Fortune

GOOGLE’S CIVIL WAR

Some employees say Google is losing touch with its “Don’t be evil” motto. What happens when an empowered tech workforce rebels?

500 RANK

15

ALPHABET

REVENUES

$136.8 BILLION

PROFITS

$30.7 BILLION

EMPLOYEES

98,771

TOTAL RETURN TO SHAREHOLDERS (2008–2018 ANNUAL RATE)

21.1%

IT STARTED IN TOKYO ON Nov. 1, 2018, when 100 employees walked out of Google’s office at 11:10 a.m. local time. Thirteen hours later, the elevators at the company’s New York City headquarters were so packed that workers took the stairs down to the street to protest. Google employees in Austin observed two minutes of silence for victims of sexual assault as part of their demonstration. In San Francisco, hundreds of employees gathered across from the historic Ferry Building and chanted “Time’s Up at Google” and held signs with slogans like “Workers’ Rights Are Women’s Rights” and “Free Food Safe Space.”

After Googlers in Sydney walked out, 25 hours after Asia had kicked things off, 20,000 Google employees in 50 cities around the world had joined their colleagues to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment.

The spark that ignited the walkout was a New York Times article that had appeared a week earlier, reporting that Google paid former executive Andy Rubin a $90 million exit package, despite facing a sexual misconduct accusation Google deemed credible. (In a statement to the Times, Rubin said the story contained “numerous inaccuracies about my employment.”)

It was the first time the world had seen such a massive worker protest erupt out of one of the giants of the technology industry—and certainly the first time outsiders got a glimpse at the depth of anger and frustration felt by some Google employees. But inside the Googleplex, the fuel that fed the walkout had been collecting for months. Tensions had been on the rise as employees clashed with management over allegations of controversial business decisions made in secret, treatment of marginalized groups of employees, and harassment and trolling of workers on the company’s internal platforms. “It’s the U.S. culture war playing out at micro-scale,” says Colin McMillen, an engineer who left the company in February.

To many observers, the tech workforce—notoriously well-paid and pampered with perks—hardly seems in a position to complain. And it’s a surprising tune to hear from employees of one of the titans of Silicon Valley, a place that has long worshipped at the altar of meritocracy and utopian techno-futurism. But in the past few years, the industry’s de facto mission statement—change the world (and make money doing it!)—has been called into question as examples of tech’s destructive power multiply, from election interference to toxicity on social media platforms to privacy breaches to tech addiction. No one is closer to tech’s growing might, as well as its ethical quandaries, than the employees who help create it. “People are beginning to say, ‘I don’t want to be complicit in this,’” says Meredith Whittaker, who leads Google’s Open Research group and is one of the walkout organizers. Workers are beginning to take responsibility, she says: “I don’t see many other structures in place right now that are checking tech power.”

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