I don't understand why a person who organized the pressure group that led to Google disbanding their AI ethics group would expect her role not to change, since she's involved in AI ethics, the very thing she helped sink. She helped make it politically toxic and a PR disaster for her own employer.
I'm no fan of Google, but they tried to organize something to satisfy a politically diverse group of stakeholders to at least have a discussion on this topic, only to have their efforts very publicly sabotaged by one of their own. Are they really obligated to continue to fund the work she's done to harm the company?
There are a lot more people outside the bubble than inside, and this action makes it seem like Google doesn't give a shit what they think. It's the sort of thing that makes heavy regulation appealing even for those who normally would oppose regulation on principle.
How does that benefit Google?
Anyway, if you're interested in seeing all the ridiculous shenanigans these people try to pull I recommend following @farbandish on twitter.
I think ahelwer meant the AI ethics space in general, not just this panel.
As a researcher who has been working in ML and also software engineering ethics since long before "AI ethics" became a thing, I've definitely noticed a massive infusion of self-promoting "thought leaders" who have zero expertise in either of those things.
Most of those people are MBAs with little or no actual business experience and zero software knowledge (let alone ML or AI research experience). Their ethics background usually amounts to a few undergraduate philosophy courses that, ironically, failed to teach them the one thing that a philosophy course should teach: a modicum intellectual humility.
And yes, those folks tend to care mostly about their paychecks.
It seems implausible that anyone not in a bubble cares what happens to Google's 8-person no-actual-power ethics team. It could be composed of witches and warlocks who spend their days researching pentagrams and nobody should care. There are a lot of small, questionable teams in large companies.
It is only remotely newsworthy as evidence that Google culturally purges conservative voices. Even with that frame; it could just be a beat up. I'd define the bubble as people who were getting worked up over it; they are obviously culturally synchronized because there isn't an obvious rational link.
Perhaps the easiest way to help the world avoid the potential problems created by the Google's work is not to work for Google?
These protesting employees, whatever the cause du jour, are all in a compromised position. They need/want their jobs at Google. They cannot effectively function as internal watchdogs and regulators. They are not representative of the wider affected population; we do not elect them.
Neither Google nor Facebook can be relied on to "regulate itself", whether it comes from top-down decision-making or in response to internal protests.
These laws were passed because they were seen as better than the status quo, which was employers firebombing their employees or highering mecenaries to shoot them.
They didn't even fire her. Apparently they just said, We don't want you involved in the AI ethics discussion going forward. That seems reasonable, considering her past efforts in that area have not benefited Google in any way, but rather harmed them.
Just as employers can't firebomb their employees for organizing, employees can't bury steel spikes in logs headed for the sawmill.
That assumes some humility and objectiveness from her higher-ups. "Oh you publicly criticized our project, behind which some of us have staked our reputation. And you created a major negative PR event as well. Thank you for that! We finally see our mistake and we'll apologize and move on". In some hypothetical rational universe it might play out like that, but in reality I don't see how that was supposed to turn out without some repercussions for her.
The questions involved have to do with should we build this tech, not how to build this tech. To argue otherwise means that the vast majority of people should not be allowed to have opinions on the ethics of nuclear weapons, medical procedures, or any other topic where they are not subject matter experts.
AI tech and the ethics of using it is rightly a political topic, since it has the potential to affect everyone on the planet.
Preemptively saying that certain viewpoints have no place at the table simply means the political discussion will move from a friendlier environment within Google to the (likely more hostile to Google's interests) environment of general politics in the U.S. Personally I think that might be a better outcome, but from Google's standpoint it's potentially a disaster since it might result in heavy regulation of their business.
The idea was to have some people from outside the company look at the tech and its potential hazards and provide some input on the ethics of developing and deploying it. People inside the company said, No, we don't want that particular viewpoint to be have a seat at the table on this outside committee. The ethics panel had nothing at all to do with their working conditions.
Did we not, uh, already have laws against firebombing or hiring hitpersons? I would have thought these kinds of rights-to-collective-action laws are more about employers just summarily sacking people who do things that they're legally entitled to do but that are politically disadvantageous to their employers.
Protest and civil disobedience come at an obligate personal cost. The only reasonable expectation you should have before doing it is that you're about to burn your world to the ground -- anything left standing you should count as a blessing and a relief.
In this case, for example, walkout organizers should've just assumed that they're going to be retaliated against, and that their protest didn't end the day of the walkout but will continue through the whole process of having a labor lawyer, fighting this in court, documenting their work lives for the next 5+ years, etc. It's part of the same action and part of the same protest.
