UPDATE, Dec. 27, 2020: the essay below is the same as what I published in February 2020, however I’ve updated the hyperlinks to point to this site’s new domain, alphabetworkers.net. The old domain was alphabetworkers.org.
February 7, 2020
“The trouble with deep belief is that it costs something… if I actually believe these things I have to do something about them.”
– Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz
“A little bit more of why we made this decision — it is principally a moral decision. It was entirely a moral decision… It’s something that, upon seeing it so blatant, so firsthand… we decided we simply can’t live with being a cog in that machine.”
– Sergey Brin, remarks to employees on Google’s decision to shut down the company’s censored search engine in China, January 15, 2010. He received a standing ovation.
February 7, 2020
To my coworkers at Google, and to those considering employment at Google,
After an extended period of discernment that’s spanned many months, I’ve reached the conclusion that Google’s current business practices and ethics are incompatible with me continuing to work for the company. Given that conclusion, I’ve made the decision to leave. You can find some of the articles that have informed my decision at go/2018-to-2020, or externally at alphabetworkers.net. I’m not switching to another employer – instead, I hope to spend my time working on justice issues, and on growing and strengthening the nascent tech labor movement.
Since I’ve previously recommended that Google reformers should try to share their stories, and that leaving the company can be an appropriate story-telling time, I felt I should follow my own advice by sharing a few stories here. I won’t cover all of the corporate ethical failures that have led to my resignation, but I can touch on three areas.
1. Persecution and firing of transgender and gay employees for their efforts to reform the firm
Back in the early 2000’s, when I served on the board of a small Presbyterian church that was part of the national Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), there was a national antagonist whose name, ironically, was Paul. Paul, the lawyer. Paul apparently believed that his job was to purge the PCUSA of all the gay people, the pastors who supported gay people, the pastors who conducted wedding ceremonies for gay people, and for good measure, various pastors who served at LGBTQ-friendly churches. At the time, the national PCUSA constitution was homophobic – it contained specific language that targeted openly gay and lesbian people. The growing pro-LGBTQ equality movement within the denomination, however, resisted both this language and its implementation, paralleling the broader gay rights movement within the USA.
The national PCUSA governing rules allowed for a form of “attack from afar”, in which an out-of-region antagonist could simply mail or fax allegations of church constitutional violations to the local church governing body, forcing pastors to be put on trial for heresy – the “heresy” here typically one of “you’re openly gay” or “you officiated at a same-sex wedding”. Attacks like this were an attack on people’s jobs and physical security: if you can strip a reform-oriented pastor of their PCUSA ordination, you also strip them of their employment and their health insurance, because you can’t serve as a Presbyterian pastor if you’ve been stripped of your ordination as the result of a church judicial action.
And so, Paul the lawyer warmed up his fax machine, fired up his word processor, and began to fax anti-gay accusations of heresy around the country. How easy it must have been! There was no need to speak to the person you were attacking, no need to treat them like a human being, just press a button on your fax machine, and that would summon a committee somewhere else to take care of the mechanics of threatening somebody’s job. The attacks caused tremendous fear, they caused organizational chaos, they harmed the national denomination, and they forced many good people to lose their jobs or simply leave the PCUSA for other denominations.
With the recent spate of Google firings of LGBTQ employees for their activism, including Laurence Berland, Rebecca Rivers, Sophie Waldman, and Kathryn Spiers, I see far too many similarities to what we experienced in the PCUSA twenty years ago. There’s the same “urge to purge” by institutional forces and actors who would rather strip people of their jobs than change the institution’s behavior. There’s the same attack-by-remote-control, in which the decisionmakers don’t have to confront the people they’re hurting, don’t have to think of them as human beings – just click a button in a personnel management tool, send an execution email to HR, have them find a nebulously-worded corporate policy to apply, prepare a statement for the media, and push a few more politically expendable employees out the door. Purge all of the troublemakers, the thinking goes, and our organization will be pure.
Well, it didn’t work in the PCUSA, where activists eventually won the fight to remove homophobia from the church constitution, and won the fight for marriage equality; and it’s unlikely to work at Google. The reason it’s unlikely to work is that although you can persecute the prophets, you can’t silence the truth that they speak. A prophet, both historically and today, is someone who holds a mirror up to an institution and says “this is what you are, this is what you have become, and it’s time for you to change.” Google can fire as many people as it likes, but the truth of that image in the mirror isn’t going away.
2. Google Cloud sales to the oil and gas industry
If the world dies by fire, it will be in part due to cloud compute sales to the oil and gas industry by the big three cloud service providers: Amazon, Microsoft, Google.
