Google staff at the company’s London headquarters on November 1, 2018 participate in a global walkout over the company’s handling of sexual harassment cases. | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images
It’s the latest example of tech workers challenging their employers to do more than making donations and issuing statements in support of Black Lives Matter.
Over 1,600 Google employees have signed an internal petition as of Monday afternoon that calls for their employer stop selling its software to police.
The employees’ demands follow a wave of protests calling for racial justice in the US after a spate of killings targeting black Americans, including the alleged murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man on a run in Glynn County, Georgia, and the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, who were both unarmed.
“We’re disappointed to know that Google is still selling to police forces, and advertises its connection with police forces as somehow progressive, and seeks more expansive sales rather than severing ties with police and joining the millions who want to defang and defund these institutions,” reads the petition, which was started by a group of Google employees called Googlers Against Racism last week and is addressed to Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet. “Why help the institutions responsible for the knee on George Floyd’s neck to be more effective organizationally?”
Google did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. The company currently employs over 100,000 employees globally — so this petition’s signees represent a relatively small percentage of its workforce. But it is still one of the most significant showings of internal dissent at the company in the past few months.
It’s not clear how extensively or closely Google works with US police departments. Google currently sells cloud-based software, such as the business version of its Gmail product, through a third-party vendor to at least one police department, the Clarkstown Police Department in Rockland County, New York. According to a customer testimonial page, Google touts its software as being a “catalyst for a culture change” at Clarkstown County Police Department, which was sued in 2017 by Black Lives Matter activists who said the department conducted illegal surveillance on them.
Google also invests in police AI technology that includes drone surveillance through its venture capital arm, Gradient Ventures.
The Google employees’ petition is the latest example of workers at major tech companies challenging their employers to do more than simply making donations and issuing statements in support of Black Lives Matter. These employees want their companies to significantly change their business practices to minimize harm to the black community, both inside their companies and beyond them. In recent weeks, some Amazon employees renewed their calls for the company to stop selling its facial recognition technology to police, which it announced it would pause for the next year. And employees at Facebook have called for the company to moderate political speech that could incite racial violence or mislead voters.
“We want to be proud of the company we work for. We want the company we build to speak to our values and how we want to show up in the world,” reads the Google employees’ letter, which calls for the company to “take real steps to help dismantle racism.”
Civil rights advocates have warned that police disproportionately use surveillance technology, such as AI-based facial recognition or drone surveillance, against black communities — and that these practices could have a chilling effect on free speech if people feel they’re being unjustly surveilled in their everyday lives and when they engage in political activism.
In the past, Google employees have uncovered details about some of the company’s controversial government contracts, and pressured the company to end them — such as Project Maven, the company’s contract with the Pentagon, and its secretive efforts to build a censored search product for China, known as Project Dragonfly. Google did not renew its contract with the Pentagon in June of 2018 and reportedly halted its work on Dragonfly in December of 2018, although a March article from the Intercept reported that the company may be resuming some of that work.
In August 2019, hundreds of employees signed a protest asking the company not to bid on a project with US immigration agency Customs and Border Patrol (CBP),
Monday’s petition about working with police departments is the first notable activist effort that’s happened at Google since November 2019, when Google fired four employee activists, including some who spoke out against the company’s work with CBP in light of humanitarian concerns about the agency’s immigrant detention facilities and family separation. Google said it fired these workers for violating its data security policies.
In light of the recent protests against police brutality and racism that have spread across the nation after George Floyd’s death, major tech companies are facing a reckoning about their work with police, agitated by their own employees — and today’s letter at Google is yet another a sign of that movement’s advancement.