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March 9, 2021updated 19 Mar 2021 9:43am

Discrimination and evil at Google? You must be mad

By Eric Johansson

Gigantic ad platform Google, whose motto was famously “don’t be evil”, nowadays finds itself accused of being evil in several different ways.

Google employees have said that the company treats staff complaining about workplace discrimination as a problem and offers them mental health counselling or medical leave as a prelude to easing them out of their jobs. Governments and regulators around the world have accused the ads colossus of anti-competitive behaviour. And both advertisers and privacy campaigners have condemned supposedly privacy-focused moves by the web giant to rid its Chrome browser of third-party tracking cookies.

The accusations of burying discrimination complaints have been made by current and former Googlers speaking with NBC.

Benjamin Cruz is a Mexican American and former Google Cloud division designer who prefers the pronouns they/them. Talking with NBC, they said they’d reported an incident in which a co-worker said that Cruz’s skin colour was much darker than expected.

Cruz said that the HR department advised them to take a leave of absence to deal with their mental health and return to work in a new role. However, when Cruz sought to return they say they were turned down for every new job they applied for. Eventually, they had to quit.

“After I made that complaint, my work started getting pushed out from under me, but my team acted like everything was fine. I wanted to find help,” Cruz told NBC. “When the medical leave was recommended to me, it was like an automatic process.”

The Silicon Valley company offered no comment on Cruz’s case to NBC, but other people the broadcaster spoke with claimed that the process has become normal practice.

“Going on leave is so normalised. I can think of 10 people that I know of in the last year that have gone on mental health leave because of the way they were treated,” a former Google employee and person of colour who spoke on the condition of anonymity told NBC.

Google did issue a statement saying that the company is committed to supporting employees who raise concerns about workplace treatment.

“We have a well-defined process for how employees can raise concerns and we work to be extremely transparent about how we handle complaints,” said Jennifer Rodstrom, a Google spokesperson. “All concerns reported to us are investigated rigorously, and we take firm action against employees who violate our policies.”

Workplace diversity and inclusion experts said that HR department using mental health and well-being is a common tactic for companies that ignore discrimination.

“The broader pattern of HR not being supportive, continuing to make the person who was discriminated against the problem in some way rather than the discrimination and the perpetrator of the discrimination as the problem – those are patterns that we have seen in our research,” Professor Laura Morgan Roberts told the broadcaster.

Another headache

The story is only the latest of the HR and diversity issues that have haunted Google and its parent company Alphabet over the years, including several executives being publicly accused of sexual harassment in media reports.

In 2018, Andy Rubin was among the people named and shamed in a New York Times feature detailing some of the sleazy behaviour. The Android co-founder was accused of having coerced another Google employee to perform “oral sex in a hotel room in 2013,” before being reportedly forced to resign in 2014. Rubin received a $90m golden parachute upon his exit.

According to two anonymous sources speaking with the publication at the time, Google investigated and concluded that the employee’s claims were credible, which consequently led to then Google CEO Larry Page asking for Rubin’s resignation.

Richard DeVaul, a director at Google’s research and development arm, was also named in that exposé, which accused him of having told a potential hire during a job interview that he and his wife were polyamorous. The following week he invited her to the annual Burning Man festival, where he allegedly told her to remove her shirt and give him a massage. He resigned shortly after the Times story was published.

These and other accusations against the top brass at the company motivated Google employees to walk out in November 2018 in protest. In total, some 20,000 Google employees walked out across the globe. Some of the employees organising the walkout later claimed that the Mountain View-company had retaliated against them for their initiative.

In response to the media coverage, the company’s board launched an investigation in late 2019 into its leadership’s handling of sexual harassment reports.

Unionisation

Google’s relationship with its employees took another turn in January this year with the foundation of the Alphabet Workers Union. The union was formed with support from the Communications Workers of America and is open to employees in the US and Canada. The union grew from 230 to more than 700 members within a week.

Just a few weeks later Alphabet received another surprise with the announcement of the formation of Alpha Global – a global Google union, compromised of 13 different unions across 10 countries. It was formed in coordination with UNI Global Union, the global union federation that brings together 20 million workers from multiple sectors.

There’s a growing trend of Big Tech employees closing ranks against their employers.

Amazon is currently knee-deep in a battle against the unionisation efforts of some of its workers in Alabama. The workers at the Bessemer warehouse are currently voting on whether to form the first union of Amazon workers in the US. The vote is expected to conclude later in March.

Antitrust challenges

Google is also facing a growing number of legal challenges outside of its relationship with its employees, predominantly over its dominant market position hampering competition.

The list of challenges against Alphabet in this area include the US Justice Department filing an antitrust lawsuit in October 2020, the European Commission fining Google €4.34bn in June 2018 for breaking antitrust regulations – and forcing it to offer other search options to Android users – Australia forcing Google and Facebook to the negotiation table with news publishers, and a bipartisan lawsuit filed in December claiming that Google search favours Alphabet’s own offerings over their rivals.

The most recent argument against Alphabet’s alleged antitrust practices involves Google’s decision to not build alternative tracking tools after it phases out third-party cookies in its Chrome browse.

Google has argued that removing third-party cookies from 2022 would help create “a more privacy-first web” and that its use of “privacy-preserving APIs” in its web products will “prevent individual tracking while still delivering results for advertisers and publishers”.

The decision has enraged the advertising community, many of whom argue that the Silicon Valley company is simply seeking to consolidate tracking data in its own hands.

Privacy campaigners have also argued that Google’s new solutions won’t do enough to protect privacy.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has also warned that some of Google’s proposed replacement may end up doing more harm in terms of privacy issues. In a recent blog, it warned that one of the proposed replacements, Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), could be “the most ambitious—and potentially the most harmful”.

The Google FLoC plan, the EFF said, is flawed. The campaigners contend that it’s not a question of whether to have the old or the new type of tracking but that “we should imagine a better world without the myriad problems of targeted ads”.


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