For those who haven’t been following this topic in the news, Google has been aggressively working to sell its cloud computing and machine learning services to the oil and gas industry since at least 2018, when it hired Darryl Willis, formerly of British Petroleum, as its first “VP of Oil, Gas, and Energy” in March 2018. Mr. Willis left Google after only 18 months and is now with Microsoft, but Google’s efforts to sell into the oil and gas vertical continue. Google NEXT 2018 featured presentations such as “How Machine Learning is Impacting Oil and Gas”, and the external Google Cloud marketing content features oil field services company Schlumberger as a reference customer, noting that “As their computing demands grow, oil and gas companies like Schlumberger rely on Google Cloud to scale workloads, such as seismic interpretation, regression analysis and classification, and fast basin modeling and simulation.”
The problem, of course, is twofold: every additional ton of carbon that we humans put into the atmosphere is killing us and every other living creature, and every sale of cloud technology into the oil and gas sector lowers the underlying cost structure of those industries, making them more cost-competitive against wind and solar. Lowering the cost of discovering and extracting oil and gas in turn increases the likelihood that investors will fund new oil and gas plants, and increases the number of years that it will take for renewables to drive out carbon energy sources from a profitability standpoint.
When it comes to decisions about whether or not to build an industrial-scale power plant, whether it’s an oil refinery or a solar farm, everything comes down to a large Excel spreadsheet. The profitability projections are derived from this Excel spreadsheet, the investment banks want to see the spreadsheet, and the project go/no-go decisions are derived from the spreadsheet. The financial discipline of how to fund and project the profitability of large infrastructure projects is called “Project Finance” — I took a course on this as part of my Berkeley MBA back in 2012.
The project finance decision spreadsheet is large, messy, tedious, and completely lacking in ethics. The spreadsheet’s job is to take a large set of project assumptions, including estimates of the cost of capital, interest rates, and project risk over time, and extrapolate cash flows out for at least 30 years. Below is an extract of what one of these sheets looks like. If I were to screenshot the whole thing it would be completely unreadable, since it runs cash flows on a quarterly basis from 2017 to 2051.
Figure: A small portion of a project finance spreadsheet. This one happens to be for a solar farm, but it could just as easily be for an oil refinery
Any change to the cost assumptions in the project spreadsheet will change the predicted profitability of the overall project. Small changes to underlying costs, when propagated across a 35-year operating plan, can have a significant impact on a project’s viability, and in particular on whether an investment bank believes that it can make more money from the oil refinery, or more money from a solar or wind farm. You have $500 million to invest in the energy sector: which do you choose, the oil refinery or the solar farm? It all comes down to the spreadsheet.
If Google’s cloud and AI/ML technology can reduce the overall costs of finding, extracting, and processing oil and gas, and reduce the cost of oil and gas power plants by even 1% — and I certainly could believe that 1% is possible — the results for the planet will be dire. More large-scale investment dollars diverted to oil and gas, more oil and gas refineries built, more oil and gas extracted, while zero-carbon energy generation gets deployed more slowly, or simply not deployed at all because the capital investment is going into cheaper oil and gas. That’s how we die by fire – one cost-reducing Google cloud service at a time.
“Ah”, you say, “but Google purchases wind and solar power for its data centers, I read that on a public relations page somewhere! Surely that must count for something?” Well, no, not really – not compared to Cloud’s potential to keep the oil and gas sector financially viable and to crowd out the transition to zero-carbon production. Let’s look at the numbers:
– Public estimates of Google’s total annual data center power consumption suggest that Google data centers consumed about 10.6 TWh (terawatt-hours) of electricity in 2018.
– The estimated global energy consumption of oil in 2015 was about 50,000 TWh, and 35000 TWh for gas, for a total of 85000 TWh across the oil and gas sectors.
– So energy consumption in the oil and gas sector, into which Google Cloud is selling its cost-reducing services, is four orders of magnitude larger than Google’s data center decarbonization efforts. The harm that Google Cloud will do to the planet, if it reduces underlying costs of this industry by even a small percent, completely dwarfs the data center decarbonization work.
