Tres años de miseria dentro de Google, la compañía más feliz en tecnología


En un brillante El lunes de enero de 2017, a las 2:30 de la tarde, unos mil empleados de Google, horrorizados, alarmados y un poco mareados, comenzaron a salir de las oficinas de la compañía en Mountain View, California. Se metieron en un alegre patio fuera de la cafetería principal del campus, un área parecida a un parque salpicada de mesas de picnic y una estructura de sombra que se asemeja a un juego gigante de palos de recolección. Muchos de ellos sostenían carteles hechos a mano: "Orgulloso Google iraní-estadounidense", "Incluso los introvertidos están aquí" y, por supuesto, "¡No seas malvado!", Escrito en los mismos colores de jardín de infantes que el logotipo de Google.

Después de unos cuantos rondas de cantos de llamada y respuesta y testimonios de empleados individuales, alguien ajustó el micrófono del mitin para el marco alto y larguirucho del próximo orador. Sundar Pichai, el CEO de 15 meses de voz suave de Google, se paró en el pequeño claro en la densa multitud que sirvió como una etapa improvisada. "En las últimas 24 a 48 horas, todos hemos estado trabajando muy duro", dijo, "y en cada paso del camino he sentido el apoyo de 60,000 personas detrás de mí".

Era, para ser precisos, el 30 de enero; La presidencia de Donald Trump tenía 10 días. Y la Orden Ejecutiva 13769, una prohibición federal de viajar a ciudadanos de Irán, Irak, Libia, Somalia, Sudán, Siria y Yemen, y una suspensión total de las admisiones de refugiados estadounidenses, había estado en vigor durante 73 horas, atrapando a cientos de viajeros en el limbo. en los aeropuertos de la nación. Por el momento, la advertencia de marca registrada de la compañía contra el mal estaba dirigida a un objetivo claro e inconfundiblemente externo: la Casa Blanca.

A todo el mundo parecía que Google —una de las corporaciones más poderosas, pro inmigrantes y ostensiblemente progresistas en los Estados Unidos— estaba adoptando una posición unificada. Pero esa apariencia de unanimidad enmascaró una oleada de indecisión y ansiedad a nivel ejecutivo. Probablemente hubiera sido más apropiado si Pichai hubiera dicho que, durante las 48 horas anteriores, miles de sus empleados lo habían arrinconado.

En esos primeros días de la era de Trump, los líderes de Google estaban desesperados por evitar la confrontación con el nuevo régimen. La historia de estrechos lazos de la compañía con la administración Obama dejó a los ejecutivos sintiéndose especialmente vulnerables al movimiento reaccionario, incubado en parte en la propia plataforma de video de Google, YouTube, que había organizado, reunido y votado a Trump en el cargo. (No ayudó que Eric Schmidt, entonces presidente ejecutivo de la empresa matriz de Google, Alphabet, hubiera sido asesor de la campaña de Hillary Clinton, o que alrededor del 90 por ciento de las donaciones políticas de los empleados de Google hayan ido a los demócratas en 2016). Kent Walker El vicepresidente de política pública de aversión al riesgo de Google había aconsejado a los empleados que no hicieran nada que pudiera molestar a Steve Bannon o Breitbart. Entonces, cuando se anunció la prohibición de viajar en la tarde del viernes 27 de enero, los ejecutivos de Google inicialmente esperaban "simplemente mantener [their] baja la cabeza y deja que explote ", según un empleado que estuvo cerca de esos cálculos iniciales.

Pero los dictados tribales de la propia fuerza laboral de Google hicieron que mentir fuera casi imposible. Larry Page y Sergey Brin, los ex niños Montessori que fundaron Google como estudiantes graduados de Stanford a finales de los 90, habían diseñado la famosa cultura abierta de su compañía para facilitar el pensamiento libre. Los empleados estaban "obligados a disentir" si veían algo con lo que no estaban de acuerdo, y se les animaba a "poner todo de su parte" al trabajo en lugar de revisar su política y su vida personal en la puerta. Y lo salvaje de Google fue que tantos empleados cumplieron. Participaron en miles de listas de correo en línea, incluido IndustryInfo, un mega foro con más de 30,000 miembros; Coffee Beans, un foro para discutir la diversidad; y Poly-Discuss, una lista para Googlers poliamorosos. Publicaron incesantemente en una versión solo para empleados de Google+ y en Memegen, una herramienta interna para crear y votar memes. Los jueves, Google organizaría una reunión de toda la compañía llamada TGIF, conocida por sus preguntas y respuestas sin restricciones donde los empleados podían y lo hicieron, desafiando agresivamente a los ejecutivos.

Todo ese intercambio excesivo y debate fue posible gracias a otro elemento del contrato social de Google. Al igual que otras corporaciones, Google aplica políticas estrictas que requieren que los empleados mantengan la confidencialidad de los negocios de la compañía. Pero para los empleados de Google, la no divulgación no era solo una regla, era una negociación sagrada, una que les valía la franqueza del liderazgo y un espacio seguro para hablar libremente sobre sus problemas, quejas y desacuerdos en foros internos.

Finalmente, en un grado notable, los trabajadores de Google realmente toman en serio "Don't Be Evil". Se sabe que las reuniones de C-suite se detienen si alguien pregunta: "Espera, ¿es esto malvado?" Para muchos empleados, es axiomático: Facebook es astuto, Amazon es aggro, Apple es reservado, y Microsoft es serio, pero Google realmente quiere hacer el bien.

Todos esos preceptos enviaron a la fuerza laboral de Google a toda velocidad después de que se anunció la prohibición de viajar. Memegen se enrojeció con imágenes con leyendas como "Estamos contigo" y "Somos tú". Los judíos y HOLA, grupos de afinidad para empleados judíos y latinx, rápidamente prometieron su apoyo al grupo musulmán de Google. De acuerdo a El periodico de Wall Street, los miembros de una lista de correo hicieron una lluvia de ideas sobre si podría haber formas de "aprovechar" los resultados de búsqueda de Google para descubrir formas de ayudar a los inmigrantes; algunos propusieron que la empresa interviniera en la búsqueda de términos como "Islam", "musulmán" o "Irán" que mostraban "resultados islamofóbicos, sesgados algorítmicamente". (Google dice que ninguna de esas ideas fue tomada). pm ese sábado, un empleado en una lista de correo para Googlers iraníes planteó la posibilidad de organizar una huelga en Mountain View. "Quería comprobar primero si alguien piensa que es una mala idea", escribió el empleado. En 48 horas, se bloqueó un tiempo y se creó un sitio web interno.

Los empleados también pasaron el fin de semana protestando como ciudadanos privados, a la intemperie. En el Aeropuerto Internacional de San Francisco, un puñado de abogados de Google se presentaron para ofrecer representación de emergencia a inmigrantes; muchos más empleados se unieron a una manifestación fuera de la terminal internacional. Pero un Googler en particular hizo noticieros nacionales. El sábado por la noche, sin informar a nadie en Google, Sergey Brin apareció en el aeropuerto para unirse a la multitud. No ofreció ningún otro comentario a la prensa, excepto para contar Forbes, "Estoy aquí porque soy un refugiado", y para dejar en claro que él estaba allí a título personal.

Elenco de personajes

Por Zak Jason

SUNDAR PICHAI
CEO de Google durante los últimos cuatro años. Ha llevado a la compañía a registrar ganancias y ha agregado unos 40,000 empleados. También presidió una serie de filtraciones, escándalos y controversias importantes.

KEVIN CERNEKEE
Ingeniero de Chrome y destacado dispositivo interno contra la "agenda política de justicia social" de Google. Después de recibir una advertencia de RR. HH., Presentó un cargo ante la Junta Nacional de Relaciones Laborales.

JAMES DAMORE
Ingeniero de búsqueda que escribió una nota explosiva argumentando que las diferencias biológicas ayudan a explicar la brecha de género del ingeniero. Fue despedido, luego presentó una demanda colectiva.

LIZ FONG-JONES
Ingeniero de confiabilidad del sitio y destacado activista interno que fue hostigado en línea después de que sus comunicaciones de Google se filtraron a los medios de la extrema derecha. Ella renunció en enero.

ANDY RUBIN
Cofundador de Android que, como los New York Times informó a fines de 2018, recibió un paquete de salida de $ 90 millones después de ser acusado de obligar a una empleada a realizar sexo oral.

MEREDITH WHITTAKER
El ex gerente del programa Google Cloud que organizó una petición pidiéndole a Google que cerrara el Proyecto Maven, coorganizó la Caminata de Mujeres 2018 y solicitó la remoción del presidente de la Fundación Heritage del consejo de ética de IA de Google.