In the long term and at a broader societal level, moral protests are usually worth it, but that does not mean that your shorter- and medium- term economic and personal social costs are going to be zero -- in fact, quite the opposite!
edit: i assume that the walkout organizers knew all this, but the above can totally be read as "oh those silly babes-in-the-woods googlers", which was not what i meant. If anything, I understand the linked post as just the next phase of the game, in which illegal retribution is disclosed as part of an ongoing legal fight.
Quitting isn't going to change a damn thing.
Retaliation which isn't technically retaliation is just how crusty old Kafkaesque big companies have operated for years. I'll leave it up to the reader what this implies about Google.
In the long term and at a broader societal level, moral protests are usually worth it
Social media has created an environment where the bar is far too low for activism and protest, and unchecked opportunism in the name of activism is far too easy.
but that does not mean that your shorter- and medium- term economic and personal social costs are going to be zero -- in fact, quite the opposite!
Strange, but in 2019, there are quite a few people who have profited or otherwise have gained non-monetarily from online activism.
I don't think you should refer to people as terrible just because they don't admire the same qualities that you do.
They had one clear goal: make a lot of money for themselves. And they have, for many years, achieved this goal splendidly, through hard work, financial and business skills, reputation, innovation, connections, lies, market manipulation, government bailouts, etc.
This is considered success, and earns respect, in both Western and Eastern cultures. There are people who hate the way Goldman makes money, but they are not the majority even in the general population. For example, take a look at this: https://www.businessinsider.com/goldman-sachs-reputation-sco... or http://www.vault.com/company-rankings/banking/vault-banking-...
Only the unethical respect the unethical.
Does it mean people in your country would hate for their kids to get a job at Goldman Sachs, organizations would hesitate to take Goldman Sachs donations, etc?
By your logic, you can admire all sorts of terrible people, like those who have committed murder, genocide, etc.
It is fine to judge people on a moral level if they are committing blatantly unethical acts. Being "successful" does not exclude one from being terrible.
To your point, I think maybe 99.9% of people agree that murderers are terrible.
The number of people who agree that Goldman Sachs is terrible is nowhere close to that. In fact, I suspect close to 25-50% actually admire them. I think it's wrong to call a quarter of the population "terrible" just because they don't agree with your definition of morality.
This is just the way the world works. If you are opposed to something, you need to complain and make a buzz to get change over time. Even if in the moment it is both obvious and will make no difference.
For the sake of argument, let's postulate that this is exactly what it sounds like: straight up retaliation. If so, here's the question in my mind:
What flipping moron thought that:
a. this was a good idea
b. they could get away with this
TBH, I'd say that IF Google management were that upset at this individual's actions, it would have made more sense to just straight up fire her, as opposed to this kind of childishness. NOT that I'm saying any of this justifies firing. Just saying that outright firing somebody you disagree with makes more sense than keeping them around and trying to fuck with them as, whatever, punishment I guess? That's braindead stupid as far as I can see.
And actually, (a) is the more serious question in many ways. Seriously, what did they think they would gain from this retaliation? Who wins in this scenario? Nobody, as far as I can tell.
One possibility - the people with power to fire her actually talked to their lawyers, while the people with the power to initiate this kind of harassment did not.
Yes, but in some ways it would have been more honest. But the real question, still, is why do either? How does retaliating against this individual benefit Google? (Not that it would be justified even IF the answer was "Their stock will go up 3x as a result" or something).
It's just dumb from what I can see. It's almost like some manager was butt-hurt that somebody expressed their opinion and decided to try and fuck them over for no real reason. That manager is the one who ought to be fired.
Well, my second guess in my comment was that the person who consulted lawyers and decided against firing was not the same person as the idiot manager who decided on this harassment.
This way, even if she sues them and wins, it will scare a lot of other employees and make them second guess if they want to be put in a position to have to hire a lawyer, be dragged to court, risk losing, etc.
That's fair. I guess the question, then, is whether or not this kind of activism can actually represent a real threat to the company. I lean towards "I doubt it", at least in any realistic scenario. But I'd be interested to hear the arguments for that position.
True, but I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for it to happen.
The article also mentions that when she contacted HR and her VP, the situation got worse. So even if the initial act was that of a lone-wolf manager, the rest of the management chain supported and escalated the retaliation. That's organized enough for me.
EDIT: Since people don't believe me: https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/retaliation.cfm
> Thousands of Google employees and contractors around the globe—many of them women—briefly walked off the job Thursday to protest Google’s handling of sexual harassment claims and other workplace issues, and to demand more transparency around harassment incidents and pay levels at the company.
