This week, Google's chaotic fight over Chinese censorship came to light. In the meantime, more than 600 Googlers have publicly signed an open letter against Google's Dragonfly project, a search engine that would make controversial concessions to China's censorship regime on the Internet. Other Googlers have signed a counter-letter to defend the project, although this letter has not been published. Almost 1,000 employees signed one of the two letters, including their name and professional title, without paying attention to anonymity. The labor laws provide a degree of protection for this type of public position, but there is still a risk of retaliation. This is one of the reasons why it is so rare for employees to express their concerns publicly.
The petition followed a familiar pattern. It started with an internally shared Google document with the text of the letter linked to a Google form where anyone who reads it could add their name. Once the signers filled in the Google form, their name was displayed in a publicly accessible Google leaf, indicating how many people from different departments had signed up to support the letter. It was a remarkable chain of Google products (especially if you count all links shared through Gmail, Groups, or Hangouts).
That this type of document chain was already in circulation, even though the resulting petition did not manage to leave the company. (According to one ex-Googler, "the only change that has changed is the attitude towards medium.") The same set of Google products has been used internally over and over to persuade the company to adopt more ethical practices. In 201
These petitions often originate in another peculiar part of Google's internal culture: a vast overlap and often painfully specific mailing lists. Many companies have internal listservs, but the system has become particularly important to Google as it strives to build a sense of community in remote offices, often in isolated product cells. In practice, this often means that hundreds of people congratulate a handful of Googlers on a successful launch, one of the few places where the entire company can come together. The small barrier to creating mailing lists is that there is a great variety and variety. Some are built around common interests (groups for tennis players or people looking for accommodation in NYC, for example), others are for shared experience and advocacy (such as groups for Latino, black and gay employees).
In some cases, these lists can be a powerful tool for change. Gay employee Listserv (known as "Gayglers") has been instrumental in Google signing United Nations gay rights standards for businesses. According to UN Human Rights Commissioner Fabrice Houdart, who led the project, the internal group was far more proactive in promoting the standards than the standard channels of corporate policy. Google signed the standards in October of last year, making it one of the first companies to do so.
This system is more powerful than a simple message board or the widely publicized "memegen" system that came under fire on the Internet Fallout from the James Damore case. "More people read these newsletters than Memegen," said the ex-Googler. "And once you get into these groups, you know the people everyone hears."
The same techniques were at the center of Google's Walkout earlier this month, as organizers recently executed Kara Swisher's podcast. Many of the concerns were first shared with Google through an internal email chain of mothers that turned out to be a massive Google Doc developed in parallel by hundreds of participants. "I think it showed me how powerful collective action is by literally writing the demands as a collective," said YouTube marketing manager Cecilia O & Neil to Swisher. "Hundreds of Googlers weighed themselves in e-mail threads, in the actual document." The end result was that 20,000 Googlers came out and the management made some of the most important concessions ever.
It remains to be seen how effective this playbook is. There were some early victories, notably the slow retreat of Project Maven and a compromise on compulsory arbitration. But there is still much to do. Most walkout demands have not yet been met, in particular the call for a public report on sexual harassment. Google's management seems to be expanding its offerings in China – often including its own security team, as Report tells Intercept today. It is not clear if some petitions will be enough to change their minds.
But with some Googlers already collecting money for a strike, workers are unlikely to be defeated. And if they decide to fight back, they have all the tools they need to communicate and organize. After all, that's what Google products do.