STAPLETON CLAIRE
Ex gerente de marketing de YouTube que ayudó a liderar la salida de las mujeres de noviembre de 2018, en la que 20,000 empleados protestaron por el acoso sexual, la discriminación y la inequidad salarial.

Entre la presión de los empleados y el viaje de Brin al aeropuerto, que efectivamente había comprometido a la compañía a esforzarse, los cálculos oficiales de Google comenzaron a cambiar. Durante el fin de semana, la compañía aportó $ 2 millones en donaciones recaudadas por empleados para fondos de crisis para los derechos de los inmigrantes. Y luego, el lunes, en el último minuto, Pichai decidió hablar en la manifestación de los empleados.

En sus breves comentarios sobre el patio abarrotado, Pichai calificó a la inmigración como "el núcleo de la fundación de esta compañía". Intentó inyectar una dosis de moderación y enfatizó lo importante que era "comunicarse y comunicarse con la gente". de todo el país ". Pero cuando mencionó la aparición de Brin en el aeropuerto, sus empleados estallaron en cánticos de" ¡Sergía! Ser-gey! ¡Ser-gey! ”Brin finalmente se liberó de la multitud y se acercó al micrófono, con la cazadora en la mano. Él también se hizo eco de las preocupaciones de los manifestantes, pero trató de reducir el calor. "Necesitamos ser inteligentes", dijo, "y eso significa atraer a personas que tienen puntos de vista diferentes". Mientras hablaba, un helicóptero de noticias voló por encima.

Y esa fue la última vez que los ejecutivos y trabajadores de Google presentaron un frente tan unido sobre cualquier cosa.

A medida que avanzaba la era de Trump, Google continuó preparándose para todo tipo de ataques externos, y no solo desde la derecha. Las elecciones de 2016 y sus secuelas desencadenaron una reacción violenta contra Silicon Valley que parecía venir de todos lados. Los legisladores y los medios se estaban dando cuenta de la naturaleza extractiva de los servicios gratuitos de Big Tech. Y Google, la compañía que introdujo casualmente Internet a la vigilancia del consumidor, que ordenó la información mundial, propietario de ocho productos con más de mil millones de usuarios cada uno, sabía que sería un objetivo inevitable.

Pero en muchos aspectos, las amenazas más irritantes de Google durante ese período provienen del interior de la propia empresa. Durante los próximos dos años y medio, la compañía se encontraría en la misma posición una y otra vez: una fuerza planetaria de casi $ 800 mil millones aparentemente impotente contra grupos de empleados, tanto a la izquierda como a la derecha, que podrían mantener a la compañía como rehén a su propia imagen pública.

En un sentido más amplio, Google se encontró a sí mismo y a su cultura profundamente adaptados a un nuevo conjunto de imperativos políticos, sociales y comerciales. Para inventar productos como Gmail, Earth y Translate, necesitas genios mimados libres para dejar que sus mentes se vuelvan locas. Pero para bloquear contratos gubernamentales lucrativos o expandirse a los codiciados mercados extranjeros, como Google necesitaba hacer cada vez más, debe ser capaz de emitir pedidos y dar a los clientes lo que quieren.

Para este artículo, WIRED habló con 47 empleados actuales y anteriores de Google. La mayoría de ellos solicitó el anonimato. Juntos, describieron un período de creciente desconfianza y desilusión dentro de Google que se hizo eco de la furia que rugía fuera de los muros de la compañía. Y en todo ese tiempo, Google nunca podría anticipar la colisión entrante correcta. Después de la retirada de la prohibición de viajar, por ejemplo, los líderes de la compañía esperaban lo peor, y que vendría de Washington. "Sabía que estábamos haciendo una bola de nieve hacia algo", dice un ex ejecutivo. “Pensé que iba a ser Trump llamándonos en la prensa. No pensé que fuera un chico escribiendo un memorando.

Alrededor de mil empleados de Google protestan frente a la sede de la compañía el 30 de enero de 2017, denunciando la prohibición temporal del presidente Donald Trump de todos los visitantes de siete países predominantemente musulmanes.

Jason Henry / The New York Times

II

En un lote De alguna manera, las redes sociales internas de Google son como un microcosmos de Internet. Tienen sus burbujas de filtro, sus trolls, sus edgelords. Y, contrariamente a la percepción popular, esas redes no están todas pobladas por liberales. Justo cuando la derecha reaccionaria estaba aumentando en YouTube, también estaba encontrando formas de amplificarse dentro de la cultura racionalista de debate de Google.

Durante algún tiempo, por ejemplo, uno de los moderadores de la lista de correos electrónicos conservadores de la compañía fue un ingeniero de Chrome llamado Kevin Cernekee. A lo largo de los años, los empleados de Google han descrito a Cernekee de manera bastante consistente: como un astuto provocador de extrema derecha que hizo sentir su presencia en la red social de Google, controlando tanto a liberales como a conservadores.

En agosto de 2015, la lista de correo gigante de IndustryInfo entró en un debate sobre por qué había tan pocas mujeres en la tecnología. El año anterior, Google se había convertido en el primer gigante de Silicon Valley en publicar datos sobre la demografía de su fuerza laboral, y reveló que el 82 por ciento de sus trabajadores técnicos eran hombres. Para muchos dentro del hilo de IndustryInfo, el número constituía evidencia clara y desgarradora de que Google tenía que cambiar. Cuando la conversación se convirtió en una pelea sobre los méritos de la diversidad, a la que Cernekee se unió, un vicepresidente senior de Google intentó cerrarla. Cernekee procedió a bombardear la página de Google+ del ejecutivo con publicaciones sobre su derecho a criticar la "agenda política de justicia social" pro diversidad. "¿Podemos agregar una declaración clara de opiniones prohibidas al manual del empleado", escribió, "para que todos sepan ¿cuáles son las reglas básicas? ”En respuesta, Google HR emitió a Cernekee una advertencia por escrito para comentarios“ irrespetuosos, disruptivos, desordenados e insubordinados ”.

Google también tomó medidas contra los empleados en el lado opuesto del debate por su conducta en el mismo hilo; pero disciplinar a Cernekee tuvo consecuencias más duraderas. En noviembre de 2015, Cernekee presentó una acusación ante la Junta Nacional de Relaciones Laborales alegando que la advertencia de Google constituyó una represalia por sus opiniones políticas. También alegó que la reprimenda interfirió con su derecho a participar en "actividades concertadas protegidas", esencialmente, su derecho a discutir libremente las condiciones del lugar de trabajo, tal como se define en la Ley Nacional de Relaciones Laborales.

Cuando Cernekee entró en una batalla legal de años con Google, se mantuvo activo en los canales internos. En 2016, cuando los miembros de un grupo nacionalista blanco llamado Golden State Skinheads se enfrentaron con los contraprotestantes de antifa en un parque de Sacramento, Cernekee habló por el primero en la lista de correo de Free Speech de Google. Aunque dijo que era "lo más alejado posible de un nazi", Cernekee argumentó que los skinheads "defendieron la libertad de expresión y la asociación libre". Y en enero de 2017, cuando un prominente nacionalista blanco Richard Spencer recibió un puñetazo en la cabeza por un manifestante enmascarado después de la toma de posesión de Trump, Cernekee dijo a sus compañeros de la lista que "la batalla por la libertad de expresión está en aumento". Les pidió que donaran a una campaña de WeSearchr que estaba generando recompensas para cualquiera que pudiera rastrear la identidad del asaltante. Cuando los miembros de la lista de correo dijeron que WeSearchr, una respuesta de extrema derecha para GoFundMe fundada por los agitadores Charles C. Johnson y Pax Dickinson, parecía sombrío, Cernekee escribió: “Está completamente en alza y al alza. Por favor no calumnien a mis amigos. :-(. "

Pero a pesar de que Cernekee estaba dentro de Google, era casi invisible en Internet abierto. En consecuencia, no fue Cernekee quien se convertiría en el hereje más famoso de Google. Esa distinción recaería en un ingeniero de búsqueda de Google relativamente reticente llamado James Damore.

A finales de junio de 2017, Damore asistió a un evento de la compañía sobre la promoción de la diversidad en Google, organizado en la sede de Mountain View. Allí, afirma, escuchó a los organizadores discutir la posibilidad de proporcionar entrevistas de trabajo adicionales y entornos más acogedores para las mujeres y las minorías subrepresentadas. (Google dice que no proporciona entrevistas adicionales para personas que pertenecen a grupos demográficos específicos). Para Damore, todo esto sonó como una violación del proceso de contratación meritocrática de Google, un sistema finamente ajustado diseñado para identificar ingenieros objetivamente calificados.

