An Update on Google’s Motto
“Now sit down and get back to work!”
- Sergey Brin
At mine and many others’ first TGIF, all of the Nooglers (Google’s term for new employees) are invited to come to TGIF and sit in a special section. At the start of TGIF, we are all told to stand and our names are shown on the screens and Sergey Brin repeats the same tired joke. It is usually met with laughter and the TGIF continues. At first, this joke seemed harmless; poking fun at how Google culture was often viewed. I know I laughed the first few times that I heard that same old joke. However, after experiencing what work and life is like at Google, and seeing how far the company had fallen, this message hits me much differently than it did that first time.
Google’s motto since the turn of the century was “Don’t be evil.” Originally, it was mainly related to how Google served ads to users. However, as Google grew and its products diversified, this motto would affect how these products were developed and how they were viewed by the rest of the world. People largely thought of Google as a righteous entity that only wanted what was best for everyone. As time went on, this perception turned out to be very very wrong.
In April 2018, Google finally removed “Don’t Be Evil” from its official motto. The only remnant of this phrase is in the Code of Conduct, which ends with “And remember… don't be evil, and if you see something that you think isn't right – speak up!” However, Google had already begun to stray from these ideals.
In March 2018, employees discovered and shared internally that Google was actively working on a project called Maven. Maven was an effort with the US Department of Defense (DoD) on drone technology. This sparked outrage within the company as it was Google’s first step into the defense contracting field, explicitly developing tools that would be used for war and not merely administration. In early June of 2018, Google announced that they would not renew the contract it had with the DoD and that the original contract was not in line with their newly-developed AI Principles. However, since then it seems Google has continued funding this work through its venture capital firm Gradient Ventures. When we called out something that wasn’t right, Google did just enough to make the bad press go away, yet continued to fund the research.
In August 2018, information related to Google’s Dragonfly project was published by The Intercept. This project was an initiative by Google to re-enter the Chinese market with a censored search engine. This also brought uproar within the company as one of the reasons given for Google’s departure from China in 2010 was the Chinese Government's insistence on censoring Google’s search product in the country.
Google’s apparent willingness to now offer a censored product made many Googlers concerned that Google might be pressured into censoring information critical of the US government, similar to the strict internet censorship in China. There was also concern about whether Google would share user data with the Chinese government, enabling the government to track down dissidents or political activists. This would be a concerning path for Google to take which is why it was fought so fervently by Googlers and others in the tech industry. Google never directly responded to the outcry but did eventually decide to end work on Dragonfly. Due to the secrecy of this project and the increased “siloing” of work at Google, it was difficult for employees to verify that work had ceased.
In October 2018, the New York Times published an article disclosing that Google had given a $90 million severance to an executive who had been accused of several instances of sexual harassment while at Google. Months later in March of 2019 it was revealed that another Google executive had received a severance of $45 million as he too left the company under claims of sexual harassment. The discovery of these severances came alongside reporting of multiple other instances where Google had failed to investigate cases of sexual harassment or failed to take action on.
Claire Stapleton and Meredith Whittaker organized the Women’s Walkout at Google to protest the rampant sexual harassment at Google and Google’s payouts to individuals accused of sexual harassment. In the months after the walkout, both Claire and Meredith were retaliated against, and both ended up leaving the company. At this point, Googlers were starting to realize that Google really didn’t want us to call it out when we “see something that isn’t right.”
There are countless other instances in which Google retaliated against employees when they tried to raise concerns. From trying to silence internal activists with retaliation to anti-union and anti-organizing actions, Google’s actions ran counter to the final statement in their Code of Conduct.
Google’s Code of Conduct asks employees to call out when they see something that isn’t right. But when Googlers call out sexual harassment, their abusers are rewarded and they are retaliated against. When Googlers call out projects that are unethical, the projects are hidden away. When Googlers are trying to organize workers to have a voice in the workplace, they are fired.
Google doesn’t want its employees to call out ‘things that we think aren’t right’, because every time they are called out, they retaliate. Claire, Meredith, myself and the rest of the Thanksgiving Four, and countless others were all retaliated against for calling out things that we didn’t think were right.
Google should remove “Don’t Be Evil” from their Code of Conduct. They haven’t believed in those standards in a very long time, and encouraging employees to call out their misdeeds only to retaliate against those same employees is cruel. Instead, their Code of Conduct should end with a statement that actually represents Google’s values and inspired by one of their founders:
“And remember… if you see something that you think isn't right – Sit down, and get back to work!”
Images from Wikimedia