The aforelinked EEOC page  explicitly mentions that asserting your right to not be harassed is protected activity:
> communicating with a supervisor or manager about employment discrimination, including harassment
> Other acts to oppose discrimination are protected as long as the employee was acting on a reasonable belief that something in the workplace may violate EEO laws
That's pretty vague. And nothing else on the government site supports protests. That's not any sort of normally protected activity in regards to labor laws. Plus, I think it's fairly common knowledge that if you walk out of your office to protest anything (your employer, the government, the weather, whatever), nearly everyone would say that you walking out is you not performing your job duties at that specific time. And I don't think Google or any other company has a written policy to take part in protests. The government's site seems to indicate that following the company's policies and HR practices with regards to raising the alarm bells at alleged/suspected improper activity cannot receive retaliation.
EDIT - I was wrong. It is protected. https://www.law.com/corpcounsel/2018/11/01/when-a-walkout-hi...
If you are attorney specializing in labor law and you think the above posts comport with your ethical obligations, then carry on I guess.
Google is not allowed to retaliate, either by punishing them, or by offering positive incentives to others to not participate in the conduct.
I suspect you're still right on the law due to other provisions - it's just that link, and section of the law, doesn't obviously cover what happened at Google. You can "communicate", and resist specific discriminatory/harassing actions, without stopping all other legitimate work for speeches & sign-carrying.
"Depending on the circumstances, calling public attention to alleged discrimination may constitute reasonable opposition, provided that it is connected to an alleged violation of the EEO laws. Opposition may include even activities such as picketing."
i.e. direct labor action is considered part of the right to communicate grievances.
(There's probably better protection for their organizing and the walkout in labor-organizing law, rather than the non-discrimination/non-harassment statutes you're citing.)
If I work for a car company, and we come out with a car, and I go on record saying how crappy the car is and how no one should buy it - would that be a protected activity?
Wild guess is that Google internal culture has more "we're the good guys" beliefs among employees than many other companies. And, at least in the past, Google officially supported Don't Be Evil.
If so, that good-guy identification might be self-fulfilling to some degree, in the people who are attracted disproportionately, and in reinforcement from an atmosphere of many people identifying that way.
Continuing the wild guessing, it's possible that people think Google is a safer place to speak up than many other places.
And especially in the age of 'social media', we have blurred ideas of where the line is, between collegial dialogue and public performance. Also, a single person's blurred ideas about that can turn something that was internal for everyone else, into public for everyone else.
Though, in general, if people feel they have to go public about an issue (assuming it's genuine by everyone, not a self-regulation/PR stunt, nor politician-style individual career-building by some)... that seems to suggest that they don't have sufficient influence and trust internally, without putting the organization on the spot publicly. If you don't trust your colleagues/management to do the right thing, or you still don't have influence, I'd say that's not a place you want to be. If the idea of walking away sounds bad, consider whether you actually can find influence and trust within the organization. (And let the rest of us know where you eventually find influence&trust, because that can be hard to find.)
> For example, depending on the facts, it could be retaliation if an employer acts because of the employee's EEO activity to:
> * transfer the employee to a less desirable position;
The word because bewilders me here.
Who knows why anyone does anything?
I don't know why I do 90% of what I do.
If someone accused me of having tuna for lunch because of someone's EEO activity, how could I possibly prove they were wrong?
So, you'll go up at trail and present a bunch of data points, and build a narrative around those data points. Look, you say, I had good reviews from my managers and glowing recommendations from my co-workers. Despite this, I was fired shortly after I Did A Thing. Is this a coincidence or retaliatory? Your employer would attempt to provide evidence that your work quality actually dropped off, you would attempt to present evidence that either the quality stayed the same, or else that goalposts were moved for no good reason.
Note that both parties have the ability to compel various types of evidence to be produced. You would be able to subpeona the employer for emails between bosses, or manager notes, or reviews and such. You could be able to compel people to testify around a variety of facts.
... if this process sounds rather onerous, now you know why trials take a long time and many parties prefer to settle privately rather than engage in the full court process.
Curiously, this is a standard that isn't well understood. It's "beyond a reasonable doubt", not "any doubt whatsoever". You saw it a lot in some of the Bitcoin cases (Silk Road)... "Well, they can't prove that he wasn't set up or that the wallet matching his wasn't entirely a coincidence, (crypto signatures be damned), so there's doubt, and he should be acquitted".