Poco después, en el viaje en avión de regreso de un viaje de trabajo a China, Damore escribió un memorando de 10 páginas argumentando que las diferencias biológicas podrían ayudar a explicar por qué había menos ingenieras en Google y, por lo tanto, los intentos de la compañía por alcanzar la paridad de género fueron equivocados y discriminatorio hacia los hombres. En promedio, escribió, las mujeres están más interesadas en las personas que en las cosas, más empáticas, más neuróticas y menos asertivas. Para respaldar estas afirmaciones sobre las diferencias de personalidad, Damore citó dos estudios, tres páginas de Wikipedia y un artículo de Quillette, una revista en línea contraria que a menudo cubre la libertad de expresión en el campus y supuestos vínculos entre la genética y el coeficiente intelectual. En el memorándum, Damore escribió que las prácticas de contratación destinadas a aumentar la diversidad "pueden efectivamente bajar el listón" en Google.

Durante todo el mes de julio, Damore intentó que la gerencia de Google prestara atención a sus preocupaciones. Envió su memorando a los organizadores de la cumbre de diversidad; lo envió al departamento de recursos humanos de Google; a sugerencia de un compañero de trabajo, lo publicó en Coffee Beans, el servidor de listas interno para discusiones sobre diversidad. Hizo los mismos puntos en persona en uno de los talleres de Google "Bias Busting", donde los empleados interpretan roles para identificar prejuicios inconscientes contra las minorías. (Allí, afirmó más tarde, sus compañeros de trabajo se rieron de él).

Damore enmarcó su memorando como un llamamiento a la diversidad intelectual, identificando su razonamiento como una posición política conservadora silenciada por la "cámara de eco ideológico" de Google. "Es una perspectiva que necesita desesperadamente ser contada en Google", escribió Damore.

Sin embargo, muchos colegas de Damore habían escuchado esta perspectiva antes. Hasta el hastío. "La gente escribiría cosas así todos los meses", dice un ex ejecutivo de Google. Cuando el tema de la diversificación de la fuerza laboral de Google surge en grandes reuniones y foros internos, una empleada negra dice: "es necesario esperar unos 10 segundos antes de que alguien intervenga y diga que estamos bajando el listón". (Después de una diversidad Ayuntamiento en abril de 2015, un empleado escribió en una publicación interna de Google+ que Google estaba "bajando la barra de contratación para las minorías, o organizando eventos donde los hombres blancos se sienten excluidos"). Además, el debate seguía surgiendo en un ciclo repetitivo debido a La constante afluencia de jóvenes graduados que participaron en estas discusiones por primera vez. Google estaba contratando a un ritmo vertiginoso en ese momento. Entre 2015 y 2017, agregó unos 20,000 empleados a tiempo completo, aproximadamente el mismo número que toda la fuerza laboral de Facebook. (E incluso después de toda esa contratación, la fuerza laboral técnica de Google era 80 por ciento masculina, 56 por ciento blanca y 41 por ciento asiática).

El memo de Damore podría haberse desvanecido en la oscuridad si un colega no hubiera sugerido que lo compartiera con un público más receptivo dentro de Google. El miércoles 2 de agosto, Damore publicó su memorando en una lista de correo interna llamada Skeptics. Al día siguiente lo compartió con Liberty, una lista interna para libertarios, una que Damore no sabía que existía. Para el viernes, el blog de tecnología Motherboard informaba que un "manifiesto contra la diversidad" se había vuelto viral dentro de Google.

Pichai estaba de vacaciones cuando sus ayudantes le dijeron que era mejor que Google lidiara con la situación de Damore rápidamente. Pichai estuvo de acuerdo y pidió que acorralara a su equipo de gestión completo para una reunión. Para el sábado, una copia completa del documento de Damore se había filtrado a Gizmodo. Mientras que los Googlers esperaban una respuesta oficial de la parte superior, los gerentes que querían expresar su apoyo a las mujeres condenaron en voz alta las ideas de la nota en las publicaciones internas de Google+.

Para Liz Fong-Jones, ingeniera de confiabilidad del sitio en Google, los argumentos del memo fueron especialmente familiares. Los ingenieros de Google no están sindicalizados, pero dentro de Google, Fong-Jones esencialmente realizó la función de un representante sindical, traduciendo las preocupaciones de los empleados a los gerentes en todo, desde las decisiones de productos hasta las prácticas de inclusión. Ella había adquirido este rol informal cuando la compañía lanzó Google+ al público en 2011; Antes del lanzamiento, advirtió a los ejecutivos que no exigieran a las personas usar sus nombres reales en la plataforma, argumentando que el anonimato era importante para los grupos vulnerables. Cuando el alboroto público se desarrolló tal como lo había predicho Fong-Jones, se sentó frente a los ejecutivos para negociar una nueva política y luego explicó los compromisos necesarios para enfurecer a los empleados. Después de eso, los gerentes y empleados comenzaron a acudir a ella para mediar las tensiones internas de todo tipo.

Como parte de este trabajo de defensa interna, Fong-Jones se había sintonizado con la forma en que los debates sobre la diversidad en los foros internos eran acosados ​​por hombres como Cernekee, Damore y otros compañeros de trabajo que "simplemente hacían preguntas". En su opinión, la administración de Google tenía permitió que esta dinámica se pudriera durante demasiado tiempo, y ahora era el momento de que los ejecutivos tomaran una posición. En una publicación interna de Google+, escribió que "la única forma de lidiar con todos los jefes de la medusa es sin plataforma a todos".

Unas horas más tarde, las redes internas de Google recibieron una descarga en el sistema. Una captura de pantalla del comentario de "Medusa" de Fong-Jones apareció en Vox Popoli, un blog dirigido por el instigador de extrema derecha Theodore Beale, junto con su nombre completo y foto de perfil. La sección de comentarios se llenó rápidamente de insultos raciales y sexuales obsesionados personalmente con Fong-Jones, quien es trans. "Deberían lanzar a todos esos monstruos sexuales de los tejados", escribió un comentarista anónimo de Vox Popoli.

El lunes por la mañana, la alta gerencia de Google finalmente se reunió para discutir qué hacer con Damore. La sala, según los informes de Recode, estaba dividida. La mitad de los ejecutivos creían que Damore no debería ser despedido. Luego, la directora ejecutiva de YouTube, Susan Wojcicki, y la jefa de comunicaciones, Jessica Powell, exhortaron a sus colegas a considerar cómo habrían reaccionado si Damore hubiera aplicado los mismos argumentos a la raza, en lugar del género. Eso los convenció: el ingeniero tuvo que irse. En una nota a los empleados, Pichai dijo que estaba despidiendo a Damore por perpetuar los estereotipos de género.

En su mensaje, Pichai trató de asegurar a la izquierda sin alienar a la derecha. "Sugerir que un grupo de nuestros colegas tiene rasgos que los hacen menos biológicamente adecuados para ese trabajo es ofensivo y no está bien", escribió. “Al mismo tiempo, hay compañeros de trabajo que se preguntan si pueden expresar con seguridad sus puntos de vista en el lugar de trabajo (especialmente aquellos con un punto de vista minoritario). Ellos también se sienten amenazados, y eso tampoco está bien. La gente debe sentirse libre de expresar su desacuerdo ”. Luego prometió volar de regreso al Área de la Bahía para una reunión de TGIF el jueves donde los empleados podrían discutir el asunto.

La terminación de Damore provocó un ataque predecible de cobertura negativa desde la derecha. Tucker Carlson, Ann Coulter y Ben Shapiro atacaron a Google; New York Times El columnista David Brooks pidió que Pichai renunciara. Damore dio sus primeras entrevistas a los YouTubers Jordan Peterson y Stefan Molyneux, el último de los cuales es un defensor del "realismo racial". La derecha alternativa tomó esto como un respaldo y comenzó a producir memes de Damore, su cabeza sobre el cuerpo de Martin Luther, clavando su memo en la puerta de una iglesia.

Más filtraciones desde el interior de Google alimentaron el frenesí. En Breitbart aparecieron capturas de pantalla de conversaciones entre empleados de Google en redes sociales internas, algunas que datan de 2015. Mientras tanto, en un subreddit pro-Trump, apareció un collage que mostraba los nombres completos, las fotos de perfil y las biografías de Twitter de ocho empleados de Google, la mayoría de ellos queer, transgénero o personas de color. Fong-Jones fue uno de ellos. Cada biografía presentaba frases que convertirían a los empleados en objetivos instantáneos para el acoso en línea: "lesbiana trans autista homosexual poliamorosa", "simplemente otro ingeniero de confiabilidad del sitio comunista gay" o, en el caso de Fong-Jones, "Trans y queer como joder". Dos días después de que Damore fuera despedido, Milo Yiannopoulos, el ex editor de tecnología de Breitbart, compartió la imagen del collage Reddit con 2 millones de seguidores en Facebook. "Mira quién trabaja para Google, todo tiene sentido ahora", escribió, como si estos ocho empleados hubieran sido los que tomaron la decisión de despedir a Damore.

