Google Fires Four Staffers For Data Policy Violations

Google is at the centre of media reports again concerning internal tensions with its own workforce.

Google fired four employees as they were allegedly in violation of the Alphabet unit’s strict data security policies, the firm said in an internal email to staff that was obtained by Bloomberg news.

But activist workers claim the move was in retaliation for a demonstration at Google’s San Francisco office last Friday, attended by more than 200 Google employees. Two of the four fired employees, Rebecca Rivers and Laurence Berland, reportedly spoke at the protest. The identities of the other two staffers have not been made public.

Fired staffers

Google’s internal email to all its staff entitled “Securing our data,” said the four staffers (dubbed the ‘thanksgiving four’) were violations of its data-security policies.

The company confirmed the contents of the memo to Bloomberg but declined to comment further.

Some supporters of the fired workers alleged the organising activities led to their dismissals.

“With these firings, Google is ramping up its illegal retaliation,” a statement from workers who are organising at the company reportedly said. “This is classic union busting dressed up in tech industry jargon, and we won’t stand for it.”

Some workers have cited Google’s recent moves, such as implementing a tracking tool on employee’s web browsers and hiring a consulting firm known for anti-union work – as attempts to curb activism. Google for its part has denied those charges.

The San Francisco protest last week saw workers demand that Google reinstate two employees who had been put on administrative leave, namely Rebecca Rivers and Laurence Berland.

On Monday, Rivers tweeted that she had been terminated from her job.

Rivers had said she was being targeted for protesting against US Customs and Border Protection, which is testing a Google cloud product. Berland was active in protests against YouTube for its handling of hate speech policies. Both reportedly said last week that they didn’t trust the company’s official explanation for punishing them.

Policy violations

But Google is insisting it fired the four workers because of data security violations.

“We’ve seen a recent increase in information being shared outside the company, including the names and details of our employees,” the Google email reportedly said. “Our teams are committed to investigating these issues, and today we’ve dismissed four employees for clear and repeated violations of our data security policies.”

“There’s been some misinformation circulating about this investigation, both internally and externally,” Google reportedly said. “We want to be clear that none of these individuals were fired for simply looking at documents or calendars during the ordinary course of their work.”

“To the contrary, our thorough investigation found the individuals were involved in systematic searches for other employees’ materials and work,” it said.

“This includes searching for, accessing, and distributing business information outside the scope of their jobs – repeating this conduct even after they were met with and reminded about our data security policies,” it said. “This information, along with details of internal emails and inaccurate descriptions about Googlers’ work, was subsequently shared externally.”

Staff tensions

IT is fair to say that Google has been dealing with internal tensions with its staff in recent years.

In April this year for example, at a ‘town hall’ meeting, staff alleged that Google regularly retaliates against employees who speak out.

And then on 21 October, several dozen workers at Google’s office in Zurich reportedly held an event about workers’ rights and unionisation, despite their managers’ attempts to cancel it.

In September contract workers for Google in Pittsburgh voted to join the United Steelworkers union.

But the biggest bone of contention in the past 18 months has been caused by sexual harassment concerns.

Last November 20,000 Google staff around the world staged a mass walkout to protest at the lenient treatment and payouts for executives accused of sexual harassment.

Two of the organisers of that November global walkout, Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton, had circulated a letter internally to other Google staffers, alleging they were being punished for their activism.

More publicity came when the New York Times published an article in 2018 that alleged that Google had protected three senior executives from allegations of sexual misconduct, which allegedly included the father of Android Andy Rubin.

Rubin stepped down from his position as Android boss in 2013, and eventually left Google altogether in October 2014.

Rubin however has denied the sexual misconduct allegations and has said that the New York Times story contained ‘numerous inaccuracies,’ and wild exaggerations about his compensation.

But matters were not helped in March this year, when court documents revealed a very senior Google executive had been paid a huge amount of money as part of a controversial severance package.

Amit Singhal was reportedly paid as much as $45m according to some media reports, after he was allegedly forced to resign from the search engine giant, after a sexual assault investigation.

Google staff have also protested against a number of Google projects, including a censored search engine in China (Project Dragonfly) and a contract with the Pentagon to analyse drone footage (Project Maven).

Quiz: What do you know about Google?

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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