A onetime top Google executive, former head of international relations Ross LaJeunesse, is now publicly alleging that the company abandoned its “Don’t be evil” ethos because it was more interested in chasing “bigger profits and an even higher stock price.”
LaJeunesse, who is now running for Senate as a Democrat in the US state of Maine, is one of the most senior current or former Googlers to have spoken out against the company’s ethically shaky business practices. He said in a blog post and an interview in the Washington Post on Thursday that Google pushed him out in April 2019 after he raised concerns about human rights issues – including projects ranging from drone imaging for the Pentagon and cloud computing for the infamously brutal Saudi government to a censored search engine in China that would tie search requests to users’ phone numbers. He also alleged that the issues didn’t end with the company’s choice of projects and business partners, with human resources possibly targeting him for retaliation after he complained about its handling of diversity initiatives.
According to LaJeunesse, he began lobbying internally for Google to adopt a formalised human rights program in 2017 after learning about how quickly the company was pursuing Project Dragonfly and its decision to set up an AI academic centre in Beijing. That alarmed him in particular because he knew there was little separating academic research from industrial and government pursuits in China, according to the Post. LaJeunesse told the paper he had additional concerns about Project Maven, the US Defence Department drone-imaging program that led to resignations the next year, and contracts to host Saudi government services like Absher, an app that allows men to track and restrict their female relatives’ movements.
At the time, LaJeunesse wrote in the blog post, executives were “increasingly frustrated by the phenomenal growth in the Chinese market” – which Google left in 2010, citing human rights and espionage concerns – and were pushing “hard for our re-entry into China.” LaJeunesse wrote that he advocated for Google to publicly commit to following principles found in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, “provide a mechanism for product and engineering teams to seek internal review of product design elements,” and implement mandatory human rights impact assessments as part of its development process.
Other executives stonewalled him by bringing up an unending series of concerns, LaJeunesse wrote. Those ranged from interjections that product development teams could handle human rights issues on a case-by-case basis and legal department concerns about liability (that LaJeunesse said external experts found to be baseless).
“I then realised that the company had never intended to incorporate human rights principles into its business and product decisions,” LaJeunesse wrote in the blog post. “Just when Google needed to double down on a commitment to human rights, it decided to instead chase bigger profits and an even higher stock price.”
LaJeunesse also raised concerns about other troubling incidents at the company, including an all-hands meeting where a supervisor claimed that Asians “don’t like to ask questions” and a diversity exercise that involved sorting him and other employees into a group titled “homos” (which other staffers yelled stereotypes at). When he brought these issues to Google’s HR department, he wrote, it seemingly took no action – except for an email chain he was accidentally forwarded on in which the HR director asked a subordinate to “do some digging” on LaJeunesse.
Shortly after, according to LaJeunesse, he was told he was being let go with the shoddy excuse that the policy team was undergoing a “reorganisation.” After securing legal help, Google said there had been a mistake and offered him a “small role” in a lobbying capacity as part of what he saw as a demotion as well as an “exchange for my acquiescence and silence.”
Thousands of employees protested Project Maven, signing an open letter stating that assisting “the US Government in military surveillance – and potentially lethal outcomes – is not acceptable.” Thousands of others signed open letters opposing Project Dragonfly, with one saying it would “establish a dangerous precedent at a volatile political moment, one that would make it harder for Google to deny other countries similar concessions.” Google later told furious US Senate Judiciary committee members that it had “terminated” the censored Chinese search engine. Tensions at Google over its treatment of employee protests has rapidly escalated; in December 2019 four ex-staffers said they would file with the US National Labour Relations Board alleging illegal retaliation for organising against the project.
“We have an unwavering commitment to supporting human rights organisations and efforts,” Google spokeswoman Jenn Kaiser told the Post, reiterating that LaJeunesse’s departure was part of a “reorganisation of our policy team.” Kaiser added that “We wish Ross all the best with his political ambitions.”
LaJeunesse wrote in his blog post that he believed Google’s broken commitment to its prior ideals was due in part to leadership changes, such as the dialling back of founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s involvement. With a new executive team at the helm, he wrote, “beating earnings expectations every quarter became the key priority,” and the company’s rapid expansion meant that longtime Google staffers were outnumbered by fresh recruits with less commitment to its “original values and culture.” LaJeunesse added that another major change was Google’s new emphasis on the ultra-competitive cloud computing business, which left senior management with “little patience for those of us arguing for some form of principled debate before agreeing to host the applications and data of any client willing to pay.”
“Although the causes and the implications are worth debating, I am certain of the appropriate response,” LaJeunesse wrote. “No longer can massive tech companies like Google be permitted to operate relatively free from government oversight.”
Featured image: Eric Risberg (AP)