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Google’s motto has drifted far from ‘Don’t Be Evil’: Former Google Exec

The former Head of International Relations at Google, Ross LaJeunesse, who spent 11 years at the company between March 2008 and May 2019, and is currently a Democratic candidate for the US Senate in Maine, has claimed that things at Google have changed and it doesn’t function even close to its motto as a startup of ‘Don’t be evil’, in a blog post on Medium.

The former Google executive has hit back at the company for putting profits ahead of human rights and degrading work culture. In his post he talks about Google’s ambitions in China, with projects like Dragonfly that led to a massive uproar among the company staff with many walking out, and how his request to adopt human rights principles found in the UN Declaration of Human Rights were shunned by “senior executives” at the company, soon leading to his exit from the company.

“The company had never intended to incorporate human rights principles into its business and product decisions. Just when Google needed to double down on a commitment to human rights, it decided to instead chase bigger profits and an even higher stock price,” LaJeunesse, who is also the Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service as per his LinkedIn profile, wrote in his blog post.

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Google’s issues begin with its in-house culture

But chasing profits while sidelining its motto to do no evil isn’t the only place the US Senate candidate claims Google went wrong.Google’s office spaces and work culture were famed to be one of the most progressive and fun ones, but LaJeunesse allege that senior employees indulged in racism, chauvinism, bullying and discrimination based on sexual orientation, among other factors. The former exec also alleges that the HR and senior executives at Google didn’t take action when matters were brought to their attention. He writes:

It was no different in the workplace culture. Senior colleagues bullied and screamed at young women, causing them to cry at their desks. At an all-hands meeting, my boss said, ‘Now you Asians come to the microphone too. I know you don’t like to ask questions’. At a different all-hands meeting, the entire policy team was separated into various rooms and told to participate in a ‘diversity exercise’ that placed me in a group labeled ‘homos’ while participants shouted out stereotypes such as ‘effeminate’ and ‘promiscuous’. Colleagues of color were forced to join groups called ‘Asians’ and ‘Brown people’ in other rooms nearby.

Does Google have the capacity to take up more liability?

Google has emerged into a tech titan that is rivalled by only a few in its size by employees, the number of products, revenue, among other factors, and as a famous saying goes, “with great power comes great responsibility”. One of the reasons mentioned by LaJeunesse that was given to him by senior Google execs for moving against the Human Rights policies was that it would increase the liability on the company.

However, when Google started, it came into the market with the motto of “Don’t be evil” and to shun their motto for higher profits is doing the exact opposite of that — what big conglomerates have been doing time and again, making it a classic case of history repeating itself. One of the main areas that the company has been looking to capitalise is cloud computing as they battle the likes of Microsoft and Oracle to get ahead in the market. A company of Google’s size that could influence technological advancements in the current age has the power to define what’s acceptable — and is accepted — by the mass of users those technologies are meant to cater. Siding with profits instead of being an enabler of a free internet doesn’t really sit well with the philosophy of its founders and from the early years of the company. Ross LaJeunesse writes:

There is a significant difference between serving ads based on a Google search and working with the Chinese government on artificial intelligence or hosting the applications of the Saudi government, including Absher, an application that allows men to track and control the movement of their female family members. Executives hell-bent on capturing cloud computing revenue from Microsoft, Oracle, and Amazon had little patience for those of us arguing for some form of principled debate before agreeing to host the applications and data of any client willing to pay.

According to LaJeunesse’s post, one of the foremost reasons behind the shift in culture at Google has been the addition of new top-level executives and the absent founders and visionaries behind Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Every year, thousands of new employees join the company, overwhelming everyone who fought to preserve the company’s original values and culture. When I joined the company there were under 10,000 Googlers and by the time I left, there were over 100,000.

The work culture at major tech companies has been a controversial topic with people claiming it to be discriminatory and a deterrent to worker’s mental as well as physical health and has led to a lot of debate and discussion ever since Uber’s case was highlighted int he public.

When one of the apparently “good” companies turn evil, what kind of a benchmark does that leave in the industry?

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