Para los empleados que estaban siendo atacados, las filtraciones eran aterradoras. ¿Cuántos de sus compañeros de trabajo estaban alimentando material a la derecha alternativa? ¿Cuántas filtraciones más vendrían? ¿Y qué iba a hacer su empleador para protegerlos?

En el pasado, Google había despedido a un empleado por filtrar memes internos de Memegen. Pero cuando los empleados seleccionados denunciaron el acoso, dicen, el equipo de seguridad de Google les dijo que la filtración de capturas de pantalla podría caer bajo la definición legal de "actividad concertada protegida", el mismo derecho laboral invocado por Cernekee.

Para Fong-Jones, la respuesta del equipo de seguridad fue impactante e instructiva; ella no se dio cuenta de que un goteador podría estar protegido. "Todo el mundo pensaba que Google tenía el derecho absoluto de impedir que hablara de algo relacionado con Google", dice. Sin embargo, aquí las manos de Google aparentemente estaban atadas por la ley laboral.

Los ejecutivos sentían que estaban haciendo todo lo posible. Ofrecieron alojar a los empleados que habían sido acosados ​​en un hotel por la noche. Pero para los empleados seleccionados, parecía que Google permitía el temor a una reacción violenta de extrema derecha y la amenaza de nuevas demandas para superar las preocupaciones de seguridad de los empleados leales. (Un portavoz de Google declinó especificar si la compañía logró descubrir la identidad de los filtradores en este caso, pero dijo que investiga todos estos incidentes y hace cumplir sus políticas sin tener en cuenta la política).

Para el día en que se suponía que Pichai respondía preguntas sobre Damore en TGIF, el caos rodeaba a Google. Esa tarde, Damore regresó al campus con un fotógrafo a quien Los New York Times había apodado recientemente "la Annie Leibovitz de la derecha alternativa". "Vive en Mountain View", tuiteó el ingeniero, provocando un espectáculo inminente a sus 40,000 nuevos fanáticos de Twitter. Los reporteros técnicos de Punchy, al percibir una apertura, solicitaron a los empleados que les enviaran una lectura en vivo desde el ayuntamiento.

Cuarenta y cinco minutos antes de la reunión, Pichai envió un correo electrónico a sus 78,000 empleados. "TL; DR Perdón por el aviso tardío, pero vamos a cancelar el Ayuntamiento de hoy", escribió. "Esperábamos tener una discusión franca y abierta hoy, como siempre lo hacemos para unirnos y avanzar". Pero las preguntas que los empleados habían presentado para discusión en la reunión, escribió, se habían filtrado a la prensa y ya aparecían. en salidas como WIRED. También aludió, vagamente, a los empleados que habían sido molestados como parte de su justificación para cancelar la reunión. "En algunos sitios web, los Googlers ahora son nombrados personalmente", escribió Pichai.

Fong-Jones estaba en su casa en Brooklyn cuando recibió el correo electrónico de Pichai. Ella había querido que los ejecutivos explicaran por qué, dadas sus razones para despedir a Damore, habían dejado que su memo flotara en Google durante más de un mes. Ahora se sentía como si Google estuviera usando el abuso que ella y otros empleados habían experimentado como una excusa para no responder preguntas. "Ese 100 por ciento no me sentó bien", dice ella. “Eso no me haría más seguro. De hecho, fue un triunfo, casi, para la gente que me acosaba ”.

En su trabajo de defensa interna, Fong-Jones siempre había estado feliz de conocer a los altos directivos en sus términos. Ella guardaba sus secretos. Ella siguió las reglas. Y ella instruyó a otros a hacer lo mismo. Los ejecutivos hablaron con personas de confianza, y no confiaron en las personas que hablaron con extraños. Pero ahora Fong-Jones decidió tomar el asunto en sus propias manos. En octubre, invitó a un grupo laboral que normalmente organiza trabajadores manuales para enseñar a los Googlers más sobre la actividad concertada protegida. Tal vez un conocimiento de la legislación laboral sería útil.

III.

Al principio, Google dio libertad a sus empleados porque hacerlo valió la pena. Algunas de las primeras victorias multimillonarias de la compañía provienen de otorgar autonomía a los ingenieros y avivar sus ambiciones. En 2002, cinco ingenieros que codificaron durante el fin de semana obtuvieron la idea central detrás de AdWords, la fuente de gran parte de los ingresos de la compañía. Los ingenieros no estaban en el equipo de anuncios y no se les había pedido que trabajaran en el problema. Pero vieron una nota que Larry Page había dejado en la cocina de la oficina un viernes por la tarde diciendo "ESTOS ANUNCIOS SUCK". Para las 5 am del lunes, los ingenieros habían enviado un enlace con un prototipo de su solución propuesta.

Ese avance preparó el escenario para lo que parecía un ciclo virtuoso. Debido a que Google ganó dinero al mostrar anuncios a las personas, tenía un interés personal en hacer crecer Internet en sí mismo y en encontrar nuevas formas de hacerlo útil. Se generaron productos gratuitos que cambiaron el mundo: Búsqueda, Gmail, Chrome, Mapas, Documentos, Fotos, Traducir. Para los afortunados beneficiarios, los miles de millones de usuarios de la compañía, era casi como si Google fuera un departamento de obras públicas y no una empresa capitalista. Los mejores ingenieros en la tierra acudieron en masa para alistarse, y la compañía les ofreció tiempo para gastar en sus propias alondras. Google vio las ventajas de la oficina, la libertad de los empleados y las elevadas misiones como una receta probada para mantenerse a la vanguardia en un mundo cambiante.

Con el tiempo, los líderes de Google codificaron esta cultura radical y la evangelizaron al mundo exterior, como si Google hubiera encontrado una manera de suspender las leyes ordinarias de gestión y comercio. En su libro más vendido de 2014, Cómo funciona Google Schmidt y Jonathan Rosenberg, dos de los principales arquitectos de la cultura de Google, destacaron la importancia del debate abierto en el cuidado y la alimentación de personas innovadoras. “En nuestra experiencia, la mayoría de las creatividades inteligentes tienen opiniones fuertes y están ansiosas por salir; para ellos, la obligación cultural de disentir les da la libertad de hacer precisamente eso ”, escribieron. Hicieron hincapié en la importancia de erradicar a los "bribones" (mentirosos, tramposos, holgazanes) pero apoyar y proteger a las "divas", empleados difíciles pero brillantes que pueden irritar los nervios de otros empleados. "Se necesitan estos genios aberrantes porque son los que impulsan, en la mayoría de los casos, la excelencia del producto", dijo Schmidt en una entrevista con WIRED a principios de este año. "Son mejores que otras personas técnicas".

Una de las divas paradigmáticas de Google fue Andy Rubin, cofundador de Android, una startup que Google adquirió en 2005 por un estimado de $ 50 millones. Rubin era conocido por ser territorial, exigente e impresionantemente inventivo. Los periodistas rara vez dejaron de mencionar su inclinación por los dispositivos extraños, incluido el timbre de su casa con un brazo robótico que sonó un gong en el interior y un escáner de retina en el exterior. ("El sistema hace que sea más fácil tratar con ex novias", informó un 2007 New York Times perfil, parafraseando a Rubin. "No hay escenas desordenadas recuperando claves, es solo una simple actualización de la base de datos".

Como lo vieron los ejecutivos, Rubin entregó generosamente a Google. Más que nadie, aseguró la transición segura y rentable de la compañía hacia la era móvil. A medida que los usuarios pasaron de las computadoras de escritorio a los teléfonos inteligentes, el sistema operativo de código abierto de Android actuó como un caballo de Troya para las aplicaciones de consumo de Google, lo más importante es la búsqueda. By 2013, Android had a billion users, and its success afforded Rubin unbelievable perks, including a $14 million loan with a 1 percent interest rate to buy a beach house in Japan. Page was particularly grateful. At one point he awarded Rubin a $150 million stock grant, before Google's compensation committee even approved the offer.