They demoted two employees who were highly performing, weren't told otherwise, but coincidentally highly instrumental in organizing and staging protests. Doesn't take a genius to figure out why they were forcibly transferred.
This doesn't meet the standards for burden of proof.
There could be an email trail, or testimony from witnesses to conversations in which the motivations were discussed. That's direct evidence.
There could also be indirect evidence, for example, if there was a pattern of firing employees directly after they participated in protected activities.
Courts deal with mens rea and actus rea every day. They look at the evidence and see if it meets the burden of proof.
I'm sure most Europeans here would agree that this is a very sad statement.
It's important to point out that you can get fired for protesting alone. But once you start organizing, you unlock a lot of legal protections.
In California, where many of these workers are located, there are additional protections that might cover this.
What a sad state of affairs when workers in the supposed 'greatest country on earth' feel that way.
COWEN: If we turn to senior management of large American companies, as a class of people — and I know it’s hard to generalize — but what do you see them as just not getting?
PETERSON: I would caution them not to underestimate the danger of their human resources departments.
COWEN: Say more.
PETERSON: Yeah, well, because I see that the social justice etiology that’s destroyed a huge swath of academia is on the march in a major way through corporate America. And if the corporate people think they’re immune to it, they’ve got another think coming. It’s not like they’re any smarter than the universities.
COWEN: And who gave the HR department so much power? How did that happen? What myth did we follow that led us wrong?
PETERSON: That’s a good question because they had virtually no power to begin with, right? HR departments have always been underpowered, so to speak.
If Google is still mostly focused on writing software and building the future, rather than prosecuting culture wars, that strikes me as a slight but real positive sign.
I've heard that Peterson was spreading worthless claptrap, but am still a little suprised.
> If Google is still mostly focused on writing software and building the future, rather than prosecuting culture wars
Thankfully, Google has stayed away from Peterson
If google is such a bad company, then quit working for them.
It's not really a protest, it's a tactic to wrestle control over the company and win social points with their "victory".
They want the social status of having protested something, yet with zero of the fallout.
They still collect google paychecks, collect google 401k money, still have google health insurance AND want to be able to say they "stuck it to the man"
It's just so odd all the way around.
They had a google walkout, then google didn't change anything, then the protesters went back to work.
It was all just a stunt.
Absolutely sometimes the best thing for an individual to do is take their marbles and go home. But equally, sometimes the best thing to do is put your shoulder to pushing the wheels in [what you perceive as] a better direction. Companies (and countries) after all are not stand-alone entities; they are an expression of their constituent parts. Some of this is history/momentum, but a lot of it is just people.
 of course I think the bar for "when should I leave my company" is an awful lot lower than "when should I leave my country".
Mind you, I don't think that means that employees (or public workers, for that matter) should just shut up. But the argument for "should just leave" is stronger in this case than it is for citizens.
A person is within their rights to try and change the company from within before leaving. But, that will likely come with personal costs (right or wrong).
If those costs get to be too high, the correct action might be to leave. At a company, the impact of leaving could be much higher than the impact of moving to a different country on politics...
Google very much relies on "smart people" to earn money. If enough leave in protest, Google will eventually suffer. It would take a LOT of people leaving the US for there to be any noticeable impact.
It is generally the opposite. You usually don't have any right to influence, or even sometimes speak about, the company. The right you do have is to suspend your work and go on strike. Companies are free to negotiate collective agreements that prevent worker to go on strike and instead have them complain to their representatives.
Google have opted for another model where there is no agreement. As such it is up to Google to win the trust of their employees.
> If those costs get to be too high, the correct action might be to leave. At a company, the impact of leaving could be much higher than the impact of moving to a different country on politics...
Impact isn't the same as change. If all people who like ice cream leave Google it doesn't make Google (or necessarily any place) better for people who like ice cream. Which is what they would want.
The whole point of taking action is that you think you are right and therefor shouldn't be the one to have to change, or at least not end up worse for it.
I think we’re generally in agreement.
Big players will not (and are not) touching GCP's AI solutions for this exact reason: it's only a matter of time before the virtue signalers are no longer content with policing the decisions of their own company and start targeting customer workloads.
Demonstrating that management takes petty actions like this is far more convincing than people silently quitting.
I don't think the management is just gonna toss the protestors on PIPs without strong evidence they aren't getting their daily jobs done.
The dominant speakers spoke popular opinions.
I never claimed that a large portion dissent.
