Apr 19, 2024 - Technology

Google's idyllic campus image shattered by protester firings

Illustration of Google's logo progressively breaking and turning into a frowning face.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Google's firing of 28 protesting employees Wednesday sends the clearest signal yet that the tech giant — whose founders pledged it was "not a conventional company" — has become just that.

The big picture: Silicon Valley's leading firms have long told talented employees to think of the office like a campus, "bring their whole selves" to work and change the world for the better — but workers who bought those promises are facing a moment of truth.

Driving the news: The 28 firings followed sit-in protests Tuesday at Google offices in Silicon Valley and New York City.

  • The demonstrators opposed a $1.2 billion 2021 Google Cloud contract with the Israeli government, arguing that Google's support for the effort — known as Project Nimbus — was harming Palestinians in Gaza.
  • Nine employees were arrested at the sit-ins.

What they're saying: In a note to employees, CEO Sundar Pichai said, "We have a culture of vibrant, open discussion... But ultimately we are a workplace and our policies and expectations are clear: this is a business, and not a place to act in a way that disrupts coworkers or makes them feel unsafe, to attempt to use the company as a personal platform, or to fight over disruptive issues or debate politics."

  • Google also says that the Project Nimbus contract is "not directed at highly sensitive, classified, or military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services."

Between the lines: Google prided itself from its early days on creating a university-like atmosphere for the elite engineers it hired. Dissent was encouraged in the belief that open discourse fostered innovation.

  • "A lot of Google is organized around the fact that people still think they're in college when they work here," then-CEO Eric Schmidt told "In the Plex" author Steven Levy in the 2000s.

Yes, but: What worked for an organization with a few thousand employees is harder to maintain among nearly 200,000 workers.

  • Generational shifts in political and social expectations also mean that Google's leadership and its rank-and-file aren't always aligned.

Flashback: Google has already faced several waves of employee protest over its programs.

  • In 2018, thousands of Google workers protested its participation in a Defense Department effort called Project Maven that attempted to apply AI to the Pentagon's image-recognition needs. Some employees quit, arguing that their research should not be used to help target drones.
  • Another controversy centered on Dragonfly, an effort to tailor Google's search engine in a way that would make it acceptable to China's government, which was shut down in 2018.
  • The company has also previously undertaken high-profile firings or quasi-firings, like those of AI researchers Margaret Mitchell and Timnit Gebru. (Google maintains Gebru resigned.)

With this week's dismissals, the company made clear that it views the current protests not as a form of intellectual disagreement but as a matter of rules enforcement and security.

  • Chris Rackow, Google's vice president of global security, wrote in a memo that was later shared online:
  • "Unfortunately, a number of employees brought the event into our buildings in New York and Sunnyvale. They took over office spaces, defaced our property, and physically impeded the work of other Googlers. Their behavior was unacceptable, extremely disruptive, and made co-workers feel threatened...Behavior like this has no place in our workplace and we will not tolerate it... If you're one of the few who are tempted to think we're going to overlook conduct that violates our policies, think again."

The other side: Since 2021, a minority union called the Alphabet Workers Union has represented some Google workers, but lacks collective bargaining power.

  • The union said it "deplore[s] Google's decision to have its own workers arrested and terminated for participating in a peaceful protest... Working with No Tech for Apartheid, Google workers concerned about the products of their labor being used as tools of war have sought for several years to dialogue with company leadership through internal channels."

Social media posts and reports of the debate on internal Google message boards show a deep split in thinking on the firings.

  • One group of observers — often older or more conservative in perspective, and including many business leaders or investors — applauds Google, saying the protesters got what they deserved and were deluded for thinking that the workplace was an appropriate forum for political action.
  • Another group — often younger, more progressive and more friendly to labor — sees the protests as an act of conscience and the firings as a betrayal of Google's founding values.

Our thought bubble: If you build a corporation that conditions employees to see themselves as eternal students, you can't be that surprised when some of them decide to hold demonstrations.

  • Conversely, if you work for a fabulously profitable corporation that counts many of the world's governments as its customers, you can't be that surprised when it prioritizes business needs and political expedience over individual expression.
Go deeper