How Google's scandals gave rise to the tech labor movement

There are only so many snafus your workforce can swallow.

2018 proved to be a momentous year for employee activism at some of the world's biggest tech companies. Google, Amazon and Microsoft all found themselves under fire from their staffs over a variety of social and policy issues. Silicon Valley's rank-and-file workers have made their voices heard and have started to bring about tangible changes within their firms, on everything from preventing sexual harassment and cooperation with law enforcement to surveillance technology and user data. 2019 looks to be more of the same.

At the start of this month, Google announced the formation of an AI advisory council: the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC). "This group will consider some of Google's most complex challenges that arise under our AI Principles," Ken Walker, Google's SVP of global affairs, wrote in a March blog post, "like facial recognition and fairness in machine learning, providing diverse perspectives to inform our work." Or at least it was supposed to.

Shortly after Walker's announcement, a group of Google employees published an open letter demanding that the company remove Kay Coles James, president of conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, from the advisory council over her "vocally anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant" views. The group accuses Google of "making clear that its version of 'ethics' values proximity to power over the wellbeing of trans people, other LGBTQ people, and immigrants.

"By appointing James to the ATEAC, Google elevates and endorses her views, implying that hers is a valid perspective worthy of inclusion in its decision making," the Googlers continued. This is unacceptable." To date, 2,556 employees have signed their support of it.

The swift backlash appears to have (at least partially) worked. James and the Heritage Foundation have lost their seat on the ATEAC -- although, so too did the other seven members of the council. Rather than accede to the protesters' demands, Google decided to blow the whole thing up and start over.

"It's become clear that in the current environment, ATEAC can't function as we wanted," an editor's note on Walker's post announced on April 1. "So we're ending the council and going back to the drawing board. We'll continue to be responsible in our work on the important issues that AI raises, and will find different ways of getting outside opinions on these topics."

Ironically, the Heritage Foundation scandal was caused, at least in part, by Google's previous scandals: the Maven and JEDI projects.

Even though the Maven system was limited to only picking out singular objects like cars and people, many Google employees were uncomfortable with helping to develop a military technology designed to help kill people more quickly. As such more than 4,000 employees, signed an open letter condemning the company's involvement with the project.

When reached for comment in April 2018, a Google rep told Engadget,

An important part of our culture is having employees who are actively engaged in the work that we do. We know that there are many open questions involved in the use of new technologies, so these conversations - with employees and outside experts - are hugely important and beneficial...

Any military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns. We're actively engaged across the company in a comprehensive discussion of this important topic and also with outside experts, as we continue to develop our policies around the development and use of our machine learning technologies.

However, those reassuring words were not enough for some employees, especially after it leaked that Google would get $250 million for the project, rather than the $9 million it told its employees. As such, a dozen senior engineers quit in protest over the company's continued involvement, while others outright refused to work on the tools, spurring Google to renege on renewing its contract with the DoD and announce the formation of the ATEAC. In the end, Palmer Luckey's Anduril company won the Maven contract.

The Maven protests marked a turning point for Google's rank-and-file staff. Though always encouraged by management to voice their concerns, workers became increasingly organized following this protest. "The technology [that protesters] are using to support their organizing is innovative [and] new," Rudy Gonzalez, executive director for the San Francisco Labor Council, told Engadget. "But the idea that grassroots and collective power of workers can beat back a much larger a better funded and more powerful system -- that's not new, not in American labor history, and not in our global history."

Gonzalez points out that during the Industrial Revolution, workers would often organize "work site by work site," be it a factory or shop floor. Today's tech workers, conversely, are often isolated from their co-workers either physically or in terms of their responsibilities and job functions. "People who are otherwise siloed, or confined to their project team -- or their contractor's project team -- their ability to use letter writing campaigns and social media platforms allow them to get their message out so that it can resonate with more workers who are otherwise siloed."

Between the Heritage and Maven troubles, Google did not rest on its laurels. Instead, the company managed to create yet another uproar; this time surrounding a secretive censorious search engine it built for the Chinese government dubbed Project Dragonfly. First reported by The Intercept, Dragonfly was designed to blacklist specific websites and search terms that China's ruling government found objectionable, such as references to the Tiananmen Square protests. What's more, the system would tie user's search data to their phone numbers, potentially allowing authorities to easily track dissidents.

In protest, Google employees once again circulated an open letter opposing the company's involvement with the program, garnering more than 1,000 signatures. "If Google is willing to trade human rights for profit in China, could they do the same in other countries," the petitioners wrote. "Stand in solidarity with the staff members at Google who have protested the project and tell CEO Sundar Pichai to #DropDragonfly before it can be launched."