The specific claim I'm addressing is the one that you made and that dekhn echoed, that these are the views of only a minority. To give an extreme example, extrapolating from the opinions of DC techs wouldn't make sense if google employed only a single DC tech.
>The dominant speakers spoke popular opinions.
I'm not sure this is actually the case. There was a survey a year or so back that listed 'Libertarian' as the most common political leaning among SV tech workers . People who reported being 'Very Liberal' were far more comfortable sharing their political opinions at work, though. And judging from the lynch mobs we've seen in the past few years... Well, there's a few good reasons to avoid mentioning libertarian or conservative political views in SV.
While probably better than the similar survey on blind a year ago, I wouldn't put much trust in it. Nor should you.
Now your statements about comfort are spot on. But consider why that is. The people you discuss fear ostracism, but how does one get ostracized if one is in the majority? It's the same reason a more liberal person might not share their views in a company full of conservatives. The whole silent majority idea is wishful thinking.
Yeah, that's fair.
> The people you discuss fear ostracism, but how does one get ostracized if one is in the majority?
Because there has never in history been a case of a small group of people exercising power over a larger group, even when the larger group could, if organized, easily overcome the smaller. Never happened.
But seriously, this is a game of equilibria. If everyone who speaks against X gets lynched, and people who don't enthusiastically support that lynching find themselves next in line, it doesn't matter how many people actually support X or like lynching. Any individual moving against that system gets lynched, including by the people who dislike both X and lynching, because no one wants to be lynched themselves.
Their readership is certainly outside of the HN crowd.
There’s only one meaningful punishment a corporation can suffer, and it’s by design: the death penalty.
Political institutions exist to provide a forum for discourse. Private property exists so that the individual can be free of the tyranny of the other by not being forced to make a bargain with whomever decides they want in.
Having said all this, I agree with the spirit of your argument. However, going public and or legal makes you an enemy of the organisation and will more than likely result in having to leave the organisation sooner or later.
There’s a place for both, but I’m not sure there’s a lot of overlap. If you want to protest your boss, that’s fine. But I’d encourage you to have your resume up-to-date. Very few people take an activist role in a company and stay employed. But heated discussions and debate are a natural part of any board meeting.
I don't know what you're trying to say here. Most of the most famous actions during the civil rights movement were African Americans doing things that were only illegal because of racist laws supported by cultural white supremacy (lunch-counter sit-ins; pubic buses; sometimes merely existing in certain areas at certain times). Metaphorically, they did "continue to ride the bus", if that means they continued to engage in the same actions involved in the protests, because those actions were eventually made legal. For those interested in learning more about the movement, I recommend "The Children" by David Halberstam. He makes clear just how dangerous being a civil rights protestor was.
Those involved were willing to take incredible personal risks in forms of protest until their voices were represented in politics.
A more interesting conversation for sure. There are lots of ways to make software besides companies. Lots of great software that got made before there was a corporate entity supporting it, even indirectly. Some great software written entirely in opposition to a corporate entity.
Don't obsess too narrowly on "GPL" or "open source" or whatever. A lot of software is artisanal, all the way from making websites to make firmwares for space devices, bought and sold on the digital equivalent of a fleamarket and not by the concentration of some corporate entity. Some software is bought/sold at auction, like government contracts.
No one is objecting to corporations generally. There's a reaction against (1) the conformity of it all and (2) the pedigree of the people who work there.
How do supposedly smart people, with their liberal arts and STEM educations, represent a shareholder group that is most likely going to treat the ordinary person unjustly?
For example, it's possible to research AI at universities. No one is going to pressure you into making target-acquisition image recognition or person-of-interest mass-surveillance tech at a university. But these are exactly the sorts of things Google was selling in its Maven contract. They want to sell fucking weapons dude.
We have this intuitive idea that a lot of people are okay with selling the weapons basically because the pay is really fucking good. The controversy is that the Northrup Grumman employees are the "other," and Google engineers were like soft kids from Ivy League schools who are friendly and nice and watch lots of animal videos and crack good jokes.
It just turns out they want money too sometimes, a lot of it. The line has finally been crossed where people have to either quit or shut up.
You might want to look into the vast amount of military tech that was developed at research universities, often indirectly driven via availability of grants. Academia isn't really a safe haven here.
I know you’re interpreting “what happens when there are no more companies to flee to” with respect to software engineers, but I have to ask: how would you make software if there were no companies making computers?
At least in politics you can vote. As a worker, you have very little control in direction of a large employer.
Democracy is all well and good, as long as it knows its proper place in the corporate hierarchy.