Is it a Good Thing that Google purchases zero-carbon energy for its data centers? Of course, and there are many employees working hard on decarbonization – I’ve been there myself, with a 20% project to contribute towards internal product decarbonization back in early 2019. However, the green data center efforts have no material impact when compared to the dire effects of cost-structure reduction on the entire energy industry. What’s actually happening with Google’s zero-carbon data center efforts is similar to what we see from many large firms that cause harm with their business practices: an effort to purchase indulgences, cancellations of sin, in the public mind. When accused of contributing to the climate crisis, Google simply needs to pull out the data center decarbonization slide deck and say “see, we do good things too!” It’s a widely-used tactic that’s also used, for example, to deflect criticisms of homophobic and transphobic content on Youtube. Unfortunately, the one billion animals dead from the climate-induced Australia brush fires aren’t around to see that decarbonization slide deck, and as I write this the country is still breathing toxic smog. We’re dying by fire, and the Google Cloud oil and gas sales vertical is pouring on the gasoline. Google employees working on data center decarbonization need to be aware that your work is a double-edged sword – while it does result in the purchase of more wind and solar power, Google also uses your work as part of a broader greenwashing effort to derail conversations about the fact that Google is part of the supply chain to the oil and gas sector.
3. Expansion into the weapons industry and the business of killing
Back in early 2018, it was revealed that Google was contributing to artificial intelligence for drone warfare, with project Maven. A combination of internal and external protests eventually led to a commitment not to renew the contract when it expired. The urge to pursue military contracts, however, didn’t disappear, it just mutated, rearing its head again in November 2019 with SVP Kent Walker’s infamous comment at an AI conference that when it comes to military contracts, “we’re eager to do more.”
When I heard “we’re eager to more”, I recalled what’s now a 40-year-old document from the Presbyterian Church titled Peacemaking: The Believers’ Calling, one that both my father and I studied back when it was first released. Somebody at the denomination thankfully decided that it’s worth keeping a copy online for historical purposes, and so online it is. Written during the slog of the cold war, and released not long before the massive military buildups of the Reagan administration, its opening remarks feel as striking to me today as they were 40 years ago:
“Ominous clouds hang over human history. There are frightening risks in the continuing arms race and looming conflicts over diminishing energy resources as centers of power struggle for control. Our fear for safety has led us to trust in the false security of arms; our sin of war has led us to take life; and now we are in danger of taking our own lives as well.”
– Peacemaking: The Believer’s Calling, UPCUSA, 1980
In January of 2020, the U.S. President assassinated Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, risking the possibility of World War 3, using drone warfare technology. At the time I recall thinking: I wonder how much of project Maven was in that drone, pushing us that much closer to a global catastrophe? I wonder what other weapons projects are already underway at Google that the company isn’t telling us about?
Working for a firm that wants to aggressively pursue military contracts simply isn’t compatible with how I want to live my life. The well-known Biblical vision of divine intent for relationships between the nations comes from Isaiah 2:4: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” That’s the divine intent for human beings, mediated through a human being who put it into words, and it’s our responsibility to pursue that divine intent. “We’re eager to do more” goes in the opposite direction. I don’t want to work for a firm that turns plowshares into swords, or lines of code into weapons of war.
Suggestions for current and candidate employees
Since I already released an overly verbose set of recommendations for the Google reform movement back in November 2019, here I’ll keep these additional suggestions brief.
For current Google employees:
1. For yourself, discern and write down the corporate behavioral line which, if crossed by Google, will trigger your resignation. You don’t want to be like the proverbial frog that’s cooked in hot water, enduring an ongoing series of corporate ethical violations, each one at least as painful as the last, and then wake up one morning and find that you don’t know yourself anymore. This ethical line is different for each person. For me, it was consciously crossed when Kent Walker sat on a stage and said “we’re eager to do more”, though I soon realized that the pressure had been building over several years, manifesting as lack of sleep, weight loss, and inability to even enjoy taking a vacation. What matters is that you spend time in discernment to consider your own moral boundaries, and how you’ll enforce those boundaries when somebody tries to violate them.
If it helps, here’s one way to get started. I was working through my old Berkeley MBA course material a few weeks ago when I discovered a slide deck from the ethics class, which is required of all Berkeley/Haas MBA students. The instructor made one particular summary slide titled “Questions to Ask” that pulls from multiple ethical traditions, and that offers some starter questions for discernment. From the slide:
– Would I be happy for this decision to be on the public record?
– What would happen if everybody did this?
– How would I like it if someone did this to me?
– Will the proposed course of action bring about a good result?
– What will the proposed course of action do to my character or the character of my organization?
– Is the proposed course of action consistent with my espoused values and principles?
I’ve also found the analysis Ten Rules of Technology by University of Sussex researcher Tony Roberts to be useful, as it cuts through some of the misguided framings that can derail us when we attempt to think through the ethics of applied technology. Insights include “Technologies are inherently political”, “Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral”, and “Algorithms are human agency and interests, encoded”.
