Elusive Google co-founders make rare appearance at town hall meeting

Larry Page and Sergey Brin show up at their first "TGIF" all-hands meeting in six months.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
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Google co-founders Larry Page (pictured) and Sergey Brin attended their first Google all-hands meeting of the year.

James Martin/CNET

Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have long been the stars of the search giant's weekly "TGIF" town hall meetings. But for the past six months, the pair had been no-shows, an absence that coincided with Google controversies over antitrust concernswork in China and military contracts.

That changed late last month when they attended the company's most recent TGIF meeting on May 30, according to people who watched the gathering. Google didn't hold a TGIF or "Thank God It's Friday," meeting last week. The gatherings are held on Thursday in the US so that employees in Google offices around the world can participate. 

At the May meeting, Page and Brin talked about the company's cloud strategy, according to the people, who asked not to be named. Google confirmed that Brin and Page attended the meeting, but declined to provide details about the pair's comments. It's unclear why the co-founders decided to attend that particular meeting, but their presence ended an unusually long stretch of absences. 

After years of Page and Brin being core to TGIF, it's been "jarring" to have them missing for so long, one of the people said. The disappearing act drew criticism from those who see Page's and Brin's absence as dodging accountability during the most tumultuous period in the company's 20-year history. When Page and Pichai were invited to a high-profile Senate hearing last year, both declined, resulting in an empty chair with a name tag that read "Google" next to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey . In April, BuzzFeed News reported on Page's and Brin's absence from TGIF meetings.  

TGIF meetings have been a key part of Google's culture since its earliest days. The meetings are a chance for Google's leadership to address its more than 100,000 employees, make announcements, highlight products and projects and take questions from workers. Two days after the 2016 US presidential election, it was at a TGIF meeting that Brin called then-President-elect Donald Trump's victory "offensive."

But as Google's issues mount, the company's co-founders have faded into the background. The company faces attacks on several fronts, including a potential antitrust probe from the Department of Justice and accusations of censorship and political bias from conservatives. Google also faces some of its toughest scrutiny from its own employees. Activists within the company have spoken out against Google's role in Maven, a Pentagon project that uses AI to improve analysis of drone footage, and Dragonfly, an effort to create a search product for China.  

Most recently, Google-owned YouTube drew blowback last week after the service refused to take down the channel of Steven Crowder, a conservative comedian who hurled homophobic slurs at Carlos Maza, a Vox journalist and video host who is gay.

One of the questions during the Q&A portion of the May 30 TGIF concerned alleged retaliation from management against employees, according to a partial transcript viewed by CNET. The question was about the departure of Claire Stapleton, a Google walkout organizer who said she was unfairly targeted because of her role in the protest. Stapleton announced her resignation in a blog post Friday. The questioner asked if "outside objectivity" could be added to HR investigations.

Head of People Operations Eileen Naughton answered the question, not Page or Brin, according to the transcript. She said Google took the situation "very seriously" and "found no evidence of retaliation," but didn't address adding third-party oversight to investigations.

Page and Brin began to step out of the spotlight well before the controversies started piling up. The co-founders made Pichai the public face of the company in 2015, when they restructured Google under an umbrella company called Alphabet. As part of the reorganization, Pichai became Google's CEO. Page moved up to Alphabet's CEO, and Brin is its president. 

A Google spokeswoman emphasized that the Alphabet restructuring was meant to allow Page and Brin to spend time outside of day to day operations at Google, so they could focus on "other bets" and longer term moonshot projects.

Still, Page and Brin remained active presences at TGIF. Some employees said the turning point was last November's historic Google walkout, in which 20,000 Google workers walked out of the company's offices worldwide to protest its handling of sexual assault allegations directed at Android creator Andy Rubin and other executives.

Even though Page and Brin have taken background roles, their shadows still loom large for Googlers. "People still have this old-time fondness for them," said one of the people. "They're like Ben and Jerry."

The co-founders' appearance at the May 30 meeting also inspired some employees to create memes on the company's internal "Memegen" tool.

Watch this: Google, we have some questions