Google didn't invent all the concepts that charged its culture. (“Obligation to dissent,” for example, is borrowed from the management consulting firm McKinsey.) But it tied them together into a coherent, aspirational narrative about engineers as a free-thinking people uniquely capable of reconfiguring the world from first principles. This culture helped recruiting, it helped retention, and it kept the public and regulators rapt with admiration. So what if Google was becoming inordinately powerful? The monopolies of the past engaged in price-gouging and became less inventive. Google's products stayed free and continued to blow your mind.

Google's culture helped recruiting, it helped retention, and it kept the public and regulators rapt with admiration.

Occasionally, of course, a glitch would mar Google's image as a benign, gravity-defying force in world markets, but even those glitches would sometimes resolve in ways that reinforced the myth. In 2006, eager to tap into a growing market, Google opened an office in Beijing and launched a censored version of its search engine in China. Employees saw this as a clear violation of Google's principles; they were supposed to make the world's information universally accessible, not suppress it. The project quickly went awry. Executives had hoped that Google's presence in China would make the country more open, not closed. Instead, it emboldened the government to demand more concessions. Then, in December 2009, Google discovered a sophisticated cyberattack, originating inside China, designed to access the Gmail accounts of dissidents and human rights activists. Brin, who had been extremely reluctant to enter China all along, convinced Page that they should stop complying with China's censorship rules and tell the public about the attack.

At the time, Google was run as a triumvirate, with CEO Eric Schmidt playing the role of resident grown-up. Schmidt argued that if Google stopped censoring search results, it would never get back into China. But Page and Brin were unmoved. In January 2010, employees at Google's office in Beijing learned from a public blog post that the company was pulling back from China. In an emotional teleconference, they told executives they felt abandoned.

The reaction in Mountain View, however, was euphoric. At the TGIF meeting that week, employees burst into thunderous applause and gave Brin a standing ovation. “The legacy of the China decision was a giant dose of goodwill from Googlers around the world,” Schmidt wrote in How Google Works; it reaffirmed the company's principles “governing how all tough decisions should be made.”

Within five years, however, the costs of that decision—and the limits of Google's entire formula for success—were starting to become uncomfortably clear. Google was still minting money, but ad revenue growth was slowing, and the cost of hiring engineers and funding R&D was climbing fast. Investors wanted to know what was next, and Google didn't have a convincing answer. The company was making incredible strides in artificial intelligence, but its growth online was increasingly boxed in by social networking sites. For users hanging out inside Facebook or talking to Alexa, Google's apps were no longer a click away. And while the company's founders tinkered with self-driving cars and helium balloons that beamed the internet down to earth, Amazon had built up a huge advantage in an area that should have been Google's to lose: cloud computing.

Page and Brin had been focused on the cloud for more than a decade. They had built a sublime constellation of data centers around the world to power Google's own products like Gmail, a service that, for vast swaths of users, had normalized the idea of surrendering your data to a company's remote servers. But Google's MO was building products that a billion people would use by default—not closing deals, managing contracts, and customizing infrastructure for other companies.

Amazon had no such compunctions. In 2006 it began marketing a simple but highly effective cloud computing platform to other firms, ultimately offering clients like NASA and Netflix on-demand access to computing power, including storing and processing data. By the time Google finally offered a comparable service called Google Cloud Platform, in 2012, Amazon was already leagues ahead. In April 2015, Bezos revealed that Amazon Web Services had brought in $4.6 billion in revenue the previous year and was on track to out-earn his retail business soon. Google's earnings call was the same day. The company reported that 90 percent of its revenue was still from online advertising.

Around the same time, Google's decision to take the moral high road out of China was seeming more and more like a self-isolating move. Across Silicon Valley, tech giants in search of growth were going after China's then-680 million internet users. Apple had been running an app store in China since 2010. Microsoft's search engine, Bing, had served censored search results since 2009. Even LinkedIn was there. Meanwhile, Google watched as Chinese handset manufacturers like Xiaomi sold phones that ran on an unofficial version of Android—which meant no Google Search on the homescreen, no Google app store, and no good way to make money off of millions of devices.

The problem wasn't just that Google was losing a slice of revenue here or there. For Google, these weaknesses in cloud computing and China triggered an existential dread: They meant the company was losing visibility into the way the internet was evolving and what the future would look like.

In 2015, Google embarked on a massive reorganization. Under a new parent company, Alphabet, moon shots and side projects would fall outside of Google, which would be more focused on making money. With Pichai as Google's new CEO, finding a new footing in China and cloud computing were among the company's priorities. One of Pichai's first moves, for instance, was to hire Diane Greene, a cofounder of VMware, a company that helped popularize an early version of cloud computing before the dotcom bust. Greene would head Google's cloud division. But catching up with Bezos was going to require Google to reorient. Buyers wanted dependability, not wizardry—and they wanted someone in Mountain View to pick up the phone. And to make up for lost time, Greene would need to go after some big clients.

IV.

On August 11, 2017—the day after pandemonium at the Googleplex had prompted Pichai to cancel the town hall to discuss Damore—Google's executives entertained an unlikely visitor: secretary of defense James Mattis. At headquarters, they met the retired general across a stately conference table, with Brin, Pichai, Greene, and Walker on one side and Mattis' crew on the other, all situated in the latest-model Aeron chairs in a new shade called “Mineral.”

Mattis was there to talk business. The Pentagon was in the process of rekindling its relationship with Silicon Valley, which had grown up out of military contract work in the 1950s and '60s. The rise of artificial intelligence made a potential relationship once again seem mutually beneficial. In recent years, partly at the urging of tech executives like Schmidt, the Pentagon had begun pursuing contracts to modernize its digital infrastructure. But before the Pentagon could fully partake in AI and machine learning, the department had to label its stockpiles of data and move it to the cloud.

At the time of Mattis' visit, Google was reportedly in the process of bidding for a project that would jump-start this transition. It was called the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team, otherwise known as Project Maven. The project would involve labeling past drone footage to train a computer vision algorithm so that, once everything was in the cloud, new drone footage could be analyzed automatically. Though it was a relatively small contract, Maven represented an important potential prize for Google. Greene had recently boasted that Google Cloud, which according to analysts had 5 percent market share at the time, could be bigger than Amazon by 2022. Federal contracts offered a quick way to get there. Maven could put Google on the fast track to receive the security clearances it needed to win more lucrative defense and intelligence agency contracts, like Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI), a massive Pentagon cloud contract that was worth some $10 billion—if any cunning competitor could wrestle it away from Bezos.

Google, Amazon, and IBM were all in the running for the Maven contract. But Google was an especially furtive competitor. The company quietly put in a bid via a contractor, and it prohibited the Pentagon from mentioning Google without prior approval. As Google seemed to close in on winning the contract, executives from the cloud team pondered how a deal with the Pentagon—especially one that could be linked to autonomous weapons—might reflect on Google's non-evil brand. In September, a few weeks after the meeting with Mattis, they discussed spinning up some positive PR that would focus on the “vanilla cloud technology” aspects of the Maven contract. “Avoid at ALL COSTS any mention or implication of AI,” wrote Fei-Fei Li, a Stanford professor and Google Cloud's chief scientist for AI. Li had not been involved in the Maven contract, but she was concerned about the hype and confusion building around AI in the public imagination. “Weaponized AI is probably one of the most sensitized topics of AI—if not THE most. This is red meat to the media to find all ways to damage Google.”

Li was right to be concerned about how Maven might be received, but the media was not the only group she had to worry about. When Google won the Maven contract in late September, the company opted not to say anything at all—even to its own employees. But it wasn't long before Liz Fong-Jones learned about Maven from a group of concerned engineers who had been tapped to lay some of the groundwork for it. They asked her to keep quiet until January while they tried to convince management to change course. Fong-Jones agreed and focused her attention on another fire that was quietly burning inside Google.

James Damore appears alongside attorney Harmeet Dhillon during a press conference on January 8, 2018, in San Francisco, announcing a lawsuit against Google.

Karl Mondon/Getty Images

V.

Just before 8 am on Monday, January 8, 2018, Praetorian PR, a San Francisco firm founded by a Republican political consultant, sent an email inviting reporters to a “major press conference” with James Damore and his lawyer, Harmeet Dhillon, who serves as the California Republican Party's national committee member and who “often takes on controversial, high-profile cases.”

“You won't want to miss it,” the email promised.

Damore sat next to Dhillon as she told a smattering of tech reporters and local news affiliates that her client had filed a class-action lawsuit against Google, alleging discrimination against white people, Asians, men, and conservatives, or any combination thereof. “We don't normally file 100-page, 200-page complaints,” Dhillon explained, thumbing through a heavy printout of the complaint laid out in front of her. “I didn't think people were going to believe the outlandish nonsense, so we actually attached screenshots throughout.”