In response, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai assured employees that the program was only "exploratory" and in the very early stages of development. "We are not close to launching a search product in China," he told employees, per a Bloomberg transcript of the meeting. "And whether we would do so or could do so is all very unclear." Also unclear is whether or not Google has continued to work on the program since last August.

Google also raised its employees' ire last October in response to its bidding on Project JEDI, a $10 billion Pentagon initiative seeking to create a unified cloud computing system to support the modern American warfighter. However, the company reversed its decision shortly thereafter due to "sustained pressure" from industry tech workers per the Tech Workers Coalition and, reportedly, Google employees themselves. As such the company announced it would sit out the bidding process despite confidence that it would have "submitted a compelling solution for portions of it."

But it's not just Google that keeps getting caught misbehaving in the eyes of its employees. Microsoft's rank and file raised a similar ruckus in response to their company's involvement with the JEDI bidding process. The Microsoft Workers 4 Good group published an open letter to CEO Satya Nadella and president Brad Smith arguing that the development teams were not sufficiently informed "on the intent of the software they [were] building."

Specifically, they objected to the contract's objective being "to 'rapidly develop, test, and manufacture a single platform that Soldiers can use to Fight, Rehearse and Train that provides increased lethality, mobility, and situational awareness necessary to achieve overmatch against our current and future adversaries.'" Simply put, they didn't want to build software designed to make killing easier.

"If Microsoft is to be accountable for the products and services it makes, we need clear ethical guidelines and meaningful accountability governing how we determine which uses of our technology are acceptable, and which are off the table," the group urged.

Smith had previously defended the company's involvement with the US military, so it's unsurprising that, despite the employee's pleas, Microsoft decided to move ahead with its JEDI bid and went so far as to cast doubt as to the veracity of the letter itself. "While we don't have a way to verify the authenticity of this letter, we always encourage employees to share their views with us," a Microsoft spokesperson told The Hill last October.

The following month, Google employees certainly made their feelings known (again). This time it was in response to reports that Android co-founder Andy Rubin was pushed out of the company in 2014 due to his inappropriate romantic relationship with a subordinate -- though not before he was outfitted with a $90 million golden parachute.

"Google paying $90M to Andy Rubin is one example among thousands, which speak to a company where abuse of power, systemic racism, and unaccountable decision-making are the norm," Open Research Group founder Meredith Whittaker told a crowd of protesters during a coordinated walkout of 20,000 employees across 50 Google offices last November. As part of their protest, the organizers laid out five demands:

In many ways, this form of direct action was incredibly successful. Google not only agreed to abolish its forced arbitration rules globally, the company also updated its sexual harassment policies and disclosed that it had terminated at least 50 employees for sexual misconduct over the past few years.

Forced arbitration "tends to be a barrier for people who are trying to report sexual harassment or intimidation and discrimination," Gonzalez said. "Well, when the Google workers walked off the job last year, they forced Google to end forced arbitration clauses globally for their employees. What tech workers are starting to realize is, as workers, they actually hold collectively a tremendous amount of leverage and influence -- not only in their livelihoods but for the social and common good."

For its part, Google cites the sheer size of its workforce as one factor impacting transparency and employee feedback. Speaking on background, a Google rep insisted that transparency and employee feedback are core to the company's culture, noting that back in 2011, rank and file employees successfully petitioned management to reverse a decision that would have required Google+ users to list their real names.

However, the rep also admitted that maintaining such goals was easier to achieve when the entire company staff could fit into a single meeting room. The question of how to grow and expand the business without losing the soul of the company has proven more challenging than expected.

Google also points out that it continually works to be as transparent as possible with its employees. The company's CEO and PA leaders hold regular companywide town hall meetings that are open to questions from any Googler, as does the board of directors.

Microsoft, which has been dealing with a sexual harassment scandal of its own, has recently followed suit and announced in April that it had ended its policy of mandatory arbitration in those claims. But the company didn't stop there. On April 15th, CEO Satya Nadella announced via an internal company email that Microsoft would effectively rebuild how its HR department investigates incidents from the ground up, starting with the formation of an "employee advocacy team."

"I'm disappointed to hear about any behavior in our workplace that falls short of the diverse and inclusive culture we are striving to create," Nadella wrote. "But I'm encouraged that people feel empowered to speak up and demand change."

Indeed, the burgeoning Silicon Valley labor movement is quickly expanding. Security guards in the region elected to unionize back in 2017 as did Facebook's cafeteria staff. Gonzalez expects the unionization trend to only accelerate in the coming years.

"Workers uniting around common demands and common struggles -- and organizing themselves to the fight for those demands," he said. "I think that their collective strength is the only way they'll be able to check the kind of power and influence that Google or any of these tech companies have."