From its earliest days, Google urged employees to “act like owners” and pipe up in all manner of forums, from mailing lists to its meme generator to open-ended question-and-answer sessions with top executives, known as T.G.I.F. It was part of what it meant to be “Googley,” one of the company’s most common compliments.
…Over the past year, however, Google has appeared to clamp down. It has gradually scaled back opportunities for employees to grill their bosses and imposed a set of workplace guidelines that forbid “a raging debate over politics or the latest news story.” It has tried to prevent workers from discussing their labor rights with outsiders at a Google facility and even hired a consulting firm that specializes in blocking unions. Then, in November, came the firing of the four activists. The escalation sent tremors through the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif., and its offices in cities like New York and Seattle, prompting many employees — whether or not they had openly supported the activists — to wonder if the company’s culture of friendly debate was now gone for good.
…With social media swallowing up the public square, it was hard not to notice that Google and Facebook had become an advertising duopoly with an unsettling grip on the entire world’s attention. And after the 2016 presidential election, the consequences of the social media revolution came to seem dystopian. Many engineers felt deeply anguished at the news that foreign governments had exploited their technology in an attempt to influence domestic politics. “It showed that pretty much any system large enough and complex enough can be co-opted for nefarious purposes,” Rivers said.
Others became increasingly concerned that the Trump administration might now use their tools in service of policies they found immoral. Unknown to them, Google was at work on a project that would bring these anxieties right to their own work spaces. In September 2017, the company quietly entered into a contract to help the U.S. Department of Defense track people and vehicles in video footage captured by drones. During a meeting that December, Google presented initial results that showed its artifical-intelligence software was more successful than human data labelers at identifying vehicles, according to an internal Google document we reviewed. By February, the effort, known as Project Maven, was slotted into a launch calendar for soon-to-be-deployed products.
…The discovery that their employer was working hand in hand with the Defense Department to bolster drone warfare “was a watershed moment,” said Meredith Whittaker, an A.I. researcher based in New York who led Google’s Open Research Group. “If they were able to do that without any internal backlash, dissent, we would have crossed a significant line.”
…Whittaker’s concerns that the technology would enable extrajudicial killings were met with platitudes, or worse.
…Over the summer, another secret program, nicknamed Dragonfly, came to light in The Intercept. The project would censor search results in China on behalf of the Chinese government, and after months of internal protest, Google appeared to back away from that program too.
…Executives had too much power over the company, and they had too little. They wanted more. They organized chat groups on encrypted apps like Signal, with innocuous names like “care package delivery” so that they wouldn’t be outed if a manager glimpsed their phones. They prepared tip sheets to help workers approach colleagues, in hopes of building a permanent organization.
Some senior Google executives spoke approvingly about the walkout, but the company also made clear there were limits to its tolerance for worker protests.
…Ross LaJeunesse, a top public-policy official at the company, had long been concerned that Google’s cloud business was drawing the company into a web of relationships with repressive foreign governments and other questionable actors. “It makes us an accessory if we are hosting their email systems or their data,” he said in an interview.
…Sensitive material would not necessarily be labeled “need to know.” The onus would be on workers to determine whether they should look at it or not. “In my orientation, I was encouraged to read all the design documents I could find, look at anything about how decisions are made,” said Duke, the New York engineer. “Now they’re saying that’s no longer OK. That is a major shift in culture.”
…Kurian focused on hiring more sales and customer-support personnel and made clear that he was eager to do business with the government. At one point, Whittaker recalled her manager’s telling her that Kurian aspired to be “everywhere Lockheed is.” (Google said Kurian never made a direct comparison between Google’s business and Lockheed Martin’s defense work.) And in July, Kurian got an opportunity: Customs and Border Protection announced the first step toward bidding out a major information-technology contract.
…Before long, many realized that they, too, had been unwittingly working on technology that could benefit the agency.
The biggest uproar surrounded a project called Anthos, a program that allows customers to combine their existing cloud services and Google’s. According to a report in Business Insider, internal documents showed that Google had given C.B.P. a trial of Anthos. Some engineers working on the project were enraged. They had been told that Anthos was intended for banks and other businesses. Workers took to internal mailing lists to express their outrage about the project.
…Regardless of the merits of the contracts, there was the disturbing fact that the engineers working on them had been misled about the purpose of the technology they were creating. Some had decided to work on Anthos precisely because it did not appear to be destined for the national-security apparatus. “If workers aren’t told what the real purpose of their work is, they have no agency in deciding whether or not they want to help with those things,” Berland said. “They become unwittingly complicit.”
…Around the same time, employees discovered that Google officials had been meeting with a firm called IRI Consultants since at least May. The firm has done work helping to defeat organizing campaigns at hospitals and other workplaces, in one case by instructing managers to play up the history of Mafia influence on organized labor.
…. In September, the internal security team interviewed a handful of employees who had been involved in circulating the petition asking Google not to work with Customs and Border Protection and in unearthing the documents showing that Google already was.
“Don’t Be Evil.”