When Damore had filed a set of documents stating an intent to sue Google in December 2017, the documents named Kevin Cernekee as a fellow plaintiff, but that complaint never materialized. In the lawsuit unveiled by Dhillon that day, Cernekee's name made no appearance. The complaint quoted from Google's warning letter to him and included details about his interactions with executives and HR as evidence that Google had discriminated against conservatives, but Cernekee's identity remained mostly invisible to the outside world. At least 169 other Google employees were not so lucky: The screenshots included in the lawsuit revealed dozens of email addresses, profile pictures, and snippets of discussion. Most had been culled from Google's internal social networks, including an anonymous message board about mental health and a mailing list for gender-nonbinary employees.

Another round of harassment quickly began. Threats poured in, calling for employees critical of Damore to be shot in the head, poisoned, blown up, stalked, doxed, sodomized with a cattle prod, and thrown off a building. As before, many of the employees who got singled out were queer and trans people of color. On forums like 4chan, employee names exposed in the lawsuit were linked to their social media accounts. The personal information of at least three employees was dug up and posted online. Another employee was the subject of a derogatory thread on an online forum called Kiwi Farms, which New York magazine has called the web's biggest stalker community.

That month, Fong-Jones made another calculated exception to her usual policy of keeping dissent within the Google family. She and 14 other current employees spoke to WIRED about the “dirty war” that was being waged inside Google over the issue of diversity. Most news coverage of Damore's case amplified its claims that Google was cracking down on conservatives. But the employees argued that something else was going on. HR had become “weaponized,” they said; Googlers on both sides of the battle lines had become adept at working the refs—baiting colleagues into saying things that might violate the company's code of conduct, then going to human resources to report them. But Googlers on the right were going further, broadcasting snippets of the company's uncensored brawls to the world, and setting up their colleagues for harassment.

Google's HR department, for its part, was feeling inundated with policy violations across the spectrum. And according to Fong-Jones and her colleagues, the department was too focused on trying to appear even-handed. Employees had been reprimanded and even fired for criticizing Damore's memo using terms like “white privilege” and “white boy.” “Promoting harmful stereotypes based on race or gender is prohibited,” Google said in a statement about one such termination.

Soon after speaking to WIRED, Fong-Jones helped prepare a statement explaining to colleagues about why she and the others had gone to the press. She asked coworkers to sign a petition for a safer workplace, demanding better moderation of mailing lists and rules against doxing coworkers. It received 2,600 signatures. But it wasn't the only employee petition that would make waves that winter.

VI.

By February, word about Maven began to swirl outside the teams of engineers who had first alerted Fong-Jones to the project. So she decided to post about Maven on her internal Google+ page, sharing grave concerns that Google might be helping the US government carry out drone strikes, according to a copy of the post provided to WIRED by another Google engineer. Shortly afterward, the group of engineers posted an internal statement of their own, explaining that they had been told to build an “air gap”—a security measure favored by the Pentagon that physically separates networks to protect sensitive data—and informing coworkers about their efforts to thwart the project.

Fong-Jones hoped to pressure Google's leaders using entirely internal channels, and at first things seemed to be working. Outraged employees began referring to the engineers as the Group of Nine, and executives felt compelled to respond. On her own Google+ page, Greene tried to assure employees that the contract was only $9 million and merely a “proof of concept.” Within 48 hours, however, Fong-Jones says she received a call from a journalist—Lee Fang of the Intercept—asking her for comment on her Google+ post. Someone had leaked. If word got out, she feared, management would feel backed into a corner. So Fong-Jones contacted Google's security team herself. Let's catch the leaker, she said.

Another staffer who was keeping close track of the internal rumblings about Maven was Meredith Whittaker, a program manager inside Google Cloud. In addition to her work at Google, Whittaker also helped run a New York University-affiliated research center called the AI Now Institute, which studies the ethics and social implications of artificial intelligence. On February 28, Whittaker drafted a petition for employees demanding that Pichai cancel the contract. “Google should not be in the business of war,” she wrote.

At TGIF that week, executives were ill-prepared for the blowback. One employee stood up and said she had left her last job because of ethical concerns around defense work. Brin told her that Google was different, because at least here she could ask questions. Whittaker's petition netted about 500 signatures that night and 1,000 the next day. It became a touchstone for a divisive, months-long internal debate, inflamed by Google's open culture.

There was no consensus on Maven inside Google's fractious workforce, which includes former Defense Department researchers, military veterans, and immigrants from countries under US drone surveillance. Even the employee group for veterans was split on the project. But Maven's opponents were organized in a way that Google hadn't really seen before. Employees fanned out into different groups. Some scoured Google's open databases, where they discovered emails that appeared to contradict Greene's statement about the size of the Pentagon contract; they also found snippets of Python code for computer-vision technology that seemed designed to track human beings and vehicles. Some churned out anti-Maven memes; others kept track of employees who were quitting over the contract. One activist group focused on fact-checking, listing every time they found evidence to contradict the company line. The list got longer and longer.

Greene responded by playing whack-a-mole—locking down mailing lists, deleting documents, or asking employees to redact Google+ posts. Longtime execs were taken aback, and even hurt, by the loss of their employees' trust, which they had come to take for granted.

Fong-Jones contacted security herself. Let's catch the leaker, she said.

In March, Gizmodo broke the Maven story to the public. Inside Google, executives urged employees to reserve judgment; Google's leaders, they said, were developing a set of AI principles that would govern its business practices and contracts like Maven. Employees should wait for those principles, which would provide the whole company with a basis for discussion.

At another time, such a gesture toward self-regulation might have sufficed. And plenty of employees were eager to change the subject. But the anti-Maven organizers had momentum on their side—and support from an outside labor organization called Tech Workers Coalition. They were also galvanized by a powerful realization: They could reliably summon the rapt attention of the media and the public, which were hungrier than ever for the vicarious thrill of watching someone—finally—hold tech companies accountable.

On April 4, The New York Times published a story about Whittaker's petition, which by then had gathered more than 3,100 signatures. Four days later, at 10 pm on a Monday night, Whittaker received an email from Greene inviting her to participate in a four-person internal debate about Maven, to be broadcast to Google's employees from Mountain View that Wednesday.

Whittaker prepared feverishly. She called up colleagues and a friend from the Defense Department. She memorized drone kill stats and read up on defense contracting. On the day she flew out from New York for the event, Whittaker learned that the debate would take place three times during the course of the day, so that employees in other time zones could tune in.

Whittaker should have been outmatched. Greene served as the moderator, and the two pro-Maven panelists were both longtime Google veterans. But they used many of the same arguments that executives had recited in recent TGIFs. The contract is exploratory. Maven merely uses Google's open source machine-learning software. Better to have Google working on AI than a defense contractor. Maven helps “our” military. Whittaker, building on an analysis she had been rehearsing in Google's social networks for weeks, argued that the ethical codes surrounding AI were still largely unformed and shouldn't be defined on the fly in the context of a business relationship with the Pentagon.

After the first panel, Whittaker paced back and forth in the Googleplex parking lot, calling up colleagues to ask how they would have countered her remarks. By the time the last panel ended, Whittaker's energy was zapped. She ran to her car in the pouring rain, picked up some beer and peanuts at a bodega, and went back to her hotel room. Inside Google, people often look to Memegen to gauge the mood of an unruly workforce. On the day of the town halls, most of the memes were pro-Whittaker.

On May 30, The New York Times published a story about Maven that included the emails Fei-Fei Li had sent to other executives about weaponized AI. At the weekly cloud team meeting two days later, according to details leaked to Gizmodo, Greene announced that Google planned not to renew the Maven contract. The backlash, she reportedly said, had been terrible for the company.

VII.

In early June 2018, Pichai finally published the AI principles that Google had promised its employees. They included a list of four applications of AI that Google would not pursue, including weapons, technologies that gather and use information “for surveillance violating internationally accepted norms,” and technology “whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.”

Two months later, it seemed to many employees that Pichai had already broken those principles. On August 1, a blockbuster story in the Intercept reported that Google was planning to launch a new censored search engine in China. Codenamed Project Dragonfly, the engine would blacklist search terms like “human rights” and “student protest,” and would produce government-controlled results for “air quality.” The service would take the form of an app that Google was prepared to launch in six to nine months. Chinese officials had already seen a demo, according to the Intercept, though Google still needed government approval. The app might even help link a person's search records to their cell phone, with the information stored on servers in China. (A Google spokesperson tells WIRED that, at the time, it was “impossible to confirm or comment on” what the service “might have looked like—it was too early to say.”)

Once again, an employee backlash set in. The Chinese government censorship that had so disturbed Google staffers in 2010 had only grown bolder and more sophisticated under President Xi Jinping, who was detaining hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and members of other Muslim minority groups in internment camps and deploying the latest in surveillance technology on citizens.

