Google Employees Protest to Fight for the ‘Future of Tech’

The protesters who gathered outside Google’s San Francisco office on Friday had a single, simple demand: give two employees their jobs back, immediately. But the group of 200 Googlers made clear more was at stake. It was, as one software engineer put it, “a struggle for the future of tech.”

The two employees at the center of the squall, Rebecca Rivers and Laurence Berland, had been placed on administrative leave a few weeks ago. Neither have been given a formal explanation from Google. Rivers and Berland believe they are being retaliated against for speaking up, as part of a small but vocal group of employee activists who have criticized various company policies and projects over the past few years.

Rivers, a software engineer, was involved in petitioning the company to stop its work with governmental agencies like the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the US Customs and Border Protections. Berland was among a group of “Gayglers” to demand that the San Francisco Pride festival cut ties with Google after a YouTube controversy involving the Vox journalist Carlos Maza showed the platform’s unwillingness to police hate, homophobia, or harassment.

Laurence Berland speaks to the crowd outside Google’s office in San Francisco.Photograph: Phuc Pham

Rivers and Berland both say they were abruptly locked out of their Google accounts and told they were under investigation, but that management would not tell them why or what they had specifically done wrong.

“Even though Rebecca and I are experiencing the full force of Google’s retaliation, this is not really about me. It’s not about Rebecca,” Berland said in front of the crowd. “It’s about us, all of us, and the open culture we built and treasure together.”

Google has long prided itself on that culture. Employees are encouraged to collaborate and peer in on each other’s work. For years, Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, has encouraged employees to speak freely in weekly all-hands meetings called TGIF.

For the past year, though, internal tensions over a wide range of projects and policies have threatened to overturn that culture. Now there are no more TGIFs, and the company has hired a management firm, IRI Consultants, with a reputation for squashing worker unions.

The turmoil reached a boiling point last fall, when thousands of Googlers organized to protest the company’s handling of sexual misconduct. In October, The New York Times revealed that Google had offered a hefty $90 million exit package to Andy Rubin, who created the Android operating system, after several credible accusations of sexual misconduct from employees. Employees balked, and in November, thousands of them staged walkouts at Google offices around the world. From Tokyo to Berlin, Googlers held signs to protest the company’s handling of sexual misconduct, with messages like “Time’s up, tech,” and “OK Google, really?”

illustration of the google homepage being torn apart

Googlers have also raised their voices on the way the company uses its technology. They protested Project Maven, which provided artificial intelligence services to use in drone warfare; and Project Dragonfly, an “exploratory” censored search engine in China. They have protested Google’s deals with oil and gas companies.

The share of employees behind each cause has varied: The walk-outs in November included thousands of Googlers, while Friday’s rally turned up about 200. For a company with over 100,000 employees worldwide, it’s an incredible small percentage. But the recent tensions have been enough for some Googlers to speak up for the first time, or to quit their jobs outright. Adam Campbell, a former software engineer on Google’s Atlas project, resigned in June as a protest of YouTube’s policies on harassment and homophobia. He showed up at rally on Friday to support Berland, and arrived carrying a sign that read: “Shame on Google.”

Photograph: Phuc Pham

Others joined in solidarity with Rivers and Berland because, as one Googler put it, “this could have happened to any of us.”

“When I got here, it felt like this company belonged to the engineers. Now it really doesn’t feel that way,” said Max Morawski, a Google engineer. Morawski had taken part in the walkouts last November, but said today was the first time he felt “incensed” enough about management to show up and protest. He had taken an hour-long bus ride from Mountain View to stand with his coworkers in San Francisco. He held a handmade sign: “This is our company.”

At the end of the rally, software engineer Zach Siegel took the microphone. He’d worked at Google since 2015 and had grown suspicious of a Google that was now “so afraid of the voices of its own workers that it tries to stomp them out.” He led the crowd in a call-and-response: “What do we want? BRING THEM BACK. When do we want it? NOW. If we don’t get it, SHUT IT DOWN. If we don’t get it? SHUT! IT! DOWN!”

Then, with a wayward glance to the Google office building looming on his left, Siegel addressed the rest of the company. “OK, Google,” he said, looking up, “we know you’re listening.”

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