Google accused of retaliation by Project Nimbus critic

More than 500 Google employees have rallied behind a colleague who claims she is being fired from her job over her activism at the company, the latest flare-up between the tech giant and employees who speak out against her practices business and working conditions.

Workers signed a petition accusing Google management of ‘unfair retaliation’ against Ariel Koren, head of product marketing at Google for Education, for criticizing Project Nimbus, a $1.2 billion contract from Google and Amazon Web Services that was struck. with the Israeli army. and the government.

“Unfortunately, Ariel’s case is consistent with Google’s dangerous track record of retaliation against workers that has made headlines in recent years – and especially against those who speak out against contracts that allow workplace violence. state against marginalized people,” the petition reads.

Google said it investigated the incident and found no evidence of retaliation.

The Mountain View, California company has resisted several high-profile claims of retaliation as some workers have become more concerned and openly critical of company policy, its handling of sexual misconduct allegations and Other problems. They range from internal criticism of the company’s work with immigration authorities to allegations of Timnit Gebru, who said she was fired in 2020 for challenging the company’s approach to recruiting underprivileged minorities. represented and attempted to publish research on bias in artificial intelligence.

Koren feels she has come under intense scrutiny since last spring. In May, she called on Google to show solidarity with the Palestinians following an assault on Gaza by Israel that killed more than 250 people. In October, she led efforts to write a letter among Google and Amazon employees that criticized Project Nimbus, a multi-year plan to open data centers in Israel and provide infrastructure for a full suite of services. cloud to government and military. The letter said the program would facilitate the surveillance of Palestinians and the expansion of Israeli settlements, which are considered illegal under international law. The letter, which collected hundreds of employee signatures, urged Google to cut ties with the Israeli military. Koren was one of two Google employees who spoke publicly to the media about the push.

Koren has worked at Google for nearly six years and led marketing efforts for Google for Education, the arm of the company creating technology tools for classrooms and educators, in Latin America. She was based in Mexico City for two years before being allowed to work in San Francisco, where her partner lives, at the start of the pandemic, she said.

In early November, Koren said she logged on to a videoconference for what she expected to be a routine weekly check-in with her manager. Instead, she says, her boss gave her an ultimatum: move to Brazil or lose her job.

During the meeting, Koren said the manager told her that the team’s activities in Brazil had increased, her role was moving to Sao Paulo and she had 17 working days to commit to the move.

“It was so weird. The whole thing was completely wild,” she said in an interview.

Koren said that while there were tentative plans for her to return to Mexico after the pandemic, her team’s management had never previously broached the idea of ​​a move to Brazil.

Koren filed a complaint with Google’s human resources department on Nov. 22, reviewed by The Times, arguing that the rationale for relocating the position was “clearly designed” to push her out of the team, as there is no had no in-person events scheduled in Sao Paulo and the work done by his team is largely remote. In the complaint, she accused the company of retaliating against her for her activism against Project Nimbus and for reporting a member of her team to human resources for alleged harassment and discrimination in March 2021. Koren said in complaining that, having just returned from disability leave, remote work served as a reasonable accommodation for his mental health condition. With the help of the fledgling Google Workers Union, she also filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

Google denies Koren’s allegation of retaliation.

“We have thoroughly investigated this employee’s allegations and have found no retaliation,” Google spokeswoman Shannon Newberry said in a statement.

Newberry declined to provide further comment on the matter and did not respond to a series of emailed questions about details of the November meeting between Koren and his manager, the relocation decision and the allegation of Koren that he was destined to push her off the team.

Koren alleges in her complaint that, a few days after the November meeting, the company informed some of her colleagues that she would no longer have a position on the team even though she had not yet accepted or refused the transfer. in Brazil. According to the complaint, when asked why this information was being shared, her manager said, “You mean you would actually consider moving to Sao Paulo?”

“This is further indication to me that the ‘choice’ to move to Sao Paulo is not a choice at all,” Koren wrote in the complaint.

Koren’s manager did not respond to a request for comment. Koren’s department head, the global director of marketing at Google for Education, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Newberry declined to comment on Koren’s future status with the company and whether Koren will have to move. At the time of publication, Koren remains employed by Google and lives in San Francisco.

NLRB spokeswoman Kayla Blado said the labor board office in San Francisco is investigating Koren’s complaint.

U.S. Representative Anna G. Eshoo (D-Atherton), who represents Silicon Valley, wrote a letter expressing her support for Koren. Although private companies can choose the contracts they enter into based on business objectives, “employees have the right to voice their objections to their employer’s work, without risk of reprisal,” Eshoo wrote in a letter from the company. December 14 addressed to the CEO of Google. Sundar Pichai.

The support for Koren highlights ongoing tensions between Google’s increasingly outspoken workforce and its senior leadership over how the company’s technology is used. It also fuels the view of a growing cohort of Googlers that the once transparent corporate culture is giving way to a tightly controlled environment that punishes worker activism.

Google employees have protested military contracts in recent years, challenging Google’s work with US Customs and Border Protection and its role in a defense program creating artificial intelligence tools used to fine-tune drone strikes . The results of this activism have not seemed to sway Google, which has continued to collect lucrative defense contracts, and employees who have challenged the company say they continue to face problems. Workers have alleged being fired, demoted, placed on less desirable projects or otherwise expelled.

Google defends its practices and says its policies prohibit retaliation.

“Everyone should be treated with respect at Google. We prohibit retaliation in the workplace and share our very clear policy publicly,” Google spokesperson Newberry said in the emailed statement. We take employee concerns seriously.”

Employees facing an internal stalemate to address social and political issues formed the Alphabet Workers Union in early 2021, a watershed moment among big tech companies that had long pushed back on organizing employee work with wages and salaries. high benefits. But the union has been reluctant to lead campaigns tackling controversial contracts, focusing its formal efforts on securing protections for contractors and interns.

The union’s executive board declined to comment on Project Nimbus and Koren’s case. Union members have supported Koren’s activism, and Koren, who is a member, said the union has played a crucial role in his current situation. “I don’t think such support would have been possible a few years ago before the union,” Koren said. “There is a greater awareness.”

Google software engineer Gabriel Schubiner told The Times that the company’s tightened restrictions on internal information sharing and selective enforcement of those rules are efforts to stifle dissent.

Schubiner said speaking out about Project Nimbus was difficult because criticism of Israel is often mistakenly confused with anti-Semitism. Schubiner and Koren are Jewish, and they said that made it easier for them to push back against such claims than their Palestinian colleagues and also critics of the Nimbus project.

Koren had been “very public and outspoken within the company” even after previous incidents of alleged retaliation had had “a chilling effect”, said Parul Koul, Google software engineer and union member.

Tina Wang, a program manager at Google and a union member who helped draft the petition, said senior executives to whom it was sent had not responded to her calls to rescind Koren’s relocation order and “put an end to this broader pattern of retaliation”.

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