Free speech at Google is long since dead. But it didn’t go down without a fight. As the tech giant embarked on its self-described “shift towards censorship”, many employees inside the company spoke out against it — and were rewarded with harassment and discrimination for remaining true to Google’s founding values.
Former Google employees felt they were forced out of the company and retaliated against because they stood up for free speech and political neutrality. They describe an atmosphere of bullying, in which far-left “social justice warriors” were allowed to smear and intimidate them with little intervention from the company’s HR department.
While opinion is divided on whether Google plans to intervene in the 2020 election, they all agree that political bias at the company is out of control, with zero tolerance for ideological diversity in internal discussions. The same claims have been made about the company before, for example in the class-action lawsuit brought against Google by former employees, who allege the company discriminates on the basis of race, sex, and political viewpoint.
It’s not just conservatives who complain about retaliation and harassment at Google — the company is facing similar claims from a female employee who alleges the company discriminated against her for being pregnant. But conservatives at Google say they face a particularly organized, relentless kind of harassment.
On July 30, 2015, a Google engineer shared a blog post called “If you think women in tech is just a pipeline problem, you haven’t been paying attention” on the company’s internal “Industry Info” forum, a mailing list with over 25,000 subscribers. The post, which argued that under-representation of women in Silicon Valley was primarily the result of discrimination, generated intense debate, with over five hundred replies in just four weeks.
Critics of the post claimed it misinterpreted statistics and drew invalid conclusions from the data. Supporters of the post argued that this was mere nitpicking that served to minimize the plight of female engineers.
As the debate raged on, Social Justice activists within Google took to the various company forums to post threats against the skeptical employees who questioned the message of the blog post.
Many called for the firing of the critics by name; others (including managers) claimed to be making written blacklists of people they would refuse to work with. Some said they would actively sabotage the critics’ engineering work or performance reviews if they had an opportunity to do so.
Eventually, on August 24th, two Senior VPs, Urs Hölzle and Sridhar Ramaswamy, shut down the conversation, asking employees to stop engaging. Conservative Google employees say the VPs implied the threat of disciplinary action if they proceeded.
On August 6, 2015, Hölzle posted a message on his internal G+ that was widely seen as a rebuke of the Googlers (Google’s internal term for employees) who criticized the left-wing gender discrimination narrative. Kevin Cernekee, a software engineer who was not involved in the initial debate but had friends who were, asked Holzle to clarify the rules around politically charged conversations.
Cernekee’s post was as follows:
Many Googlers have claimed that it is “harassment” or some other rule violation to critique articles that push the Social Justice political agenda. A few Googlers have openly called for others to be fired over it. Do you support this viewpoint, and if so, can we add a clear statement of banned opinions to the employee handbook so that everybody knows what the ground rules are?
According to Cernekee, this mild line of questioning generated a huge backlash. He says he was flooded with abuse, accused of being in league with “Reddit misogynists,” and that his left-wing colleagues dug through his internal posting history to find evidence of right-wing views.
Far from rebuking his harassers, Cernekee says that it was he who was issued with an official final written warning letter — a punishment that initiated an intensive Federal investigation into Google’s labor practices and workplace policies. Four years later, that same investigation remains open.
As this played out, a few libertarian employees watched in horror and decided to take action. They had seen a number of similar mob shaming attacks at Google in recent months, and they knew the problem would snowball if they didn’t organize. They established a new internal mailing list, called “firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Its charter was simple. The free speech group was to defend free speech inside Google and on the Internet. Even the most extreme groups, said the founders, should have access to free speech on the Internet, regardless of whether they were far-left or far-right.
This was late 2015, a time when tech censorship wasn’t on the public’s radar. But the founders of the free-speech group were prescient: like digital rights campaigner Aaron Swartz before them, the libertarian Googlers knew that corporate control of the Internet meant a battle for free speech was on the horizon. Large, image-conscious providers like Google could easily be pressured by politicians and radical activists, making online censorship inevitable — unless there was an organized pushback.
The free-speech group was met with immediate backlash. Google’s social justice warriors began flooding the group with meaningless spam, in an attempt to bury serious discussion. According to Cernekee, Google’s management refused to take action.
Despite these attempts to derail the project, for a while the free-speech mailing list flourished. As ideological tensions spun out of control during election season, it provided a refuge for Google employees who were concerned about the growing bias of the company.
The list also allowed Google’s free speech defenders to collectively petition the company’s leadership. Early on, several members of the list organized a petition for upper management entitled “Concerns Regarding Intimidation and Blacklisting.” The goal was to push back against what they saw as endemic harassment of free speech advocates at the company. The effort ultimately sputtered out — Google’s executives deferred to HR, and HR decided to simply close the investigation with no resolution.
