The company?s motto used to be ?Don?t be evil.? Things have changed.
Ross LaJeunesse, Democratic Candidate for U.S. Senate in Maine.
When I walked out the door on my last day as Google?s Head of International Relations, I couldn?t help but think of my first day at the company. 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.?
I joined Google in 2008, when those words still mattered. I saw them used to guide product designs that put the company?s success above a user?s privacy, such as during the development of Google?s ill-fated social network, Buzz. 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 first entered the Chinese market in 2006. At the time, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin said that Google would only stay if the company?s presence was doing more good than harm ? that users were getting more information than before, even if there was censorship of some topics. 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. 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.
We knew this would cause a very public confrontation with the government, although we were never sure how bad it would get. In China, the government not only demands full access to a company?s user data and infrastructure, it also expects the full cooperation of companies to ensure that Chinese users see only content that is in line with government standards. For example, on a Maps product, the government requires that all geographic labels and information be approved by the government in advance, and that any user-generated content be strictly controlled by the company to avoid publication of anything the government deems ?problematic,? which can be difficult to define.
Our 2010 decision to stop cooperating with Chinese government censorship on Search results was the first time a non-Chinese corporation stood up to the Chinese government. In doing so, Google put everything on the line ? its future in the world?s fastest-growing internet market, billions of dollars in profit, even the safety of our Chinese employees. At one point, I began planning for a possible mass evacuation of all our Google employees based in China, as well as their families. Although difficult, I was intensely proud of the principled approach the company took in making this decision.
However, the decision infuriated not only the Chinese government, but also frustrated some Google product executives eyeing the huge market and its accompanying profits. In fact, within a year of the 2010 decision, 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. I also explained that none of these plans would move forward because the Chinese government was furious with us, and would refuse to meet with us to even discuss these projects. In fact, over the next two years, the Chinese government only agreed to meet with us once, when relatively low-level staff at the Ministry of Land and Resources politely listened as we asked about launching a Maps product. When we affirmed that our Maps product would also not comply with censorship requirements, they stopped responding to additional requests.
After close to three years in Asia, the company asked me to be Head of International Relations in late 2012, a role responsible for Google?s relationships with diplomats, civil society and international organizations like the UN, and for global issues like trade, internet governance and free expression. As I was growing in seniority and responsibility, the company was growing rapidly in size and revenue ? from an already large and successful company to a tech behemoth that intersects with the daily lives of billions of people across the globe. The number of employees was also growing quickly, with new staff and executives being hired to develop products and pursue new lines of business, such as Cloud computing, in every corner of the globe.
In my new role, my team and I continued to engage with product executives who were increasingly frustrated by the phenomenal growth in the Chinese market and pushed hard for our re-entry into China. 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.? But Dragonfly was only one of several developments that concerned those of us who still believed in the mantra of ?Don?t be evil.? I was also concerned that Cloud executives were actively pursuing deals with the Saudi government, given its horrible record of human rights abuses. Cloud executives made no secret of the fact that they wanted to hire their own policy team, which would effectively block any review of their contracts by my team. Finally, in December 2017, Google announced the establishment of the Google Center for Artificial Intelligence in Beijing ? something that completely surprised me, and 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.
My solution was to advocate for the adoption of a company-wide, formal Human Rights Program that would publicly commit Google to adhere to human rights principles found in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, provide a mechanism for product and engineering teams to seek internal review of product design elements, and formalize the use of Human Rights Impact Assessments for all major product launches and market entries.
But each time I recommended a Human Rights Program, senior executives came up with an excuse to say no. At first, they said human rights issues were better handled within the product teams, rather than starting a separate program. But the product teams weren?t trained to address human rights as part of their work. When I went back to senior executives to again argue for a program, they then claimed to be worried about increasing the company?s legal liability. We provided the opinion of outside experts who re-confirmed that these fears were unfounded. At this point, a colleague was suddenly re-assigned to lead the policy team discussions for Dragonfly. 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. I then realized 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.