At some point don't you conclude that the distance between your own value system and that of the corporation you work is just too great?
if you want real change, start a cooperative.
At the very least you need to be aware that those are options and not be surprised when someone argues that exit >> voice.
Start your own company...or destroy those that are trying to destroy you
Companies like Google encouraged a continuation of a college like atmosphere, but it is not college. It's a job. If you're not there to work and add value to the company, the what are you doing?
In college it may be ok to demonstrate against the EVIL THING, but work is not college. In college you're paying to be there. At work, you're getting paid to add value.
This stuff is legally protected because before we had legal protections, conflicts devolved into straight out armed struggle, with employers hiring mercenaries (notably the pinkertons) to break up employee resistance with guns.
Why not try to change what is Bad?
I could see this working for a small local coffee shop, but for something as big as Google where many employees could be replaced, and how it effects the lives of billions of people on the planet (and elsewhere), you not working there wouldn't bring any real net positive change.
If I hate Comcast and ATT and chose to ignore them for being Bad, I really wouldn't have broadband options.
My municipality would be a good contender to start their own ISP, but are banned from doing so thanks to Comcast passing laws in my state (most states in US now), and the "system" for allowing them to pass said laws.
I am not going to just quit internet because I hate them, but I have and continue to try to hold them accountable and have them do better.
So as long as monolithic monopolies exist with the support of the many institutions set in place today, ignoring bad does no good.
You do not know that. Perhaps them not working there deprives the corporation of their ideas and skills, and frees the person's time and energy for a work helping the positive change.
Most of these AI algorithms are open source and available on Github for anyone to use. The military is still gonna have their big bad robot with a gun that can immediately identify enemy combatants as soon as it enters a room.
The genie is out of the bag.
> If google is such a bad company, then quit working for them.
Still, your comment is mistaken. The Google Walkout wasn't directly about AI or Google's other business offerings, it was mainly about sexual harassment and working conditions; the organizers were very clear about this: https://www.thecut.com/2018/11/google-walkout-organizers-exp... One of the main sparks was the discovery that Andy Rubin has been paid hundreds of millions and protected by management while he was being fired for sexual harassment. These are subjects where the law generally protects employees from retaliation.
This is like saying "because we can create nuclear bombs, we might as well should because it pays well!"
No, with the power to engineer something comes the responsibility to make sure you are not creating something terrible. This is Ethics 101. Even if the philosophical/ethical argument is not something you care for - how many more countless, concrete examples throughout history does one need to understand this fact?
Sometimes, ironically, I think they specifically set those up to flush out non-conformists, the naive, and the trouble-makers. Invite them to "share their thoughts" then start building black lists. I am only half joking there https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundred_Flowers_Campaign
In other words, she is eminently qualified. Yet Meredith Whittaker organized people against her because she disagrees with her politics.
Ms. James has not one incident on record where she caused harm to anyone. She is merely the head of a conservative think-tank.
Diversity of thought is very important. I feel little sympathy for the trouble-causers. Google looked idiotic when it disbanded the council.
Let's be clear, most of the justification (and claims of protection) for recent employee activism relies on mental gymnastics. There is no standing, for example, for random Google employees to expect to be involved in the selection of members of an AI ethics panel or in the acceptance criteria for clientele. There is no standing for employees to be involved in most of the company's decisions. This is especially true for the relatively-junior employees who are often driving these protests, since they lack the experience/skillset/visibility to have any useful/comprehensive perspective on complex corporate decisions. It is immature for them to expect involvement or transparency on-demand, and to protest decisions they disagree with that are beyond their horizon. If these activists were truly honest, they would conduct petitions via anonymous voting mechanisms (e.g. internal surveys) that let all employees vote for/against/indifferent, so that a broad voice is heard and not just a skewed vocal minority that faces no consequence. But these same activists won't do that, since these protests are not at all about making the best decisions or being inclusive, but rather about power dynamics and trying to get one's own way.
Google has lots of standing to take action against these employees. If these employees don't want to work at Google, or don't display motivation around their core role/function, let them quit or fire them. If they are not performing their duties and are instead spending work time on personal agendas, fire them. If they are disrupting the workplace by constantly fomenting outrage on the Internet, fire them. If they are hurting the company's brand and working against the interests of the company (or shareholders) by engaging in self-serving political activism, fire them. If they disrespect and alienate most of their customer base by only advocating for their own worldview, fire them. All this should be uncontroversial - after all, many others will line up for those jobs and Google will be just fine.
