Google Culture War Escalates as Era of Transparency Wanes

Google Culture War Escalates as Era of Transparency Wanes

Google has been facing internal conflict for almost two years

HIGHLIGHTS
  • The extent of Google’s employee rebellion is hard to measure
  • Google CEO Sundar Pichai has at times supported internal activism
  • Google’s open systems also proved valuable for internal activists

Each morning, workers at Google get an internal newsletter called the “Daily Insider.” Kent Walker, Google’s top lawyer, set off a firestorm when he argued in the November 14 edition that the 21-year old company had outgrown its policy of allowing workers to access nearly any internal document. “When we were smaller, we all worked as one team, on one product, and everyone understood how business decisions were made,” Walker wrote. “It’s harder to give a company of over 100,000 people the full context on everything.”

Many large companies have policies restricting access to sensitive information to a “need-to-know” basis. But in some segments of Google’s workforce, the reaction to Walker’s argument was immediate and harsh. On an internal messaging forum, one employee described the data policy as “a total collapse of Google culture.” An engineering manager posted a lengthy attack on Walker’s note, which he called “arrogant and infantilising.” The need-to-know policy “denies us a form of trust and respect that is again an important part of the intrinsic motivation to work here,” the manager wrote.

The complaining also spilled into direct action. A group of Google programmers created a tool that allowed employees to choose to alert Walker with an automated email every time they opened any document at all, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. The deluge of notifications was meant as a protest to what they saw as Walker’s insistence on controlling the minutiae of their professional lives.

  • Sundar Pichai Pens Letter to Fellow Googlers on His Elevation: Full Text

“When it comes to data security policies, we’ve never intended to prevent employees from sharing technical learnings and information and we are not limiting anyone’s ability to raise concerns or debate the company’s activities,” said a Google spokeswoman in an email. “We have a responsibility to safeguard our user, business and customer information and these activities need to be done in line with our policies on data security.”

The actions are just the latest chapter in an internal conflict that has been going on for almost two years. About 20,000 employees walked out last fall over the company’s generous treatment of executives accused of sexual harassment, and a handful quit over Google’s work on products for the US military and a censored search engine for the Chinese market. Earlier this year, Google hired IRI Consultants, a firm that advises employers on how to combat labor organising, and it recently fired four employees for violating its policies on accessing sensitive data.

The extent of Google’s employee rebellion is hard to measure – the company has tried to portray it as the work of a handful of malcontents from the company’s junior ranks. Nor are the company’s message boards unilaterally supportive of revolt. “We want to focus on our jobs when we come into the workplace rather than deal with a new cycle of outrage every few days or vote on petitions for or against Google’s latest project,” wrote one employee on an internal message board viewed by Bloomberg News.

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