Google workers found voice in protest this year. There'll likely be more of that

The historic Google walkout shows how powerful tech employees really are.

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
5 min read

Last month, more than 20,000 full-time and contract workers from Google walked out of 50 offices around the world to protest the company's handling of alleged sexual assault and misconduct. At Google's global headquarters in Mountain View, California, 4,000 of them gathered in a courtyard next to a building where CEO Sundar Pichai's office is located. They marched, held up signs and chanted things like "Time is up!" and "Stand up! Fight back!"  

Pichai wasn't in his office that day. Instead, he was in New York for a conference session called "Soul searching: Technology's role in society." But he definitely heard his employees. "Moments like this show that we didn't always get it right," he told the audience.

It was an unprecedented event in the tech industry, where workers historically refrain from protesting against their employers -- let alone in such a visceral and public display. For Google, the walkout marked the crescendo in a year of employee dissent on issues ranging from workplace culture to Google's projects for the US military and efforts to build a censored search engine for China. This year, more than any other in the company's 20-year history, workers rose up when they felt that Google, whose mantra is famously "Don't be evil," had fallen short of its credo.

The walkout was largely successful. Management agreed to some of the demands, including ending "forced arbitration" in the cases of alleged sexual assault, which compelled accusers to waive their right to sue. (Organizers, however, say Google's concessions didn't go far enough regarding issues like discrimination and the rights of contractors.)

But the protest may also have a more profound effect that transcends Google. It also serves as a playbook that could reverberate throughout the technology industry.

"This is a watershed moment," said Paul Saffo, a Stanford professor and Silicon Valley futurist. "It's not going to calm down. If anything, it's going to get more intense."

Google didn't reply to a request for comment.

An awakening

There have always been disagreements between workers and management at Google. But the company prided itself on settling challenges before they spilled into public view, multiple Google employees and former employees told me. They asked not to be identified because they weren't authorized to speak on Google's behalf.

Some of that changed in the summer of 2017, when a then-engineer at Google named James Damore penned a divisive 3,000-word memo about diversity at the company. He argued, among other things, that the gender gap at Google exists not because of sexism, but because of "biological" differences between men and women that "may explain why we don't see equal representation of women in tech and leadership." The memo went viral on Google's internal forums before leaking to the press that August. Pichai, on vacation in Africa and Europe with his family, had to cut his trip short to deal with the crisis. He eventually decided to fire Damore.

Google Walkout Me Too Protest

The Google walkout was a crescendo in a year of protests.

James Martin/CNET

The fallout from the memo affected the company in several ways. For one, it spurred the far-right to cry foul against Google, accusing the company of suppressing conservative viewpoints. But it also showed some of Google's workers the value of organizing to counter a message like Damore's, one former employee said.

Multiple current and former employees had the same reason for standing up to the company: They said they used to feel heard when they complained, but now going through official channels seemed futile. They felt Google's leadership no longer cared about meaningfully considering employees' concerns.

Google workers speak up

The trigger for the year's first major protest at Google was the company's work on the Pentagon's Project Maven, an initiative to use artificial intelligence to improve the analysis of drone footage. A handful of Google employees resigned, and in April more than 4,000 workers reportedly signed a petition addressed to Pichai demanding he cancel the project. In June, Google said it wouldn't renew the Maven contract or pursue similar contracts, though it would still work with the military.

Pichai wound up publishing an entire AI ethics memo that clearly stated the company wouldn't develop AI for use in weapons.

In August, employees got upset over Dragonfly, a project to build a censored search engine for China. Dragonfly was part of a plan for Google to re-enter China's internet search market after getting out eight years ago, when Chinese hackers attacked Google and its customers. Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union, cited China's "totalitarianism" as a contributing factor.

Rumors of the project alone spurred protests and resignations. That month, about 1,000 employees signed a letter asking Pichai to be transparent about the project. Employees wanted Google to create an ethical review process that included input from rank-and-file workers, not just from high-level executives. And last month, hundreds of Google employees, mostly software engineers, joined with Amnesty International in a letter demanding Pichai cancel the project. But this time, Googlers took an unusual step to drive the protest: They published their names.

Last week, those fighting against Dragonfly won a key victory, The Intercept reported. Google's privacy teams confronted Google's executives about engineers using data from a Beijing-based website to simulate what search results coming from mainland China might look like. Google decided to shut down access to the data, kneecapping the project and leaving it "effectively ended," The Intercept said.

Beyond Google

Some of the protesters were surprised at how effective their efforts have been.  

"Even earlier this year, after we found out about Maven, it would have been hard to imagine something like [the walkout]," said one former employee, who resigned after learning of Google's role in the Defense Department project.

But that person said the protests could go even further if they need to be escalated.

"I really want to see what happens next," he said. "They walked out. Then what? Do they walk out again and threaten not to come back for a few days or weeks?"

In fact, that's exactly what some employees have suggested.

Last month, The Intercept published a story saying Google excluded its security and privacy teams during key meetings as it was developing Dragonfly. Activists within Google got upset.

After that story was published, Liz Fong-Jones, a longtime Google engineer and advocate for workplace issues, brought up the idea of an employee strike and mass resignation in response to Dragonfly. She said she would match donations up to $100,000 for a "mutual support fund." She said she raised more than double that amount in a few hours.

That kind of structural planning could be used at other tech companies, experts said. Earlier this year, workers from Amazon and Microsoft protested their companies' relationships with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

One of the key factors is that a lot of the recent protest efforts have been waged by younger employees, said Saffo.

"This is the generation that grew up with social media and the internet," he said. "Their worldview is very different than the generation even 10 years ahead of them. They're used to having a voice. They expect to be heard." 

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