Expanding on this further: I think colloquially, most people would agree that certain actions are explicitly political and certain ones are not. I do not view Google taking on a military contract as a political action, but rather a normal, expected action for an entity that tries to create value for others. The neutral-most stance, if any, is for them to accept all willing clients. On the other hand, employees protesting because they disagree with the actions/impacts of one of Google's clients, or employees who disagree with a specific application of a technology (which others unrelated to them see value in), are bringing personal judgment, personal opinions, personal values, personal morality, and personal politics into the workplace.
The reason I label these as 'personal' is because these employees are imposing their worldview on the company's decision-making, and overriding the democratic/distributed nature of transactions taking place freely in the market between two consenting entities (the corporation and its clients). Those transactions are better and more-neutral measures of value than the voice of a small but vocal minority acting within the company. Effectively, such employee activism is a corruption of the notion of creating value for others (or others recognizing value in your products), and therefore not aligned to what the corporate mission is. Since it is not aligned to the corporate mission or the job the employees are paid to do, it is personal or political but definitely not normal or acceptable, which is why disciplinary action is justified.
This is not neutrality; it is capitalism without ethics, which is a moral stance that you are taking.
these employees are imposing their worldview on the company's decision-making
Your alternative is that the company should be able to impose their decision-making on the employees, and e.g. ask them to work on things which violate their personal principles, with their only alternative being to leave the company. In a world with a universal basic income without health care being tied to employment, where individuals were free to choose how to allocate their labor in a non-coercive environment, you might be able to argue this, but instead you are arguing that corporations have the right to freely transact in the market but employees (many of whom cannot pick and choose their employment or tolerate underemployment) do not have that right. Capitalism without ethics.
Corporations are simply groups of people. And those people are responsible for what the corporation does. They have not only a right, but an obligation to oppose actions by the corporation inimical to their worldview.
I disagree. It is neutrality, because it is recognizing that different parties and individuals have different ideas of what is acceptable to them (morally or otherwise), and that they can decide that for themselves. If there aren't enough customers to sustain some product/service, then that business would fail. If it finds product-market fit, then that business will continue to operate. It is a distributed method of taking measure of what people value and don't value, which includes a distributed notion of morality.
> Your alternative is that the company should be able to impose their decision-making on the employees, and e.g. ask them to work on things which violate their personal principles, with their only alternative being to leave the company.
Yes that is my alternative, and I don't see anything wrong with it. Those employees can choose to do the work that is asked of them or leave. The company is not imposing anything on the employees - they are compensating the employees for their time/labor, and get to specify in what capacity those employees can contribute. If you were an employee in the IT side of some company, and you saw the R&D side acquiring some other company, would you think "well I disagree and this makes me want to leave, but it is unfair that I was not consulted or don't have a voice in this matter or that my only choice is to leave"? Of course not. Why would it be any different on other matters?
Another example: If you hire a plumber to fix your toilet and that plumber took the opportunity to deliver a religious sermon at your home, would you find it acceptable? What if they lecture you on how you are parenting your kid or your relationship with your spouse? A lot of the recent employee activism is similar to these hypothetical situations, except at a larger scale.
> you are arguing that corporations have the right to freely transact in the market but employees (many of whom cannot pick and choose their employment or tolerate underemployment) do not have that right
Employees have the right to pick and choose their place of employment. They have that freedom, and tech workers drawing large salaries are especially employable today. If someone cannot tolerate unemployment, they can invest in making themselves more-valuable to would-be employers. And yes, that means that in the interim they need to choose between putting their head down/getting their work done and engaging in workplace activism. I don't think it is reasonable to feel entitled to everything all the time, which is how this comes off to me.
> They have not only a right, but an obligation to oppose actions by the corporation inimical to their worldview.
Employees have limited rights at work. They are being compensated to perform a limited role and the measure of their success/failure is up to the company compensating them. Corporations also have a right to oppose actions by employees that are inimical to their worldview or interests. They can do so by terminating that relationship.
Again, corporations are made of people, and those people make decisions. Nothing is "up to the company" because the company is a group of people. People make the decisions.
> Employees that bring politics to work are making the workplace uncomfortable for everyone else who has a different (or perhaps a more nuanced-) opinion, but can't speak up
is so important. The General Assembly of Occupy Wall Street paid some mind to it, but it's generally assumed that being apt and competent in forcefully communicating perceived issues is fully equivalent to having legitimate grievances and interests in the matters at stake.
This runs the spectrum from very shy/social anxiety/autism to has three kids/sick parents/too busy to worry about campus/homeowners' association/etc. politics.