The succession of scandals kept deepening the divide between execs and employee activists. More and more, the latter were questioning the social contract they had lived by. “I went from ‘Oh my god, who leaked that?’ to ‘Oh my god, management did what?!’ ” Fong-Jones says. She started to doubt her past successes with executives. “Perhaps the reason they were willing to listen in the first place was to give up the things that mattered less to them,” she says.

A couple of weeks after the first Intercept story, Pichai answered some questions about Dragonfly, which he described as an “exploratory” program. In his telling, Dragonfly was a project that aligned with Google's principles, not one that contravened them. “Our stated mission is to organize the world's information,” he said. “China is one-fifth of the world's population.” Besides, he said, “I genuinely do believe we have a positive impact when we engage around the world, and I don't see any reason why that would be different in China.”

Brin also spoke at the meeting, claiming he only learned about Dragonfly because of the “kerfuffle.” (Former executives say this strikes them as implausible.) He also said that “Googlers should feel broadly proud of their work, not feel that it compromises their principles.” Then the meeting stopped abruptly. Someone was live-leaking the event to a New York Times reporter. An executive onstage asked the technicians running the meeting to show everyone what was happening, and a wall of screens behind Brin flashed a tweet from the reporter who was posting Brin's comments in real time.

With the Dragonfly scandal, employees were in some ways the least of Google's worries. Washington lawmakers in both parties responded in ominous terms. “It would be very dangerous for Google if they were misrepresenting to American policymakers the extent of their involvement in China or the ramifications of some of their joint ventures,” US senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, told WIRED, noting the growing bipartisan concern around China.

Dragonfly left Google particularly vulnerable to criticism from leaders on the right, who painted the company as un-American. Josh Hawley, now a Republican senator from Missouri, said Google was motivated more by money than allegiance to any country. “If that means violating the privacy of American consumers, they're happy to do it. If that means going to China and partnering on technologies that aid a repressive regime, they're apparently happy to do it.” In that context, Google's old slogan no longer applies, Hawley said. “It's time that we remove the halo.”

VIII.

On October 25, 2018, a story in The New York Times dredged up the dark side of Google's tolerance for aberrant geniuses. In 2013, the paper reported, a woman who worked for Google had accused Android cofounder Andy Rubin of coercing her to perform oral sex in a hotel room. Google, the story reported, had investigated and found the claim credible but sent Rubin off with a $90 million exit package and a fond farewell.

The story didn't stop at Rubin. Another high-performing executive, Amit Singhal, the former head of Google Search, was given a multimillion-dollar exit package after a female employee accused him of groping her at an off-site work event. A third, Richard DeVaul, allegedly told a female job candidate that he was in a polyamorous relationship during her interview and invited her to meet him at Burning Man, where he asked if he could give her a massage. Google denied her the job. DeVaul was still working at Google as director of X, the company's experimental division for ambitious projects.

los Times investigation also noted Google's overall “permissive culture,” in which top executives—including Brin, Schmidt, and chief legal officer David Drummond—had relationships with female employees. Some of the women claimed they were later pushed out of the company.

Google employees lit up the company's internal social networks, once again contemplating galling facts about the status of women in Silicon Valley. But this time the discussion was less easily derailed, perhaps because some of the most important exchanges took place on an anonymous mailing list called Expectant New Moms. The group's 4,000 members knew the stories about Rubin and Singhal—thanks in part to email threads on the list after each executive departed. But Rubin's $90 million payout felt like a sucker punch. The fact that leaders' misconduct had been an open secret made it worse. Why had they given so many years of their lives to make these men insanely rich?

At 2:05 pm, Claire Stapleton, then a product marketing manager at YouTube, fired off a message to the group: “absolutely disgusting—all of it, all of them. topple the patriarchy.”

That day Alphabet was already poised to share some mixed financial news. The company was set to report $9.19 billion in profits for the third quarter, thanks in part to Trump's tax cuts to benefit big business, but missed revenue targets. Now executives scrambled to do damage control with employees before the earnings call. A couple of hours after the Times story was published, Pichai sent a memo assuring employees that Google had reformed its ways. In the past two years, he wrote, 48 people had been terminated for sexual harassment, including 13 at the senior manager level or higher, none of whom received an exit package. Employees were skeptical. If Google was so committed to a safe environment, why was DeVaul still there? (A Google spokesperson said HR investigated the allegation “thoroughly and took appropriate corrective action.”)

That same evening, Page—who was CEO when the claims about Rubin, Singhal, and DeVaul came to light—apologized to employees at a TGIF. “I've had to make a lot of decisions that affect people every day, some of them not easy. And, you know, I think certainly there's ones with the benefit of hindsight I would have made differently,” he said in a prepared statement. Page's explanation was evasive, but his tone was serious. Brin, on the other hand, made an awkward joke about confidentiality, which sounded to some as if he were blaming the leakers, and seemed irked by the fact that the same question came up over and over again when the executives had nothing new to say. The meeting soon returned to business as usual with a product demo for new Google Photo features.

For Stapleton, the meeting was a huge letdown. Her first job at Google, in 2007, had been to help lead TGIF, including writing talking points for Page and Brin. Now they couldn't even answer the main question. At 7:58 pm, Stapleton fired off another message to the list suggesting the moms channel their anger into collective action, like maybe a walkout, a strike, or an open letter. “Googler women (and allies) are REALLY ragefueled right now, and I wonder how we can harness that to force some, like, real change.”

As the women dissected the TGIF performance, they also swapped stories about reporting harassment to Google HR, only to watch their abusers receive promotions. The messages were still rolling in at 1 am.

Google Loses Its Way

In the past three years, the company has lurched from crisis to crisis. —Z.J.

2017

JANUARY 30
Googlers protest President Trump's executive order banning citizens from seven majority Muslim countries.

AUGUST 2
A memo questioning Google's pro-diversity hiring practices goes viral inside the company and leaks to the press. Days later, Google fires the memo's author, engineer James Damore.

AUGUST 11
Secretary of defense James Mattis visits the Googleplex to discuss bolstering the company's ties with the Pentagon—just as Google is bidding for an artificial intelligence contract called Project Maven.

2018

JANUARY 8
Damore files a class-action lawsuit against Google.

FEBRUARY 28
Meredith Whittaker, a project manager at Google Cloud, creates an internal petition against Project Maven after Google wins the contract in secret.

MARCH 6
Gizmodo breaks the story about Maven.

JUNE 1
Google decides not to renew the Maven contract.

JUNE 7
Pichai releases a set of AI principles, vowing that the company won't build technology “whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.”

AUGUST 1
The Intercept exposes plans for Project Dragonfly, Google's “exploratory” censored search engine in China.

OCTOBER 25
The New York Times publishes an investigation of Google's “permissive culture,” including the protection of three male executives accused of sexual misconduct.

NOVEMBER 1
More than 20,000 employees at Google offices around the world walk off the job to call attention to sexual harassment, discrimination, and pay inequity at the company.

2019

MARCH 26
Google forms an AI ethics advisory council that includes Heritage Foundation president Kay Coles James—which the company disbands nine days later.

APRIL 26
At a Google town hall, women discuss the alleged retaliation they faced after participating in the November walkout.

The next morning, Stapleton started a Google Group. “Welcome to ground zero of the google women's walkout / a day without women (naming/branding tbd).” Just as with the travel ban walkout 21 months earlier, word spread quickly. A group of eight organizers emerged, including Meredith Whittaker, and they got to work planning logistics, hammering out demands, and fine-tuning their message. Stapleton set up a Google form to ask employees why they were walking out. The 350 responses that promptly poured in included personal stories about harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and pay inequity.

From those responses and other internal posts, the organizers smelted together five core demands. They wanted an end to forced arbitration, a process that compelled employees to bring their claims to a private arbiter, paid for by Google, rather than before a judge. They also demanded pay equity and policies that would guarantee more transparency around harassment claims. They scrubbed personal details from the 350 stories and divided them into buckets that mapped to each demand, so the rally organizers would have something to read.

As the plans came together, Google invited Stapleton to join a meeting with three top female executives: Ruth Porat, the company's chief financial officer; Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube; and Eileen Naughton, the head of people operations. The invitation was brokered by the head of Women at Google, an employee resource group, who told Stapleton it was an amazing opportunity. Other walkout organizers disagreed. Google was just trying to co-opt their momentum, the organizers felt. Stapleton pushed off the request. “It feels weird to say no to these women who are, like, Illuminati,” she said.

