Resigning Google engineer and activist: ‘I can no longer bail out a raft with a teaspoon’

Liz Fong-Jones, a Google engineer who was one of the leaders of internal activism over workers’ rights, left the compay last month.

In a wide-ranging Medium post just published, she talks about how the struggle for change at Google has burned her out, and that workers had not been listened to:

It is time for real change. I can no longer bail out a raft with a teaspoon while those steering punch holes in it. Investors are now demanding changes to Google’s governance, such as evaluation of executives on inclusion metricsand rigorous analysis of human rights impacts of Google’s work in China. I, and other workers, very much support these proposals, which would address human capital risks, create meaningful governance, and improve long-term shareholder value. We hope to see further proposals that support worker voices and human rights.

In the post she cites her own experience of trying, unsuccessfully, to warn senior execs about the problems of a real-name policy on ill-fated social network, Google+. She and other employees said the rule would put vulnerable users at risk, and yet:

Google+ eventually launched in mid-2011 with a real-name policy. Once the “#nymwars” exploded and our predictions came true, the executives who had initially denied our suggestions sought our feedback on an experiment to allow “stable” pseudonyms on the service in early 2012. Two years later, full removal of all naming restrictions followed.

This pattern repeated itself several times during my time at Google: Management would overstep, rank and file workers would point out how to avoid harm to users, and we’d have a constructive internal dialogue about how to proceed. 

Fong-Jones, who is transgender, also describes what she sees as “troubling trends” at the company, including:

[A]n escalation of harassment, doxxing, and hate speech targeted at marginalized employees within Google’s internal communications. It began as concern trolling and rapidly escalated to leaks of the names, photos, and posts of LGBT+ employees to white supremacist sites. Management silently tolerated it for fear of being labeled as partisan. Employees attempted to internally raise concerns about this harassment through official channels, only to be ignored, stonewalled, or even punished for doing so.

My analysis of this? Nothing that Fong-Jones shares here is surprising, given what we’ve learned about the internal workings at Google over the past 12 months. Seeing it articulated so well just hammers home an often-repeated point about the firm’s culture.

What is troubling, for the public, is the manner at which the rank-and-file seemingly have little ability to push back against decisions made above their heads. That may be true of many companies, but at a secretive firm whose stated goal is to organise the world’s information, you do wonder where the dissenting voices come from if not those working on the products. The changes to Google+ only came after considerable public backlash. You wonder what else employees have raised concerns about only to be ignored.