This is exactly what I want from petitions, online or otherwise. "Sign this if you agree" is not a good way to figure out what is best for all compared to "Do you agree or disagree".
There are so many petitions I see where I disagree with the petition, but the petitions aren't designed to include dissenting voices. Honestly, as a society we should reject all petitions that don't leave room for the representation of dissenting views.
Presumably the Walkout was a "fix this or we walk out" type of situation... but after Google refused to do 6/7ths of anything they demanded... they're still working for Google and not actively protesting. I would argue that Google called their bluff here.
A traditional protest against an employer, a strike, entails "give us this if you want us to return to work". Googlers walked out, made demands, and then walked right back in the door. Google said "we'll do one of the things you asked for because the rest of the industry was already going that way anyhow", and then refused the rest and everyone, for the moment, seems alright with this?
It's also a disseminate problem. Striking against long working hours is easy. Striking against corporate values that enable seemingly distant problems (surveillance states) while working on a friendly low-stress high-pay team... that's hard. Unless you actually care.
Maybe some people are learning they don't actually care... that their "values" were just shallow social posturing, worth less than their stable high-income...
Hopefully, though, some also realize tech is one of the few areas where workers still truly have the freedom to actually demand an ethical employer - which may involve looking elsewhere. Follow-through is always scary, but no worse than uprooting our lives moving to college and then again moving to big-tech cities.
> This (my) generation has been culturally conditioned against the idea of quitting a job
This is a super bizarre claim. Wealthy Googlers are afraid to quit their job because of their peers who make a fraction of their pay? We're talking about Silicon Valley workers and somehow they are more afraid to quit their job than the previous generations? A common job strategy is to change jobs every two to three years.
Maybe fear of radical change and lacking support from peers, or maybe unawareness of what labor resistance actually entails... or, cynically, that their beliefs are spineless social posturing... but I couldn't think of any flattering reasons to walk-out then stay.
Enough unnamed Googlers walked out that most probably would see no ill effects in their options due to having walked out.
- getting better benefits & pay
- being at one of the darling companies in the industry
Walking out is daring. Leaving is even scarier. I remember leaving my last job thinking, "I'll never work with as talented people." I was wrong, but it was a legitimate fear.
Money. But if you ask them..."we're trying to chance the system from inside blah blah blah..." Google is not gonna forget all the bad press.
Rule #1 at work: don't talk or engage in politics
In this specific instance, organizing a walk out, does seem to go much farther than what you would expect your employer to tolerate. Typical people who work typical jobs are fired for far less so the real suprise in being told that your 'role' is changing is that you still have a job at all.
Ultimently, I have little faith in these kinds of demonstrations - perhaps it will work for FAANGS since they have a pretty somewhat limitied supply of talent/employees. But for the majority of the tech industry, I expect the ability to choose where you work and the ability to organize unions will be a much more effective means of employee influence.
> Controversy followed almost immediately after the Heritage Foundation president was named to the eight-person council, with some speculating that her addition was Google's attempt to appease conservative lawmakers who have accused the tech giant of anti-conservative bias.
Look, I am sick of being politically correct about this. In modern times America's GOP true-believers have become the party of "alternate facts" on a variety of issues. Do you want your AI driver/doctor/accountant/climatologist to use alternate facts, or actual facts?
Aside from that particular argument, I don't think any dogmatic groups should be involved in AI in any way. People from political think tanks should be excluded by default, as they clearly have a bias. I don't care who they are, left/right/whatever.
I don't think this changes that much. If a lawsuit results in the company letting the VP go with cause, there will be no severance package. If the lawsuit fails but the company does not want the VP around anymore, they will let them go without cause, triggering the severance. With arbitration, it either lets the company sweep the incident under the rug, or if they let the VP go, it must be without cause, thus triggering the severance.
Arbitration in most cases works far better as the company can let the VP go without any severance. The activists have their political biases against arbitration and hurting the cause.
Are there more stories on this?
Alphabet is a publicly traded company. Which means it is expected to uphold certain standards of behavior.
But history shows dissenters are always a tiny minority, from the initial struggles that secured labour rights to equality for women. Most people will conform and fall in line for whatever reason, and in these cases there is unfortunately always resentment against the dissenters from those who fall in line.
In most other situations you would expect the early dissenters to get growing unequivocal support as more people find their compass and courage by example but there is a moral crisis in the software community and it looks these individuals may not get the widespread support they need.
But these kind of incidents will make it increasingly difficult for Google leadership and others who work there to go to events, meets and publicly talk about ethics and others issues these protestors raised.