As they grow in size, most corporates tend to become a bit soulless, and the idealism of the start-up days tends to give way to more cynical calculations driven by top-lines and bottom lines. Not surprisingly, then, that Google, whose motto is “don’t do evil”, and which left China in 2010 when it became more and more difficult to work in a market where state censorship was so pervasive, is now tempted to go back and take another shot, even if under the authoritarian regime’s rules. The new search engine—codenamed Dragonfly—is supposed to suppress searches that the Chinese government finds offensive. While Google argues that serving the Chinese market in even a limited form is better that not serving it—and it will do wonders for the bottom line as more advertisement will flow when it operates in such a big economy—what is even more problematic is that the new search engine is supposed to be able to track a user’s location and the individual’s search history is to be shared with a Chinese partner; that partner, in all likelihood, will pass on that data to the government, ensuring that all dissidents are closely monitored.
Once details of the project were leaked, around 1,400 of Google’s employees wrote a letter asking for more details of the project—CEO Sundar Pichai said the company was at a very early stage of development of the search engine—and demanded that employees have a greater say in what kind of work Google undertakes. In April, following newspaper reports of Google working closely with the Pentagon to develop technology to analyse drone video footage better so as to better target humans, protests from employees forced Google to abandon the project and to promise it would not use AI technology to harm people.
And now, after news leaked that Google had paid Android creator Andy Rubin $90 million even after he was asked to leave when a sexual harassment accusation was found to be true, Google’s employees across the world walked out of their office in protest. While Pichai said that “we don’t run the company by referendum” in response to this, and previous, shows of strength, there is a lot to be said about Google’s culture that allows such employee protests to take place. There is, though, little point of the protests if, at the end of it all, the company goes ahead and does the wrong things. In these fast-paced times, when even governments aren’t really in a position to check—and often, even understand—what companies do, smart employees are better placed to play this role. And more so in a company whose strength lies in the brains of the very employees who are leading such protests. Just as an informed citizenry is crucial for the survival of democracy, only alert employees can keep their companies from doing evil.