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Google employee lawsuit questions company's 'don't be evil' ethos

The complaint alleges Google's confidentiality policies deter whistleblowing. It paints a culture of secrecy in contrast to the company's whimsical public image.

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A Google employee is suing the company over its confidentiality practices.

Claudia Cruz/CNET

Google, which goes by Alphabet now, is a big, inventive company that works on lots of stuff. But innovation is messy.

Whenever the company has gotten in trouble, it's tried to rely on an internal north star to guide it: "Don't be evil." It's a mantra dubbed by founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 2004, when the company went public.

A lawsuit filed this week by an employee regarding the company's confidentiality policies calls that moral compass into question. "Google's motto is 'don't be evil.' Google's illegal confidentiality agreements and policies fail this test," the lawsuit says, at the very top of the complaint.

The suit, filed by a current Google product manager only identified as "John Doe," alleges the company's confidentiality policies are illegally broad and violate California labor laws.

For example, Doe says employees are barred from talking internally about illegal conduct or "dangerous product defects," because that stuff could be used against the company in legal discovery. He also says the policies deter whistleblowing, prohibiting employees from talking to reporters or government officials. He says employees can't even talk to their spouses or friends about whether their boss could do a better job.

"These illegal policies and agreements restrict the Googlers' right to speak, right to work, and right to whistle-blow," the lawsuit says.

In one of the quirkier policies, the plaintiff said Googlers are forbidden to write a novel about someone working at a tech company in Silicon Valley -- something like Dave Eggers "The Circle" -- unless Google first gives approval for the book, then for the final draft.

The secrecy alleged by the suit is in contrast to the company's whimsical public image, buoyed by it's "don't be evil" mantra and well-known perks like free food. Earlier this year, a suit filed with the National Labor Relations Board complained about similar issues. This suit was filed by the same employee, according to The Information. That report calculated that if the complaint is successful, Google could be on the hook for up to $3.8 billion in penalties.

A Google spokesman called the suit "baseless" and said the company would defend the suit "vigorously."

"We're very committed to an open internal culture, which means we frequently share with employees details of product launches and confidential business information. Transparency is a huge part of our culture," he said. "Our employee confidentiality requirements are designed to protect proprietary business information, while not preventing employees from disclosing information about terms and conditions of employment, or workplace concerns."

Reached by phone, Doe's lawyer Chris Baker, of the San Francisco-based firm Baker Curtis & Schwartz, said Google's policies, "which are discussed at length in the suit, say the lawsuit is not baseless and Google is not transparent."