#googlewalkout: Exception or Trend?


This week’s walkout by Google staff in protest of the company’s attitude toward sexual misconduct was the latest example of employees exerting their power over corporate behavior.

Or not.

Their grievances on gender issues are numerous and legitimate. Dozens of execs have been quietly ushered out the door because of misconduct over the past few years. One high-flier was recently retired with a package reportedly totaling $90 million.

It’s not the first time Google’s people have stepped up to challenge company practices. A bunch of them resigned earlier this year to protest its participation in a US Pentagon drone AI program called Project Maven — the company subsequently canceled its plans to renew it — and, before that, in 2015 they joined with users to successfully stand up for the right to post porn on Blogger.

But are they really stepping up to co-run the company?

If so, there are a host of policies and practices they could address, like it’s purported illicit tracking of users even after they’ve turned off location services on their smartphones…or the company’s default approach to design that some say “tricks” people into letting their data get scooped up.

Speaking of data, they could challenge Google’s collection and exploitation of data collected on kids watching YouTube, or letting human beings at some third-parties read Gmail, not just bots (and the bot email reading thing is something possibly worth protesting too, isn’t it?).

They could protest the company’s anti-competitive practices on its Android platform, for which it has been fined billions by the EU, or they could question the tax contributions, or lack thereof, that Google makes to the countries from which it extracts such immense value.

Employees could bring into the open more debate on Google’s security lapses, like the recent data dump from Google+ that led to it shutting down the service entirely, or more transparency on the control it hopes to exert over publishers in the EU (again, the fact that Google can kinda decide what info gets teed-up to users when they’re searching for things probably deserves more sunlight also).

And they could build on murmurs of discontent with the company’s willingness to operate a search engine that the Chinese government censors first, or its provision of facial recognition tools to the police.

Back in the 20th century, employees organized into unions to exert collective power on issues of pay, hours, and workplace safety; they left many, if not all of the external practices to management, maybe because they assumed, however implicitly, that those activities would be regulated by law, moderated by social norms, influenced by the morals of each individual manager, and judged by equity shareholders.

Those days are long gone, as none of those traditional checks on behavior have much teeth to them anymore, for a variety of reasons (none of them particularly good). This leaves nobody fully accountable for making good on Google’s mission to “don’t be evil.”

It would be truly radical if its employees stepped up to assume that responsibility; so less isolated gestures of justified indignation, and more proactive attention to the ways stuff gets done. Doing so would require that they extend the purview of their awareness beyond the issues that touch only them, and include the rest of us.

Google deserves better policies. We do, too.

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