Organizers of Google walkout say they've been targeted for retribution: report

Organizers of Google walkout say they've been targeted for retribution: report
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Organizers of last year's Google walkout are saying they have been targets of retribution by the tech giant over the past several months.

Meredith Whittaker, the founder of Google's Open Research Group, and Claire Stapleton, who currently works for Google-owned YouTube, wrote in an internal message that they have both faced retaliation for organizing Google employees, according to a new report from Wired.

Both Whittaker and Stapleton helped organize walkouts that took place at Google offices around the world, with workers railing against the company's handling of sexual harassment issues as well as general working conditions.

"Hi all, this was a hard email to write," Whittaker and Stapleton wrote in a message posted to Google mailing lists and obtained by Wired. "Google is retaliating against several organizers." 

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A Google spokeswoman in a statement to The Hill denied any retaliation claims, saying the company "prohibit[s] retaliation in the workplace, and investigate[s] all allegations." 

"Employees and teams are regularly and commonly given new assignments, or reorganized, to keep pace with evolving business needs," the spokeswoman said. "There has been no retaliation here.” 

Whittaker, who helped found New York University's AI Now Institute — which produces research about ethics concerns around artificial intelligence (AI) technology — said Google has told her she must "abandon [her] work on AI ethics and the AI Now Institute."

Whittaker was one of hundreds of Google employees who mobilized this month against a member of Google's AI ethics board, which was announced and subsequently disbanded within weeks.

She said Google told her her role would change "dramatically" after she spoke out against the ethics board, which was supposed to include a member who critics said had a track record of making anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ comments. 

A source within the company told The Hill that Whittaker's role was restructured based on the needs of the company, not due to her Google-related activism. The source said Google has asked Whittaker to "focus on her open-source work" rather than her research with AI Now. 

"She can absolutely still continue her work on AI Now but that would need to be in her personal time, not as a part of company time," the company source said. 

Whittaker was previously tasked with taking some of the research at AI Now and applying it to Google's work with AI and ethics. The source said that partnership has "not come to fruition," emphasizing that Whittaker's new role is "not a demotion."

"I have worked on issues of AI ethics and bias for years, and am one of the people who helped shape the field looking at these problems," Whittaker said. "I have also taken risks to push for a more ethical Google, even when this is less profitable or convenient."  

Stapleton wrote in the message that she is facing retaliation after working at Google for 12 years, according to Wired. Within months of the Google walkout, Stapleton said was told that she would be "demoted" and that "a project that was approved was no longer on the table."

She said Google told her to take medical leave although she was not sick, and only walked back her demotion after she hired a lawyer, according to Wired.

The source within the company told The Hill that Stapleton's job change occurred because YouTube is rearranging its marketing team, and that more people on the team will be affected by the change.

Whittaker and Stapleton are saying they have heard from other Google walkout organizers and employees who have faced retaliation in the workplace, going so far as to write that Google "has a culture of retaliation." They wrote that it can be difficult to identify retaliation, as it often consists of behaviors including "icy conversations, gaslighting, project cancellations, transition rejections, or demotions." 

The women are planning a town hall to "share our stories and strategize" for Google employees this Friday. They are also encouraging employees to share their stories of retaliation.

"During the Walkout, we collected 350 stories," Whittaker and Stapleton wrote. "Reading them, a sad pattern emerges: people who stand up and report discrimination, abuse, and unethical conduct are punished, sidelined, and pushed out. Perpetrators often go unimpeded, or are even rewarded."

"If we want to stop discrimination, harassment, and unethical decision making, we need to end retaliation against the people who speak honestly about these problems," they added.

William Fitzgerald, a former Google employee who now helps push for better working conditions and more ethical practices at tech companies, started a petition in response to the Wired report calling for Google to "commit not to retaliate against worker organizers." 

 

— This story was updated on April 22 at 3:31 p.m.