A former Google executive has alleged there is an internal battle within the search engine giant over protecting human rights, against the desire to make money.
And Ross LaJeunesse, the firm’s former head of global international relations, is clear he believes the later is wining and that Google’s original moto (‘Don’t be evil’) has been left behind in the pursuit of profits and higher stock prices.
LaJeunesse launched the outspoken attack on his former employer in a damming post on Medium. It should be noted that LaJeunesse is now campaigning for a seat in the US senate, and is championing (like democratic senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren) for more regulation of tech corporations.
LaJeunesse was the former deputy chief of staff of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, before he joined Google in 2008.
In 2010 as Head of Public Policy for Asia Pacific he was “proud” that Google stood up for human rights when the firm effectively retreated from the Chinese market, after it refused to abide by China’s increasingly draconian censorship rules.
Google at the time had accused Chinese-based hackers of carrying out a number of attacks on the Gmail accounts of human rights activists in the county.
That triggered a huge political row between America and China in 2011.
“I had exchanged a wood-paneled office, a suit and tie, and the job of wrestling California’s bureaucracy as Governor Schwarzenegger’s deputy chief of staff for a laptop, jeans, and a promise that I’d be making the world better and more equal, under the simple but powerful guidance ‘Don’t be evil’, wrote LaJeunesse.
“I joined Google in 2008, when those words still mattered,” he said. “I used those words myself in 2010 as Head of Public Policy for Asia Pacific, when I executed the company’s landmark decision to stop censoring Search results in China, putting human rights ahead of the bottom line.”
Google had entered China in 2006, but Larry Page and Sergey Brin said at the time Google would only stay if the company’s presence was doing more good than harm.
“But over the years, the list of items that the Chinese government demanded we censor grew significantly, and after the Chinese government attempted to hack into the Gmail accounts of human rights advocates in 2009, Larry and Sergey decided it was time to re-assess the 2006 decision,” wrote LaJeunesse.
“After a series of intense discussions with other executives, they decided that the only way to continue providing Search in China while adhering to the ‘Don’t be evil’ mantra was to cease cooperation with the government’s censorship requirements,” he wrote.
LaJeunesse said that Google’s China pull out, put everything on the line, including market share in the world’s fastest growing market, profits, and even the safety of its Chinese staff.
At one point LaJeunesse was even planning for the mass evacuation of Google’s Chinese staff and their families.
“Although difficult, I was intensely proud of the principled approach the company took in making this decision,” said LaJeunesse.
But the China withdrawal angered other Google executives, he alleged, and in 2011 executives for the Maps and Android products began pushing to launch their products in China.
“I argued strenuously against these plans, knowing that a complete turn-around in our approach would make us complicit in human rights violations, and cause outrage among civil society and the many western governments which had applauded our 2010 decision,” he wrote.
In 2012 Google appointed LaJeunesse as Head of International Relations, a role responsible for Google’s relationships with diplomats and international organisations like the UN, and for global issues like trade, internet governance and free expression.
But Google was growing quickly he alleged, and its original ethical ethos was being eroded by the cloud push and the influx of new executives from Wall Street, he alleged.
“I was alarmed when I learned in 2017 that the company had begun moving forward with the development of a new version of a censored Search product for China, codenamed “Dragonfly,” he wrote.
Google had publicly confirmed the existence of ‘Project Dragonfly’ in September 2018, after an internal petition from “hundreds of staff” called for more transparency and oversight of the project.
In November 2018 staff at Google wrote an open letter to senior management, calling for the halting of development the controversial search app for the Chinese market.
Google finally shelved the Project Dragonfly plan in July 2019.
“But Dragonfly was only one of several developments that concerned those of us who still believed in the mantra of ‘Don’t be evil’,” wrote LaJeunesse. “I was also concerned that Cloud executives were actively pursuing deals with the Saudi government, given its horrible record of human rights abuses.”
LaJeunesse alleged that he and his team were being increasingly sidelined, and he was “completely surprised” when Google in 2017 launched its own artificial intelligence (AI) lab in China, a move that “made it clear to me that I no longer had the ability to influence the numerous product developments and deals being pursued by the company.”
Google executives then allegedly began to rebuff his attempts to implement a “company-wide, formal Human Rights Program”.
“As someone who had consistently advocated for a human rights-based approach, I was being sidelined from the on-going conversations on whether to launch Dragonfly,” he wrote. “I then realised that the company had never intended to incorporate human rights principles into its business and product decisions. Just when Google needed to double down on a commitment to human rights, it decided to instead chase bigger profits and an even higher stock price.”
LaJeunesse then commented on the alleged bulling culture within Google, alleging that senior staff screamed at young women and made them cry at their desks.
LaJeunesse also noted some alleged racial incidents at the firm.
LaJeunesse then said he was accidentally copied in on an email from a senior HR director that noted that LaJeunesse seemed to be raising a lot of concerns, and the email instructed a colleague to “do some digging” on him instead.
LaJeunesse alleged that despite “11 years of glowing performance reviews” and being part of Google’s elite program for its most critical talent, he was told there was no longer a job for him as a result of a “reorganisation,” despite 90 positions on the policy team being vacant at the time.
“When I hired counsel, Google assured me that there had been a misunderstanding, and I was offered a small role in exchange for my acquiescence and silence,” LaJeunesse alleged.
“But for me, the choice was as clear as the situation. I left,” he said. “Standing up for women, for the LGBTQ community, for colleagues of colour, and for human rights – had cost me my career. To me, no additional evidence was needed that ‘Don’t be evil’ was no longer a true reflection of the company’s values; it was now nothing more than just another corporate marketing tool.”
He alleged that Google’s original leaders had become “disengaged” from the company, and indeed in December 2019 co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, announced they were stepping down from leadership roles at the firm.
LaJeunesse concluded that most people try and follow the credo “don’t be evil” and they expect their government and corporations to do the same.
Google meanwhile told the BBC it “rigorously” investigates claims of inappropriate conduct and has worked to improve the reporting process.
It said it conducts human rights assessments for its services and does not believe the more centralised approach recommended by LeJeunesse was best, given its different products.
“We have an unwavering commitment to supporting human rights organisations and efforts,” a spokeswoman told the BBC in a statement.
“We wish Ross all the best with his political ambitions,” she added.
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