This week, Google’s messy fight over Chinese censorship spilled out into the open. More than 600 Googlers have now publicly signed an open letter opposing Google’s Dragonfly project, a search engine that would make controversial concessions to China’s internet censorship regime. Other Googlers have signed a counter-letter defending the project, although that letter has not been made public. Nearly 1,000 employees have signed one of the two letters, including their name and job title with no gesture toward anonymity. Labor laws offer some level of protection for this kind of public stand, but there’s still a real risk of retaliation, which is one of the reasons why it’s so rare for employees to air their concerns publicly.
But for those inside Google, the petition followed a familiar pattern. It began with an internally shared Google Doc with the text of the letter that was linked to a Google Form that allowed anyone reading it to add their name. Once signers finished the Google Form, their name would show up on a publicly accessible Google Sheet, showing exactly how many people from different divisions had signed in support of the letter. It was a remarkable chain of Google products (particularly if you count all of the links that were shared through Gmail, Groups, or Hangouts).
“The only thing that changed was putting it up on Medium.”
That kind of document chain has circulated before, even if the resulting petition didn’t make it out of the company. (According to one ex-Googler, “the only thing that changed was putting it up on Medium.”) That same string of Google products has been used over and over internally, seen as a way to push the company toward more ethical practices. In 2017, a petition was used to pressure Google to kick Breitbart.com off of AdWords. The petition was kept entirely inside the company and did not become public until nearly a year later, although similar petitions also circulated outside the company.
Those petitions often originate in another idiosyncratic part of Google’s internal culture: a sprawl of overlapping and often painfully specific mailing lists. Lots of companies have internal Listservs, but the system has become particularly central for Google, as employees push to build a sense of community across far-flung offices and often isolated product cells. In practice, it often means hundreds of people congratulating a handful of Googlers on a successful product launch, one of the few places the entire company can come together. The low barrier to creating mailing lists means there’s a wide range and diversity of them. Some are built around shared interests (groups for tennis players or people looking for housing in NYC, for example), and others are for shared experience and advocacy (like groups for Latino, black, and gay employees).
“Once you’re in these groups for a while, you know the people everyone listens to.”
In some cases, those lists can be a powerful tool for change. The gay employee Listserv (known as “Gayglers”) played a pivotal role in getting Google to sign the UN’s gay rights standards for businesses. The internal group was able to lobby for the standards far more actively than the standard corporate policy channels, according to UN human rights officer Fabrice Houdart, who led the project. Google signed onto the standards in October of last year, making it one of the first companies to do so.
That system is more powerful than a simple message board or the much-publicized “memegen” system that came under fire in the fallout from the James Damore case. “More people read those newsletters than read Memegen,” the ex-Googler told me. “And once you’re in these groups for a while, you know the people everyone listens to.”
The same techniques were also at the center of Google’s walkout earlier this month, as the organizers detailed to Kara Swisher on a recent podcast. Many of the concerns were first aired on an internal email chain of mothers at Google, which evolved into a massive Google Doc that was edited in parallel by hundreds of participants. “I think it showed me the power of collective action, writing the demands quite literally as a collective,” YouTube marketing manager Cecilia O’Neil told Swisher. “Hundreds of Googlers were weighing in on email threads, in the actual doc.” The end result was 20,000 Googlers walking out and management making some of its most significant concessions to date.
It remains to be seen how effective that playbook can be. There have been some early victories, particularly the slow tail-off from Project Maven and a post-walkout compromise on forced arbitration. But there’s a lot more still to be done. Most of the walkout demands still haven’t been met, particularly the call for a public sexual harassment report. Google management seems committed to expanding its offerings in China — often even looping out the company’s own security team, as an Intercept report revealed today. It’s not clear whether a few petitions will be enough to change their mind.
But with some Googlers already raising money for a strike, workers are unlikely to take a defeat lying down. And when they decide to push back, they’ll have all the tools they need to communicate and organize it. That’s what Google products do, after all.