Google employees demand company renounce working with Trump immigration agencies

  • Google employees are calling on the company to pledge it won't work with U.S. Customs and Border Protection or Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- the latest in a year full of political and social pushback from the tech giant's workforce.

    Google employees are calling on the company to pledge it won't work with U.S. Customs and Border Protection or Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- the latest in a year full of political and social pushback from the tech giant's workforce. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

 
 
Posted8/17/2019 6:00 AM

Google's challenges are mounting from within as employees call on the company to promise it won't do business with the Trump administration's immigration apparatus.

More than 600 Google employees signed a Medium petition challenging Google executives to pledge not to do business with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Employees launched the effort as concerns are growing that Google could be in the running for a new cloud contract that CBP is seeking.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The petition slams CBP for engaging in "human rights abuses at the U.S. Southern border," and insisted that the company "would be trading its integrity for a bit of profit" if it worked with these agencies.

"We refuse to be complicit. It is unconscionable that Google, or any other tech company, would support agencies engaged in caging and torturing vulnerable people," the employees wrote.

The petition creates another dilemma for Google, which has been forced to respond in recent years to a groundswell of employee activism that is shaping the company's business decisions on everything from Pentagon contracts to its business plans in China.

The Trump era has sparked a Catch-22 for the company as criticism surges across the political spectrum. The search giant is trying to appease liberal employees who are increasingly taking their beef with the company's positions public, while simultaneously weathering accusations from Republicans -- including the president -- who say the company is politically biased against conservatives. (Google did not respond to a request for comment on the petition, but the company has repeatedly denied it is biased against conservatives.)

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Mark Egerman, a Google Maps product manager who was one of the co-authors of the petition, tells me that he doesn't believe there is any possible situation where Google will be able to appease Republican critics such as President Donald Trump or Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas.

Egerman calling on Google's leadership to prioritize morality above politics. "I am empathetic toward the leadership, I would not want the president tweeting at me," he said. "But he's going to do it anyways, so let's do the right thing."

Yet taking a strong stance against working with the Trump administration's immigration agencies could strain an already tense relationship between Google and the Trump administration. The president has escalated his attacks on the search giant in recent months on Twitter. Earlier this month, he unleashed a series of tweets accusing the company of favoring negative news stories about him in the 2016 election, adding his administration is watching the company "very closely."

Google employees are concerned that the administration will turn to the search giant for cloud products because it is one of the top three providers of such services. Amazon and Microsoft also have significant cloud computing businesses and contracts with the government, and employees at those companies have voiced similar concerns about doing business with immigration authorities. Microsoft employees last year called on the company to cancel work with ICE, and Amazon employees wrote a letter stating they were "deeply concerned" that Amazon is providing infrastructure and services that enable ICE as well as the Department of Homeland Security. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The employee activism on immigration has surged beyond the tech giants. Employees at Boston-based Wayfair recently staged a walkout to protest executives' refusal to withdrawal from a contract that provided bedroom furniture to a federal detention center for migrants. The Google employees "stand with" the activists within other companies, Egerman said. Employees from Wayfair, Amazon and Microsoft also signed Google's petition.

The petition is just the latest sign that employee activism at Google is only picking up as employees realize their power to influence company decision-making in a competitive market for tech talent. Last year, Google employees staged a global walkout to protest the company's policy of requiring employees to settle disputes with the company through forced arbitration, which critics said silenced employees who experienced sexual harassment at the company. Google employees also protested the company's controversial plans to build a censored version of its search engine for China, known as Project Dragonfly. A Google executive recently testified that project has been "terminated." Googlers also protested a contract that the company had with the Pentagon, known as Project Maven, due to concerns Google's technology could be used to build artificial intelligence for warfare. The company decided not to renew the contract under the pressure.

Wired's Nitasha Tiku recently documented the roller-coaster of employee activism confronting Google in this month's magazine cover story. She writes the wave of employee activism stems from the company's corporate culture: "To invent products like Gmail, Earth, and Translate, you need coddled geniuses free to let their minds run wild," she writes. "But to lock down lucrative government contracts or expand into coveted foreign markets, as Google increasingly needed to do, you need to be able to issue orders and give clients what they want."

Egerman said yesterday evening he had not heard a response from Google executives. He hopes they will back employees, as they did in the early days of the Trump administration, when thousands of employees rallied against Trump's travel ban from seven Muslim-majority countries. Google executives including chief executive Sundar Pichai and Google co-founder Sergey Brin joined the employees in voicing concerns over the order.

"We have seen in the past two years Google employees very engaged in fighting for what they believe is right," Egerman said. "Without clarity from leadership, this is not going away."

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