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Google faces renewed battles in labor and antitrust in 2021

The search giant will have to deal with threats both inside and outside of the company.

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Protest at Google offices

Google employees walked out of their offices in protest in 2018.

James Martin/CNET

On a single day earlier this month, a pair of controversies began to take shape at Google. 

On Dec. 2, a federal agency filed a complaint against the search giant after it fired two workers who had spoken out against the company last year. Later that night, a prominent artificial intelligence researcher took to Twitter to say Google had abruptly fired her over a research paper she co-authored that criticized the company's AI systems. Both incidents riled up the search giant's current and former employees.

The events will likely serve as harbingers for Google as the company heads into the new year. The search giant, which has already expended time, resources and public credibility in battles with its rank-and-file employees, will have to deal with a newly agitated workforce. The energized labor activism comes at a particularly uncomfortable moment as Google faces antitrust lawsuits filed by the US Department of Justice and state prosecutors. 

"There's this swelling of concern about the control and power that Google has wielded over society at a deep level for so long," said Erin Hatton, a professor at the University of Buffalo who researches labor and social policy. "We don't think too much about the company and the power dynamics that undergird it. And those are finally erupting to the surface."

Google didn't respond to a request for comment.

Two years ago, Google set the benchmark for employee activism in tech. On Nov. 1, 2018, more than 20,000 Googlers walked out of their offices around the globe to protest the handling of sexual misconduct allegations against senior executives. The historic demonstration reverberated throughout the industry and became a leading example of the power of tech workers. Employees at Amazon, Microsoft and other tech giants staged protests of their own to call attention to issues that touch their companies, like border surveillance and climate change. 

After making a splash, Google's activists mostly went quiet in 2020. Some organizers grew cautious after the company last year hired IRI Consultants, a firm known for anti-union activity, one Google employee told me. The stress of the pandemic also prompted activists to be wary, fearing they could lose their jobs as the economy slid, the employee said.

But the calm ended on Dec. 2, when the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Google for allegedly retaliating against activists workers. The complaint claims Google broke US labor laws by surveilling, interrogating and firing activist employees. The filing stemmed from terminations Google had made a year before, when the company dismissed employees who worked on responses to its hiring of IRI. Google said the employees were fired because of violations to Google's data policies. The NLRB alleges some of those policies are unlawful. 

Ben Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School, said the complaint sends a clear message to Google employees that they are protected when labor organizing, like in their response to the IRI hiring. "No company, not even Google, is above the law," he said.

Bigger controversy was to come hours later. At around 8:30 p.m. PT that night, Timnit Gebru, the co-leader of Google's Ethical Artificial Intelligence unit, wrote on Twitter that she had been fired. The dustup was over a research paper that calls out risks for bias in AI -- including in systems used by Google's search engine. Gebru, a star researcher and one of the few prominent Black women in AI, also emailed a group of Google employees, criticizing the company's diversity and equity programs. 

Her exit has caused widespread outrage among Google's rank-and-file workforce and around the broader tech industry. More than 2,000 Googlers have signed an open letter in support of Gebru. Last week, members of Gebru's former team at Google sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai demanding she be reinstated. 

The incident will likely serve to galvanize protesters at Google, Hatton said. The response may be fueled by the broader reckoning around racial justice and ethics that the US has seen this year, she said. "That momentum could keep this going."

Antitrust woes continue

As Google deals with its labor issues, the company's antitrust threats will continue to mount. 

In October, the US Department of Justice hit Google with a landmark lawsuit, the most high-profile complaint against a tech giant since the department took on Microsoft in the 1990s. 

The lawsuit alleges that Google broke antitrust law by cutting deals with phone makers like Apple and Samsung to be the default search engine on their devices, a move that boxed out competitors. Google has also been accused of taking advantage of the dominance of its Android operating system to pressure device makers into preloading its apps on phones powered by the software. The company has broadly denied any anticompetitive behavior and has called the lawsuit "deeply flawed."

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Google's battle with antitrust prosecutors escalated last week, when the company was hit with two more major lawsuits on consecutive days. 

The first was from a group of 10 states led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. That complaint targets Google's massive online advertising operation, which financially powers the company's empire. The suit accuses the tech giant of harming competitors by engaging in "false, deceptive, or misleading acts" while operating its buy and sell auction system for digital ads.

The next day, an even larger coalition of 38 states and territories filed a suit over how Google displays its search results. The complaint alleges the tech giant harmed competitors with its presentation of search results, favoring its own services over those of rivals. The bipartisan group has filed for the suit to be consolidated with the Justice Department's case.

The scrutiny will continue as President Donald Trump leaves office and President-elect Joe Biden comes into power, antitrust experts say. While the Trump administration struck a hard line against big tech, Biden's administration is expected to keep up the pressure.

"It's steady as she goes," said Frank Pasquale, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who studies antitrust law. "It's obvious that Google is problematic."

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