2. The reason why there’s a book titled IBM and the Holocaust, which details IBM’s in-depth complicity in providing the IT services and logistical support for mass murder, is due to two root causes: ethically impaired, profit-obsessed executives, and a large base of rank and file employees who were Just Trying To Do Their Jobs. Within Google, as an employee you can’t do much about the executives, who if anything have tripled down on their hunger for revenue, but you can absolutely control your own choices and actions. When that day comes, and you’re asked to cross that behavioral line that you’ve already discerned, here is what you do: you look your manager in the eye, and you quote Sergey Brin from 2010: “I will not be a cog in that machine”. Part of your job as a human being is to ensure that 30 years from now, there’s not a book titled Google and the U.S. Border Patrol Concentration Camps, or Google and the Drone Warfare Murders.
For people considering employment at Google:
1. As you do your due diligence on the firm, your research should focus on events from 2019 and later, and your conversations should be with employees who have work experience at the firm from 2019 and beyond. Longer service is obviously better, but conversations with people who left in 2017 or earlier may play out differently from conversations with current employees. The best estimates that we have at the moment are that Google’s executive management engaged the services of anti-labor consulting firm IRI Consultants in early 2019, and it’s been throughout 2019 that, in hindsight, a variety of decisions have the appearance of being made in consultation with a firm that provides advice on how to control employees, muzzle their speech, and set them against each other.
2. Google, obviously, isn’t its brand – it isn’t the meticulously-curated happy, playful, crayola-crayon-colors entity of the marketing materials or the Super Bowl commercials. It’s a Fortune 50 multinational corporation, and it wants what every Fortune 50 multinational corporation wants, which is more revenue and lower costs. Keep in mind that you’re joining a firm which is long past its startup days, and which has been turning the screws on cost containment for many departments for quite some time.
3. Google’s informal motto is no longer “You can make money without doing evil”. A better replacement at this point might be “You can make even more money if you don’t care who suffers”. From retaliating against the organizers of the Womens’ Walkout, to its reticence to ban white nationalism on Youtube, to doing business with the U.S. Border Patrol, to its rejection of every single reform proposal at the 2019 shareholder’s meeting, this isn’t the Google of 2005 when I joined, or of 2010 when the company refused to be complicit with China’s search censorship, or even of 2017. This is the IRI-Consultants, internal-spyware, fire-the-labor-activists Google of 2019 and beyond. Be sure that you’re aware of what you’re choosing before you sign up. The internal surveillance to which you commit will probably be your own.
Sometimes people like to know what the future plans are for the person who leaves. I’m not leaving for another job, I’m retiring, which ideally will free up additional time for work in four areas:
1. I continue to serve on the board of my local church, and that’s likely to continue for some time.
2. I’m on the board of a working group of the Santa Clara County Democratic Party that will establish and operate a crucial Bay Area volunteer office in 2020. Since there’s this little thing called an election this year, this is one of those “could expand infinitely to consume all available volunteer hours” roles.
3. I hope to have more time to commit to Never Again Action, a direct-action organization working to oppose and shut down the concentration camps in the U.S. This will be as an ally. Feel free to send them a donation – to date, their emails and webinars suggest that they have some savvy people on their national leadership team, and that they understand how to grow and execute strategic nonviolent campaigns.
4. I also hope to expand my volunteer work for the growing tech labor and tech ethics movement, since that’s obviously an area where I have some domain knowledge and might be able to help out. This growing movement includes established efforts such as Silicon Valley Rising, and newer efforts including the Athena coalition, the AI Now Institute, and the Communications Workers of America’s CODE initiative. Going forward, we’re likely to see even more institutions founded to challenge the growing dangers of tech firms that seek profits over human well-being.
During the 14+ years that I’ve been at Google, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many great people, all of them concerned about doing quality work, all of them concerned with how to make the world a better place. For those who choose to stay, may you continue to find ways to demand what’s right, and refuse what’s wrong. For those who leave, may you take that opportunity to tell your story – why did you leave, was there a broader ethical reason? For those who have left, and those who have never held positions at Google at all, be aware that our power is stronger than we know, because Google can’t force employee policies on us, can’t retaliate against us, can’t fire us. The Google reform movement continues to need people who don’t fear retaliation, and the struggle to reform the company will require participants from both inside and outside the firm.
I wish all of you the best in your future efforts, wherever they may lead. May we have the courage, the wisdom, the resilience, and the strength to make that future better for us all.
Google, October 2005 – February 2020
About the author
Bruce Hahne joined Google in October 2005, and has worked as a network engineer, an engineering manager, and a technical program manager. He was the official movement videographer for the Women’s Walkout at Google Mountain View HQ in 2018, and is the author of Stepping Up Our Game, a series of strategy recommendations for the Google reform movement released in November 2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org