When alphabet staff decided to make protests at their offices this week, there was a big difference from the last time internet giant workers held a demonstration: They were now reluctant to use Google products for any planning. Just over a week earlier, two of their colleagues claimed that the company had retaliated after they had organized a massive walkout back in November. So, instead of using the most convenient communication tools in the world, they chose encrypted text applications to keep their plans out of the potential view of the employer. In less than 24 hours they planned a Wednesday "sit-in" where more than 1,000 googlers in 15 US offices reminded the firm that it still has to respond to its own workforce.
Activism in the alphabet reached a dramatic peak in November last year when 20,000 employees over 50 offices worldwide went out of work to protest how Google's parent company is about harassment and discrimination charges. But company demonstrations about how it does business, and with whom, have been going on for a couple of years now. In June, Alphabet decided to stop building artificial intelligence for a Pentagon drone program after thousands of employees signed a petition that required the company to terminate the contract. And it was only in August that a thousand employees signed an internal petition asking Google to scrap Project Dragonfly, the plan to build a censored search engine in China, which the company had to address. None of these consequences would have happened without organizing the staff, and the current push of the alphabet to protect workers' disagreement seems to be underlined by the belief that if someone is to meaningfully regulate one of the most powerful companies in the world, it must be The talent that helps make it so powerful.
Wednesday's action comes just over a week after two key organizers of the November end, Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton, shared an internal Google mailing list of examples of alleged retaliation they encountered in the months that followed. The exit, which was held to protest how the company had dealt with serious allegations of sexual assault and harassment, and how many employees were described as a culture of impunity for leaders, led to immediate reforms in the alphabet. Within days, the company agreed to terminate compulsory arbitration in cases involving charges of sexual harassment or abuse, a policy that prevented employees from taking their complaints to court. Employers continued to organize, and in February, Google completely removed its compulsory arbitration policy for employees.
But the organizers still felt stuck. Stapleton, a 12-year-old veteran at Google, shared that she was informed that she would be demoted and lose half of those reporting to her. "I was told to go on sick leave, even though I wasn't sick," wrote Stapleton 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 return her decision to demote her. Whittaker, who leads Google's open research group and is co-founder of the AI Now Institute at New York University, was told that she had to "leave [her] work on AI ethics and the AI Now Institute," according to an e-mail. she sent her internally. (Google disputes employees' claims for retaliation.)
Instead of leaving the office in tune with Wednesday, Google workers used a variety of tactics. Someone called in sick, a reference to Stapleton's directive on taking medical leave. Others set up an email auto-reply to details their complaints about how the company has processed the walkout organizers. In cities such as New York, Pittsburgh, Cambridge, and Mountain View, California, workers gather to read accounts shared by employees across the company, claiming retaliation to speak against sexual harassment, management discussions, and pay discrimination and campaigns on Google.
If employees are afraid to speak out when they are abused, it will be even more difficult to talk about ethics in Google's work. Whistleblowing in technology companies is one of the few promises that can hold these conglomerates accountable. Users may complain, but businesses do not need to respond. Lawmakers could regulate and force companies such as Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon to be more transparent and accountable, but that probably doesn't happen in the US anytime soon. Technical companies, after all, are working hard to stay inexplicable by spending big and hiring former governments to recover. Just last month, Facebook brought the co-author of the Patriot Act as his general advisor. Last year, it was reported that Google took over every other company in the country in its efforts to lobby US lawmakers, and in the first quarter of this year, Amazon spread both Facebook and Google in its bid to influence Washington. Even when European regulators have cracked down on technology companies' overreak, as they have over the past three years, issuing fines to the Alphabet that add up to $ 9 billion, it doesn't mean much more than a few carriers for a company with just $ 137 billion. dollars in sales in 2018 alone.
Google and its peers are huge enough that most of us rely on them to handle important functions in our daily lives. It is partly because their products are so useful. Google tells us where to go and how to get there. Facebook helps us maintain relationships in our communities. We rely on software from engineering companies to guide how we work, relax, and learn. Technology companies, like Google, deliver the information we need to participate meaningfully in democracy. But these companies have also become so big that they face few controls on their behavior. It has put workers in an important position.
The alphabet may not like its employees forcing it to improve. But as a user of Google products, I am grateful. When it comes to queuing one of the most powerful companies in the world, whistleblowers are often all we have. And scary is that Google's technology is so embedded in our life-Gmail, Chrome, Search, Docs, Maps, Android – that when there's something we don't like about Google, there's often no other place to go. Employee organization has important changes so far. Hopefully, for everyone's sake, depending on Google products, it will again.
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