It was no different in the workplace culture. Senior colleagues bullied and screamed at young women, causing them to cry at their desks. At an all-hands meeting, my boss said, ?Now you Asians come to the microphone too. I know you don?t like to ask questions.? At a different all-hands meeting, the entire policy team was separated into various rooms and told to participate in a ?diversity exercise? that placed me in a group labeled ?homos? while participants shouted out stereotypes such as ?effeminate? and ?promiscuous.? Colleagues of color were forced to join groups called ?Asians? and ?Brown people? in other rooms nearby.
In each of these cases, I brought these issues to HR and senior executives and was assured the problems would be handled. Yet in each case, there was no follow up to address the concerns ? until the day I was accidentally copied on an email from a senior HR director. In the email, the HR director told a colleague that I seemed to raise concerns like these a lot, and instructed her to ?do some digging? on me instead.
Then, despite being rated and widely known as one of the best people managers at the company, despite 11 years of glowing performance reviews and near-perfect scores on Google?s 360-performance evaluations, and despite being a member of the elite Foundation Program reserved for Google?s ?most critical talent? who are ?key to Google?s current and future success,? I was told there was no longer a job for me as a result of a ?reorganization,? 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. But for me, the choice was as clear as the situation. I left. Standing up for women, for the LGBTQ community, for colleagues of color, 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.
I?ve been asked many times since returning home, ?What changed??
First, the people. The founders and visionaries behind the company, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, disengaged and left management in the hands of new senior executives. A new CEO was hired to lead Google Cloud and a new CFO was hired from Wall Street, and beating earnings expectations every quarter became the key priority. Every year, thousands of new employees join the company, overwhelming everyone who fought to preserve the company?s original values and culture. When I joined the company there were under 10,000 Googlers and by the time I left, there were over 100,000.
Second, the products. Some will say that Google was always a bad corporate actor, with less than transparent privacy practices. But there is a significant difference between serving ads based on a Google search and working with the Chinese government on artificial intelligence or hosting the applications of the Saudi government, including Absher, an application that allows men to track and control the movement of their female family members. Executives hell-bent on capturing cloud computing revenue from Microsoft, Oracle, and Amazon had little patience for those of us arguing for some form of principled debate before agreeing to host the applications and data of any client willing to pay.
I think the important question is what does it mean when one of America?s marque? companies changes so dramatically. Is it the inevitable outcome of a corporate culture that rewards growth and profits over social impact and responsibility? Is it in some way related to the corruption that has gripped our federal government? Is this part of the global trend toward ?strong man? leaders who are coming to power around the globe, where questions of ?right? and ?wrong? are ignored in favor of self-interest and self-dealing? Finally, what are the implications for all of us when that once-great American company controls so much data about billions of users across the globe?
Although the causes and the implications are worth debating, I am certain of the appropriate response. No longer can massive tech companies like Google be permitted to operate relatively free from government oversight. As soon as Google executives were asked by Congress about Project Dragonfly and Google?s commitment to free expression and human rights, they assured Congress that the project was exploratory and it was subsequently shut down.
The role of these companies in our daily lives, from how we run our elections to how we entertain and educate our children, is just too great to leave in the hands of executives who are accountable only to their controlling shareholders who ? in the case of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Snap ? happen to be fellow company insiders and founders.
Two weeks after leaving Google, I returned home to Maine. It?s where I was born and raised, and where I was taught basic values like the importance of working hard, standing up for what is right, and speaking the truth. Sharing my story with my neighbors and my family has helped me understand why I was so often in conflict with the company?s leaders as Google changed. There are many people here in Maine and throughout the country who live by the credo ?Don?t be evil.? We may not use that language, and we don?t have billion dollar marketing budgets to convince the world of our goodness. But, we live by those words every day, and we expect our government and our corporations to do the same.