The Industry

What the Google Protests Really Need to Achieve

Employees have to act as Alphabet’s watchdog, because no one else can.

The Google campus in Mountain View, California, was one of the sites of employee protests on May 1, 2019.
The Google campus in Mountain View, California, was one of the sites of employee protests on Wednesday.
Mason Trinca/Getty Images

When Alphabet employees decided to stage protests in their offices this week, there was one big difference from the last time workers at the internet giant held a demonstration: They were now hesitant to use Google products for any planning. Just over a week earlier, two of their colleagues alleged that the company had retaliated after they’d organized a massive walkout back in November. So instead of using the most convenient online communication tools in the world, they opted for encrypted text apps to keep their plans out of the potential sight of their employer. In less than 24 hours, they planned a Wednesday “sit-in” in which more than 1,000 Googlers across 15 U.S. offices reminded the company that it still has to answer to its own workforce.

Activism within Alphabet reached a dramatic peak last November when 20,000 employees across 50 offices worldwide walked out of work to protest how Google’s parent company deals with accusations of harassment and discrimination. But demonstrations within the company over how it does business, and with whom, have been going on for a couple years now. Last June, Alphabet decided to stop building artificial intelligence services for a Pentagon drone program after thousands of employees signed a petition demanding the company end the contract. And it was only last August that about 1,000 employees signed an internal petition calling on Google to scrap Project Dragonfly, its plan to build a censored search engine in China, which the company had to address. None of these impacts would have happened without employee organizing, and the current push within Alphabet to protect workers’ ability to dissent appears to be underlined by a realization that if anyone is going to meaningfully regulate one of the most powerful companies in the world, it’s going to be the talent that helps make it so powerful.

Wednesday’s action comes a little over a week after two employees who were core organizers of the November walkout, Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton, shared on an internal Google email list examples of alleged retaliation they had faced in the months that followed. The walkout, which was held to protest how the company had dealt with serious accusations of sexual assault and harassment and what many employees described as a culture of impunity for executives, led to immediate reforms inside Alphabet. Within days, the company agreed to end forced arbitration in cases involving accusations of sexual harassment or assault, a policy that prevented employees from taking their grievances to court. Workers continued to organize, and in February, Google eliminated its forced arbitration policy for employees entirely.

But organizers still felt a sting. Stapleton, a 12-year veteran at Google, shared that she was informed she would be demoted and lose half of the people who report to her. “I was told to go on medical leave, even though I’m not sick,” Stapleton wrote in an email to an internal list describing the retaliation she experienced. It was only after she hired a lawyer that Google investigated and decided to walk back its decision to demote her. Whittaker, who leads Google’s Open Research Group and is the co-founder of the AI Now Institute at New York University, received notice that in order to stay at Google, she’d have to “abandon [her] work on AI ethics and the AI Now Institute,” according an email she sent internally. (Google disputes the employees’ allegations of retaliation.)

Instead of leaving the office in unison on Wednesday, workers at Google used a variety of tactics. Some called in sick, a reference to Stapleton’s directive to take medical leave. Others set up an email auto-response to detail their grievances over how the company has treated the walkout organizers. In cities like New York, Pittsburgh, Cambridge, and Mountain View, California, workers gathered to read accounts shared by employees across the company alleging experiences of retaliation for speaking out against sexual harassment, bigoted comments from management, and discrimination in pay and promotions at Google.

If employees are afraid to speak out when they’re mistreated, speaking out about the ethics of Google’s work will be even harder. Whistleblowing within technology companies is one of the few levers that can hold these conglomerates accountable. Users can complain, but companies don’t have to respond. Lawmakers could regulate and force corporations like Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon to be more transparent and responsible, but that’s probably not happening in the U.S. anytime soon. Tech companies, after all, work hard to stay unaccountable by spending big and hiring former government officials to get their way. Just last month, Facebook brought on the co-author of the Patriot Act as its general counsel. Last year, it was reported that Google outspent every other company in the country in its effort to lobby U.S. lawmakers, and in the first quarter of this year, Amazon outspent both Facebook and Google in its bid to influence Washington. Even when European regulators have cracked down on tech companies’ overreach, as they have over the past three years by issuing fines to Alphabet that add up to about $9 billion, it doesn’t amount to much more than a few speeding tickets for a company that had $137 billion in revenue in 2018 alone.

Google and its peers are enormous enough that most of us depend on them to handle key functions of our daily life. In part it’s because their products are so useful. Google tells us where to go and how to get there. Facebook helps us maintain connections within our communities. We depend on software from tech companies to guide how we work, relax, and learn. Technology companies, like Google, deliver the information that we need to participate meaningfully in democracy. But these companies have also become so big that they face few checks on their behavior. That has put workers in an important position.

Alphabet might not like that its employees are forcing it to be better. But as a user of Google products, I’m grateful. When it comes to keeping one of the most powerful corporations in the world in line, whistleblowers are often all we’ve got. And the scary part is that Google’s tech is so embedded in our lives—Gmail, Chrome, Search, Docs, Maps, Android—that when there’s something we don’t like about Google, there’s often nowhere else to go. Employee organizing has important changes so far. Hopefully, for the sake of everyone who depends on Google products, it will again.