On Tuesday evening, two days before the walkout, Pichai sent another memo: “One thing that's become clear to me is that our apology at TGIF didn't come through, and it wasn't enough.” He acknowledged the protest and told employees they would have the support they needed.

The plan was for each office to walk out at 11:10 am on November 1, 2018. By the time the first images came in from Asia, it was clear that the call hadn't merely mobilized the lefties in Mountain View. In Singapore, where labor law prohibits workers from marching, employees stood in a cavernous office lobby, somber and listening intently to the speakers. In New York City, employees streamed out from Google's Eighth Avenue office into a nearby park. Whittaker and Stapleton stood on chairs as they rallied the crowd. Their megaphone was no match for the noise from the West Side Highway, but chants of “Time's up!” rose above the din.

When it came time for Mountain View to rally, 4,000 Google employees filled the courtyard outside the main café, once again chanting and holding signs, including ones designed by volunteers from Google Creative Lab that said “HAPPY TO QUIT FOR $90M—NO SEXUAL HARASSMENT REQUIRED” in a fresh, sans-serif font. Standing a few yards from where Pichai and Brin had stood during the travel ban walkout in 2017, employees once again shared their stories. A female YouTube employee described being drugged by a coworker at a company event, then being told by HR that she had to stay on the same team. This time, no executive stepped up to the mic. No one chanted their names.

Local TV crews had to report from the edges of campus, but the news choppers overhead had a clear view of “Not OK, Google” and “Time's Up” written in chalk on the pavement. By then, Stapleton, Whittaker, and the other organizers back in New York had commandeered a booth at a Mexican place in the Meatpacking District. They ordered margaritas and chips and guacamole, updating social media accounts and ducking outside for press interviews. The women were triumphant; they were half asleep. A few days earlier, they'd thought a turnout in the hundreds would be a big deal. When they tallied the total, 20,000 employees had walked out.

In a way, though, Google's attempts to neutralize the walkout had worked. A sense of catharsis and camaraderie seemed to overshadow any hostility toward management. Even some supporters felt that the walkout was more about the act than the asks. On November 8, 2018, a week after the protest, Pichai sent a memo to his employees—simultaneously published on Google's blog—announcing that Google would no longer require arbitration on sexual harassment claims. But it would still prohibit class actions. The change brought Google in line with policy tweaks that Microsoft, and even Uber, had made within the past year.

On November 1, 2018, as many as 20,000 Google employees walked off the job to protest the tech giant's handling of sexual misconduct by leaders.

Michael Short/Getty Images

IX.

Google's response followed a familiar cycle: internal opposition and bad press, followed by incremental change. But the Women's Walkout appears to have perturbed executives in a way that the protests against Dragonfly and Maven had not. In the months that followed, pushback seemed to spill over into the organizers' day jobs. In December, Whittaker was told she would have to leave the Google Cloud organization, where she had worked for three years. A few weeks after that, Stapleton claims she was told that her role at YouTube would be “restructured” and she would lose half her reports and responsibilities. (A Google spokesperson says no changes were made to Stapleton's role.)

Fong-Jones, for her part, was burning out. It had been a long year and a half since Damore's memo leaked. In early January 2019, she submitted her resignation, but she turned even that into a last-ditch effort to reform Google; she told executives she would reconsider if the company put an employee on its corporate board. Instead, Google HR tried to get her to leave before her notice period was up, and she filed a retaliation claim. Google investigated and determined it was unfounded.

That month, Google also tightened the reins on TGIF. Brin and Page stopped showing up. Employees could access video recordings for only a week after the meeting, rather than for years. The company nixed live questions, which Google claimed was more fair to employees in different time zones. (“We're a global company and want to make sure we're answering questions from employees around the world,” a spokesperson says.) TGIF's transformation from candid conversation to press conference was pretty much complete.

The company's internal social networks were quieter too. Cernekee had been fired in June 2018 for violating multiple company policies, including using a personal device to download company information. As part of his ongoing legal case, according to people familiar with the matter, he had to give back 20,000 pages of internal documents, some of them confidential. Cernekee disputes this.

(For weeks, as WIRED was preparing this story for publication, Cernekee's lawyer tried to dissuade the magazine from disclosing his identity. Six days after this article went to press—but before it appeared on newsstands—an interview with Cernekee appeared in The Wall Street Journal. He presented himself as a whistle-blower and mainstream Republican who had been bullied and eventually fired for his beliefs. In subsequent interviews with Tucker Carlson and on Fox & Friends, Cernekee said he believed that Google would try to sway the 2020 election—a claim that inspired a tweet name-dropping the engineer from President Trump himself.)

Damore's class-action lawsuit, meanwhile, was still proceeding, albeit without Damore. In October 2018 his claims were moved to arbitration, while claims from two conservatives who allege they were denied positions for political reasons are proceeding in court.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on December 11, 2018, in Washington, DC.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

A couple of months later, Pichai was called up to answer questions about Dragonfly at a House Judiciary Committee hearing. “Right now,” he said, “there are no plans for us to launch a search product in China.” That wouldn't be his last trip to Washington. After two years of employee revolts, culture-warring, and accusations, the furor that had surrounded Facebook for the previous three years now finally seemed to be aimed at Google with full force. Within a three-week span in March, Senator Hawley banged the drum on amending laws that granted platforms immunity from liability for moderating their platforms; Democratic senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren published a plan to break up Big Tech; and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified that Google's effort to court China “indirectly benefits the Chinese military,” even as it snubbed working with the Pentagon. A couple of days later, President Trump tweeted, “Google is helping China and their military, but not the U.S. Terrible!”

That spring, many of Google's efforts to stave off scrutiny seemed to hasten its arrival. In March, Google announced that it had formed an AI ethics council composed of external advisers. It included Kay Coles James, president of the Heritage Foundation, who lacked any discernible expertise in artificial intelligence and who had recently expressed anti-trans and anti-immigrant views. Some employees were appalled; an internal petition to remove James quickly gained 2,500 signatures. Breitbart and the Daily Caller posted the names of petition organizers, including Whittaker, and leaked internal messages from a mailing list. One ethics council member quit in the midst of the uproar. When Google learned that another member was planning on defecting, the company disbanded the council—nine days after it launched. To the outside world, it looked as if Google had capitulated to employee protests. Conservative critics descended. En The Washington Post, James said Google was not upholding its bargain with the right. “How can Google now expect conservatives to defend it against anti-business policies from the left that might threaten its very existence?” she asked.

While Whittaker was helping to lead the charge against the ethics council, she continued to tussle with management over her job. Stapleton, who had been told multiple times that she was a “rising leader” in YouTube marketing, says she was also struggling to hold on to the responsibilities she'd held before the walkout. When the two women heard that a third organizer had also been denied a transfer, they posted an open letter on the walkout mailing list on a Monday in late April, reporting to their coworkers that Google was retaliating against them. They invited their colleagues to fight back against retaliation at an employee town hall meeting that Friday, to be livestreamed at Google offices around the globe.

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That week, managers emailed the entire marketing and cloud departments, denying the women's claims. On the morning of the town hall, Lorraine Twohill, the head of marketing at Google, also sent a department-wide email saying Stapleton's claims were false. “Over the last several weeks, I have spent a lot of time talking to everyone involved, trying to understand and empathize with the situation,” she wrote. Stapleton says Twohill never asked her about the incidents surrounding her claims of retaliation.

After that, Stapleton saw no future for herself at YouTube. She handed in her resignation three weeks later. In mid-July, Whittaker resigned too. The next day Google happened to announce definitively that Project Dragonfly was dead. By then, none of the major organizers of the protests that had shaken Google over the past two years were left at the company.

But that didn't mean things would go back to normal at Google. Over the past three years, the structures that once allowed executives and internal activists to hash out tensions had badly eroded. In their place was a new machinery that the company's activists on the left had built up, one that skillfully leveraged media attention and drew on traditional organizing tactics. Dissent was no longer a family affair. And on the right, meanwhile, the pipeline of leaks running through Google's walls was still going as strong as ever.

Late this June, Project Veritas, a right-wing outlet specializing in stings and exposés, published a slew of leaked documents and snippets of hidden-camera footage from inside Google. One of the items it posted, as if evidence of Google's supposed bias, was a “Beginner's Guide to Protesting” that Google employees had drawn up around the time of the travel ban walkout back in 2017. Next to the document was a message and a link. “Do you work in Big Tech?” it said. “Project Veritas would love to hear from you.”

Updated 8-13-19, 10:30 am EDT: The print version of this story incorrectly stated the name of the Golden State Skinheads.


NITASHA TIKU (@nitashatiku) is a senior writer at WIRED.

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