Fortune USA 201906

(Chris Devlin) #1







2005 2010 2015 Q1 2019







to dissolve, The Intercept published a story revealing that Google
was working on a censored search engine for China—code-named
Dragonfly—that would block information related to topics like hu-
man rights and democracy. For most employees, this was the first
they had heard of it. (Google says the project was exploratory and
was therefore still confidential.)
Jack Poulson says he was the sixth or seventh employee to cite
Dragonfly as a reason for quitting. “It was crossing a line for what
it was I felt I wanted to do with my life,” says Poulson, who was a
senior research scientist at Google. “I was literally profiting from
a company suppressing political speech.” When, the following
month, the U.S. Senate’s Commerce Committee called on Google’s
chief privacy officer to testify at a hearing about data privacy, Poul-
son sent his own letter to the committee: “I am part of a growing
movement in the tech industry advocating for more transparency,
oversight, and accountability for the systems we build.”
Google had previously operated a search engine in China but
pulled out in 2010 after the company got hacked. At the time,
management had taken what some viewed as a moral stand, with
Brin saying he saw “earmarks of totalitarianism” in the country.
With Dragonfly, some employees supported the return. But for
those who described the 2010 decision as a defining moment for
Google’s culture, the reversal was galling. “I wondered what the
heck had changed in the eight years since then,” says McMillen.
Pichai was asked that question at the New York Times confer-
ence. His response: “Our mission is to serve everyone in the world.
As part of that, it’s natural we would think about users in China as
well.” He added that Dragonfly was an experiment, and “nothing
was imminent.”
Then a new employee, McMillen recalls the company’s 2010
decision to pull out of search in China as foundational—the literal

embodiment of Google’s “don’t be evil”
ethos. “As part of the perks, Google offered
you the self-satisfaction of doing good
in the world,” says Whittaker, who was
involved in the employee resistance to both
Maven and Dragonfly. “That was profound
for a lot of people.” Paul Buchheit, a one-
time Google engineer who’s credited with
coining the mantra in the early 2000s, says
“Don’t be evil” was not a magical, black-
and-white standard. It was a way to pause
and be reflective about the work. How
did the company decide whether a given
project met the criteria? “Any arbitrary
employee was empowered to ask,” he says.
Because Dragonfly began in secret, some
employees believed they’d been robbed of
that opportunity. Nor were they convinced
that Google management had asked itself
the hard questions. “There was never any
communication that they had thought
through the ethical ramifications,” says
McMillen. Workers should be able to make
their own well-informed ethical decisions
about giving their labor to Google, he says.
Some workers indirectly involved in Drag-
onfly hadn’t even known what they were



A longtime
Google activist,
engineer Liz
quit after the


The company’s workforce has more than
tripled since 2011, reaching a scale that some
say has strained its corporate culture.
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