Conversations on the list often centered on the growing street battles between Antifa and far-right fringe groups. But Googlers soon learned that commenting on these issues could lead to smears and slander campaigns. In one such example, Cernekee stated that “I completely disagree with Richard Spencer and other far-right figures, but as Americans they have an absolute right to get a permit, hold a public protest, or put up a web site without being physically assaulted or shut down.” He also shared a funding campaign aimed at apprehending an individual who assaulted the far-right figure in 2017 — an action he said wasn’t aimed at supporting Spencer, but disincentivizing political violence. For this, Cernekee says he was reported to HR for “hate speech.”
“Don’t Get a Reputation for Being Outspoken”
It wasn’t long before Google’s institutional resistance to change became clear, say the employees. The founder of the free-speech list reported constant harassment by co-workers and said that they made his life a living hell. He quit under duress within a few months of starting the list.
Most of the other early participants were forced out of the company over the ensuing months. Manuel Amador, one of the list’s more vocal members, resigned in July 2016 after being subjected to a flurry of false HR reports, which he said became a major source of stress in his life and interfered with his ability to do his job.
Other members reported that they suddenly started receiving poor performance reviews or were subjected to mistreatment by their peers. In 2016, two members were terminated after critiquing the company’s political culture. One of them, David Gudeman, who was fired after he questioned a co-worker who alleged he had been reported to HR because of his Muslim faith, later joined James Damore’s class action lawsuit, as did Manuel Amador. (Damore eventually exited the lawsuit).
Another former Google, employee, who wished to remain anonymous, said that on two occasions at the company, he was reprimanded for expressing political viewpoints.
“I was reported three times that I know of, not for my participation in the free-speech group per se, but for my comments in political threads in other internal groups,” said the former employee.
“I never saw the reports or learned any specifics about which comments they were objecting to,” he continued. “I even obtained a copy of my personnel file (which they’re required to provide by state law), but what they gave me had no record of any of the complaints.”
“The first time had to do with a thread about GamerGate, back when that was happening. My manager took me aside and he hadn’t read the thread and didn’t care which side I came down on, but he warned me that I should try not to get a reputation for being outspoken.”
In another case, the former Google employee says he was reported for objecting to anti-white racism at the company, which, according to documents released via the James Damore lawsuit, is widespread. The former employee says his manager didn’t even inform him of the report, and actively worked against him to get him fired.
“The second time was about one of the many internal Google Plus posts where someone was making generalizations about how ‘all white men’ act and what they should do to atone for it.”
“In fact, my manager made a point to hide that report from me — I only found out about it weeks later, when his manager filled in for him while he was on vacation, she brought it up in our weekly meeting, and I had to ask what report she was talking about.”
“From what I could tell, HR sent the report to her, she passed it down to him, and then he told her he passed it down to me, but instead of doing that, he started filling out the paperwork to get me fired.”
The Demise of the Free Speech Group
After President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, the entire mood at the company became even more politicized. Traffic on the free speech mailing list dropped sharply. Conservative and libertarian employees say the company adopted an increasingly hostile attitude toward free expression, and that anyone suggesting that Google’s products should adopt viewpoint neutrality was attacked relentlessly as a Nazi sympathizer or enabler.
In many cases, they found that their past opposition to censorship would come back to haunt them, as Social Justice activists left unsolicited feedback on their annual performance reviews, branding them as racists and encouraging managers to lower their ratings — something that any random Google employee with a grudge could do.
In other cases, activist employees would comb through their posting history to compile dossiers on them, which could be presented to HR or circulated to co-workers to smear their reputation or get them fired. By mid-2017, shortly before James Damore circulated his memo calling for more viewpoint diversity at the company, the free-speech list received one or two postings a month, down from a peak of hundreds of posts each week.
As the free-speech list died off, so did Google’s internal resistance to censorship. The larger Industry-info list, formerly a place where a wide range of viewpoints were exchanged, quickly fell victim to the same groupthink. Google employees who stood up for political freedom on the list say they were hounded by the mob, and either forced into silence or forced out of Google.
In March 2019, Google put together an advisory council on artificial intelligence ethics. One member of the council was Kay Cole James, the African-American president of the Heritage Foundation, perhaps the most prominent social conservative think tank in the U.S.
Despite the think tank’s mainstream status in the conservative movement, the inclusion of Cole James sparked intense controversy within Google. Google employees smeared the Heritage president as a transphobe, a homophobe, and an “exterminationist.”
A Google engineer, Mike Wacker, who repeatedly came to the defense of Ms. James, was fired from the company a few months later. While his dismissal may be unrelated to his participation in the discussion, Conservative employees say this sent a strong message that even the mildest forms of dissent would no longer be tolerated by the company.
Google publicly insists it still values free speech. One reason to doubt that is the fact that its own researchers have prepared internal briefings claiming the contrary.
Another is what happened to Google’s internal free speech movement. Manuel Amador, Kevin Cernekee, James Damore, Mike Wacker, David Gudeman — all defended free speech and viewpoint diversity at Google. All were either fired or forced out of the company. How can Google’s billions of users be assured that the tech giant will protect their free speech, when it has been taken away from the company’s own employees?