully documented ethical argument against competing for the contract.
The petition first directs attention to Google’s history of protesting human right abuses from the outset of the Trump administration, stating: “In January of 2017 thousands of Googlers, including our executives, joined together to protest the Trump administration’s Muslim Ban. This was the right thing to do and we are proud to work at a place that reflects these values.”
The petition argues that these same values obligate employees to refuse work on any contract that violates human rights: “…It’s time to stand together again and state clearly that we will not work on any such contract. We demand that Google publicly commit not to support CBP, ICE, or ORR with any infrastructure, funding, or engineering resources, directly or indirectly, until they stop engaging in human rights abuses.”
Google employees call out “purpose-washing”
The protestors have a point. The petition reminds Google that it has “repeatedly advertised its commitments to implementing ethical guardrails on its tech.” In particular, the petition cites Google’s own principles for artificial intelligence, which to summarize, state that “Google will not build technologies ‘whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.’”
In short, the petition calls out Google for purpose-washing: Formulating high moral or ethical standards, but not following through when meaningful action is needed.
Why Google, why now?
The employee petition comes at a fraught time for Google. The company has weathered at least four high-profile media attacks in recent days.
The sequence began on August 1 with a “scathing” op-ed in The New York Times slamming Google over sharing its technology with China instead of with the U.S. Department of Defense. It was written by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel. That byline obscured several conflicts of interest, as Business Insider explains:
“Thiel sits on the board of Facebook, which competes with Google…He is also the chairman and founder of Palantir, which competes with Google…And he's an investor in Anduril… that's providing artificial-intelligence tools to the U.S. military.”
That affinity was made clear in the early morning hours of August 6 when President Trump followed up on Twitter with a criticism mirroring the Thiel op-ed.
TechCrunch summed up the series of tweets, reporting that “the President criticized Google and its CEO Sundar Pichai “for alleged ties to election tampering and China’s military.”
The following day, Gene Marks of the consulting firm The Marks Group published an op-ed in The Hill that also took note of the Thiel op-ed.
Project Veritas contributed to the series with a “staff report” posted on its website on August 14. The non-profit, it should be noted, is often cited for misleading and deceptively edited videos targeting progressive individuals and entities. The August 14 report was a refresher course in other Veritas material recently targeting Google.
Bubbling under the surface of all this criticism was an article in Forbes on June 10, which reports that Google’s data may have helped establish potentially illegal coordination between the 2016 Trump campaign and Wikileaks.
Corporate culture collides with employee activism
An August 13 long-form piece in Wired by reporter Nitasha Tiku also hints at a connection between the recent partisan attacks on Google. Tiku describes the company’s somewhat restrained efforts to work with the Federal government during the Trump administration, notwithstanding the conflicts with its professed values.
Tiku emphasizes that on an individual level, Googlers have suffered no such restraint. In fact, Tiku writes that Google’s corporate culture all but requires employees to speak up on human rights issues — and they have been doing so, loudly and frequently.
It remains to be seen if Google executives will respond to employee activism in this case. As one indication, last year the company decided not to renew a Defense Department contract for Maven, a project that paired artificial intelligence and drone technology.
The Maven decision later proved fodder for the Thiel op-ed, but it did enable Google to act on the company’s “Don’t be Evil” slogan — and not just for the sake of being good.
Bottom-line considerations were also in play, as dozens of employees reportedly resigned over the Maven work, and thousands more signed a petition asking Google to back out. In an age where tech companies are in a global race to recruit top talent, the company could ill afford a brain drain.
Regardless of partisan attacks, for companies like Edelman and Google, the long-term rewards for doing the right thing may well outweigh the risks of pushing back against human rights abuses during the Trump administration.
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