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Can Google’s Soul Be Saved?

Rank-and-file Silicon Valley tech workers are using their leverage to push companies toward more ethical business models, or at least away from destroying the environment and undermining human rights.

(Image: Global Panorama/flickr/cc)

With its ubiquitous and astronomical digital infrastructure, Google has put the world at our fingertips. But in some ways, it’s also making the world dirtier and less democratic. 

Under the slick veneer of clean, youthful, innovation-loving Silicon Valley, big tech firms like Google have colossal carbon footprints, and some have shady ties to military and police operations seeking new systems of repression and surveillance. While tech giants like Facebook and Amazon have drawn sharp criticism from rights groups and lawmakers, some of the most incisive criticism of Silicon Valley has come from within its own ranks.

On November 4, Google Workers for Action on Climate, a grassroots group representing rank and file Googlers, published a list of environmental and political demands for their employer, signed by more than 1,640 Google employees and addressed to the company’s chief financial officer, Ruth Porat. The workers are demanding that the company reduce its carbon emissions to zero—in line with the benchmarks proposed by international climate authorities like the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

"Under the slick veneer of clean, youthful, innovation-loving Silicon Valley, big tech firms like Google have colossal carbon footprints, and some have shady ties to military and police operations seeking new systems of repression and surveillance."

In addition, the workers are calling for “zero contracts to enable or accelerate the extraction of fossil fuels”—a response to reports that Google and other tech giants have collaborated with oil companies to develop tools to boost their extraction operations. And they are seeking a reduction in Google’s carbon footprint and “zero funding for climate-denying or -delaying think tanks, lobbyists, and politicians.” (Google has come under fire for revelations about its substantial  financial contributions to rightwing lobbying groups that push climate denial.)

Finally, the workers demand “zero collaboration with entities enabling the incarceration, surveillance, displacement, or oppression of refugees or frontline communities.” Google—which once boasted the slogan “Don’t be evil”—has been widely condemned for its partnerships with various branches of government, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol. 

The petition condemns the company for failing to adhere to its own AI principles, which “state that Google will not build technologies ‘whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.’ By any interpretation, CBP and ICE are in grave violation of international human rights law.” As the Trump Administration ruthlessly cracks down on undocumented immigrants and their communities, the workers note that Google has failed its own employees by failing to provide “a  diverse, inclusive, and psychologically safe workplace for all its workers, including immigrants and Latinx people—the very populations whose communities, families, and friends are being terrorized by CBP and ICE.”

On the issue of climate change, Google has branded itself a model corporate citizen. The company has boosted its efforts to shift to renewable energy sources and aspires to achieve zero net carbon emissions and use 100 percent carbon-free energy sources year round, though it is unclear when it plans to reach these goals. 

Google declined to comment to The Guardian on the letter to Porat, and instead cited Porat’s recent blog post reiterating the company’s commitment to keep lowering carbon emissions.

The open letter from Google employees is one of several attempts to leverage the collective voice of Google’s professional workforce. It is also an attempt to hold Google to its own stated principles. 

So far, Google has not bent to their demands, but there are signs that its top executives are listening.

Last June, after 4,000 employees signed a letter demanding “a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology,” Google dropped its bid for a lucrative Pentagon contract to develop AI technology that could be used to aid drone strikes. 

Around the same time, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai posted a list of “AI Principles” on the company blog, declaring that the company would only engage in artificial intelligence projects that adhered to basic ethical standards, such as being “socially beneficial” and “publicly accountable.” 

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The rebellious energy percolating among Google’s rank-and-file reflects the political alchemy between the company’s liberal ethos on the one hand, and the moral burden that the company has accrued by virtue of its enormous size and power.

In late 2018, pressure from workers, consumers, and shareholders pushed Google to suspend another collaboration to build a censored search engine for Chinese authorities, known as Dragonfly.

Hundreds of workers at Amazon, Github, Salesforce, Tableau and Microsoft have launched similar campaigns protesting their respective employers’ collaboration with security agencies. Amazon, in particular, has incurred backlash from workers and consumers over its collaboration with the data analysis firm Palantir, which contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to provide investigative software for tracking immigrants.

While the Google worker-activists express solidarity with fellow tech worker-activists in other companies, they also highlight some of the unique contradictions between the lines of Google’s public-relations messaging. 

Despite its eco-friendly PR, Google’s business model requires consuming enormous amounts of energy to fuel its tremendous cloud storage and data systems. The company officially claims carbon “neutrality” by spending massively on carbon offsets and renewable-energy purchases, to cancel out its emissions on paper. 

Sharon Campbell-Crow, a senior technical writer at Google, stresses how repressive immigration enforcement policies and climate change intersect in many areas, making Google doubly complicit in the plight of climate refugees and their communities. 

“Google shouldn’t be deploying technology for any entity or institution in a way that will harm those most vulnerable to the climate crisis,” Campbell-Crow tells The Progressive via email. “Today, rich countries are building border surveillance and detention infrastructure to keep people who need help out, many of whom are being displaced by the climate crisis already.”

And Google workers are agitating for internal reforms as well. 

The political rebellion at Google is rooted in a long-simmering internal crisis that led to a #metoo-inspired, 20,000-strong walkout by workers who were fed up with the company’s lack of action on sexual harassment charges. The walkout garnered international attention and became a template for mass actions at other tech firms like the game designer Riot Games (on sexual harassment) and Amazon (on climate change).

The rebellious energy percolating among Google’s rank-and-file reflects the political alchemy between the company’s liberal ethos on the one hand, and the moral burden that the company has accrued by virtue of its enormous size and power. Google workers know they are uniquely positioned to help steer their company toward a more ethical business model, or at least away from destroying the environment and undermining human rights.  

“I think the bigger picture here isn’t about just tech,” says Ike Hollander McCreery, a Google site reliability engineer, in an email interview. “It’s about tech workers across the industry joining a global movement of people (students, communities fighting for their own health and survival for many decades) standing up for our collective well being and future.”

Silicon Valley may be famous for its inventive rule breaking and disruptive imagination, but rank-and-file tech workers are challenging their bosses with the same creative zeal—imagining a tech future that bolsters democracy, supports human rights, and protects the Earth. With their demands, workers will test whether the titans of Big Tech can truly live up to their promises.

Michelle Chen

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These Times, Colorlines.com, and Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has also appeared in Common Dreams, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

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