Forget Big Oil. Google Is the New Target for Activists

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When Vanessa Harris started working at Google, she didn’t think the company would ever be the subject of human rights protests. But eight years later, that’s exactly what’s happened.

Google, which famously adopted the creed “Don’t be evil,” has fallen into a corporate club previously filled by oil companies, mining giants and weapons manufacturers.

On Tuesday, more than 60 human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, demanded Google end an effort to launch a censored search engine in China, saying the move could make the company “complicit in human rights violations.”

“Well, Google united the human rights groups,” Harris wrote on Twitter.

More than a week earlier, Amnesty accused Google of helping the Chinese government spy on its citizens, and posted a fake job ad on Twitter to help the company replace employees who may have quit over the “Dragonfly” project.

“When I joined Google I never expected we would be the target of an attack ad by Amnesty International,” Harris replied on Twitter, appending her tweet with a sad face emoji. “The Google I joined once (appeared to? pretended to? actually?) stood for so much more than increasing ad revenue,” she added in another tweet on Nov. 30.

Harris, a lead product manager at the company, didn’t respond to requests for comment. But her social-media posts are indicative of a broader uneasiness among some Googlers.

“Ethics are something that Googlers really, really care about,” said Yana Calou, engagement and training manager for advocacy group Coworker.org, who’s working with some Google staff activists. “There’s been some trust that’s been broken.”

Other tech giants have attracted protests before, and Google has been criticized by privacy experts and fined by European antitrust regulators. But the internet giant, which builds products loved by billions of people, was until recently seen by many as an anomaly: a corporation with a heart. Now, as the company expands its already wide reach into new markets to maintain revenue growth, the reality that Google is much like any other large company is setting in — both inside and outside the company.

“The reason people are so shocked by this is they joined Google with a certain sense that they were building technologies that were beneficial for society,’’ said Joe Westby, a researcher at Amnesty International. Google declined to comment.

Efforts like Dragonfly, along with Google’s immense size and power, have undermined this image. It’s one of the most-valuable companies, controlling how a significant part of the world’s information flows online. Google is also developing artificial intelligence technology with the potential to make other important decisions. That kind of power demands closer scrutiny, according to Westby.

“We’ve really ramped up our work on technology and human rights in light of the very clear ways in which new technologies have been shown to have such a direct influence on people’s rights and lives,’’ said Westby, who used to focus on mining companies.

Earlier this year, Google was the target of different protests — the type usually aimed at defense contractors and other weapons manufacturers. The International Committee for Robot Arms Control wrote an open letter to Google executives demanding the company cancel an AI contract with the Pentagon.

“We are deeply concerned about the possible integration of Google’s data on people’s everyday lives with military surveillance data, and its combined application to targeted killing,” the group wrote in May. “Google has moved into military work without subjecting itself to public debate or deliberation, either domestically or internationally.”

Google decided to let the contract lapse after some employees threatened to quit. It also released a list of AI principles in June, pledging not to use AI for weapons, illegal surveillance and technologies that cause “overall harm.”

Protests have also sprung up over Google’s voracious real estate appetite and a shadow workforce of temporary, vendor and contract staff who miss out on many of the perks and benefits the company is famous for.

Silicon Valley Rising, a group of labor, faith leaders and community-based organizations, gathered outside to criticize the company’s plan to build a large campus in San Jose, California. Working Partnerships USA, which supports working families in Silicon Valley, was also there to protest the San Jose plan and push the company to provide better conditions for contract workers.

“These companies have become so powerful and their reach is so wide that people are realizing they need to be scrutinized much more,” said Jeffrey Buchanan, director of public policy at Working Partnerships USA.

Google’s public image is more important to maintain than other companies. The internet giant has attracted talented engineers for years by giving them the chance to work on projects that have a positive impact on the world. Many Googlers could easily earn big paychecks at other tech companies with less idealistic roots.

As criticisms have mounted, the company continues to talk about how important its values are. At a congressional hearing on Tuesday, Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai defended the Dragonfly effort to return to China by saying access to information was “an important human right.’’

That didn’t pass muster with one employee. The company is lying to itself if it thinks Dragonfly will be better than existing Chinese search engines in terms of censorship, the person said. The only way Google will gain and keep the permission of the Chinese government to operate in the country is by contributing to oppression at least as much as the alternatives do, the employee added. They asked not to be identified for fear of losing their job.