Fortune USA 201906

(Chris Devlin) #1



contractor to the Department of Defense
for Maven in 2017, but most people inside
the company didn’t learn about it until the
following year, when an employee wrote an
unsanctioned post about the clandestine
project on Google’s internal social media
platform. Executives told worried em-
ployees that Maven was defensive rather
than offensive. Still, some workers were
concerned that Google’s technology could
ultimately be used to make drone strikes
more lethal, and that Maven would lead to
additional deals between Google and the
military. What’s more, some say manage-
ment’s argument that the contract was in
support of “our” military did not always
resonate with a global workforce.
For Laura Nolan, then a Google engi-
neer working in Ireland, “It was such a
betrayal,” she says. “We’re pretending to be
a happy company that does lovely informa-
tion organizing, and then you’re building
several steps toward killer drones flying
around.” Nolan, who says her work would
have enabled future stages of Maven,
quit the company over it. Employees like
Nolan didn’t expect Google to be a defense
contractor like Raytheon—or even like
Amazon, which has been open and un-
apologetic about working with the military.
Even before the bulk of the company
learned about Maven, several senior en-
gineers were escalating their concerns
internally. Once Maven became more widely
known, the resistance spread, with a group
of employees writing a letter to Pichai ask-
ing that he cancel the project. In March

by activists’ sophisticated use of the media and the world’s fascina-
tion with the iconic company. The scene that played out at the
walkout was, on one level, as familiar as a factory strike—a labor
force flexing its collective power to send a message to The Man
(in this case, CEO Pichai). But even as activists inside Google are
relying on traditional labor organizing tactics, their demands are
not just the typical wage or benefits ask. It’s about much more than
a paycheck; employees, it’s clear, want a say in and control over the
products they build.
Google has already transformed so many aspects of the way we
work today. The walkout was an inflection point, a sign that the
company is now poised to disrupt something even more founda-
tional to our economic system: the relationship between labor and
capital. It’s a shift that could perhaps begin only in Silicon Valley, a
place that has long believed itself above such traditional business
concerns—and, more to the point, only at this company, one that
hired and retained employees on the premise of do no evil. Now
employees seem determined to view that manifesto through their
own lens and apply it without compromise, even at the cost of the
company’s growth. “Who decides what is the soul of Google and
what Google is?” asks Lokman Tsui, formerly Google’s go-to execu-
tive on issues of free expression and censorship in Asia and the
Pacific. “Is it leadership or employees? There’s a real battle for the
soul of these companies right now.”


OOGLE’S BROAD MISSION of organizing the world’s informa-
tion and making it more accessible has led the company
to digitize books, mount cameras on the top of cars in
order to map the world through images, and design
virtual reality viewers made of cardboard.
But as the company has grown ever larger, so have its ambitions.
In 2018, as Google employees found out about two new secretive
projects that were underway, some questioned whether the tech gi-
ant had stretched too far beyond the bounds of its mandate in the
name of expansion.
The first was the Pentagon’s Project Maven, which uses artificial
intelligence to help analyze drone footage. Google became a sub-



From clandestine projects to leaks to walkouts, it’s been an eventful couple of y

JULY 2017


Google engineer
James Damore posts
an internal memo
arguing against the
value of diversity in
tech; Google ultimately
fires him.




Most employees learn
for the first time that
the Pentagon was
using the company’s
A.I. to analyze drone

JUNE 2018


Google announces
it will not renew its
contract for Project
Maven and releases
a set of A.I. principles
to guide its use of the
disruptive technology.



The Intercept reports
that Google is working
on a censored search
engine in China; it’s the
first most employees
are hearing of the



The Times reports
that Google paid for-
mer exec Andy Rubin
$90 million despite a
sexual misconduct ac-
cusation. (Rubin con-
tested the reporting.)
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