June 19 saw Alphabet’s annual shareholder meeting take place in Sunnyvale, California.
With protestors on the streets outside and a number of progressive policies being tabled and ultimately voted down by the board, the meeting was the latest moment in a storied 12+ months of internal issues and public criticism leveled at the search giant.
While pressure on Google to change continues to be on an upward trajectory, it was also something of a disappointing day for advocates of transparency, fairness, and equality both inside and outside of the company.
Let’s take a look at what happened and how this fits into the ongoing narrative of discord at Google and Alphabet.
First, a bit of background
As I reported for Search Engine Watch late last year, there has been growing discontent among Google employees about how the company is operating, with worker’s rights and leaked plans for the company to re-launch a search product (known as Dragonfly) in China both being key concerns.
This came to a head in November when thousands of staff staged a mass walkout from their offices in cities around the globe. The movement sought “to protest sexual harassment, misconduct, lack of transparency, and a workplace that doesn’t work for everyone,” with five demands put in front of directors – only one of which has been implemented so far.
Following the walkout, in late November, staff were moved to speak out publicly once more with an open letter to company leaders to stop the development of the Dragonfly project. More than 500 employees signed the letter which aligned itself with calls by Amnesty International. “We object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be,” it stated.
Workers, community groups, and shareholders are united in demanding #GoogleDoBetter, from human rights to housing. pic.twitter.com/Q4p4AmfCA5
— Google Walkout For Real Change (@GoogleWalkout) June 19, 2019
June 19 protests
The gathering outside the meeting on June 19 included:
- Google employees demonstrating for (among other things) a push to make the search giant abandon non-disclosure agreements and to allow staff more public forms of redress for harassment and discrimination.
- Students For A Free Tibet. In attendance to call upon Google to drop Dragonfly and to take a stand against censorship in China-occupied Tibet.
- Community groups, who were calling upon Google to address the housing shortage in Silicon Valley.
Reports from the shareholder meeting
The resulting protest covered a range of disparate issues. These, too, were reflected inside the shareholder meeting where a number of progressive motions were put forward for the board to consider. These included:
- An end to forced arbitration. Forced arbitration for sexual harassment policy was removed after the walkout in Nov 2018, but it is still imposed for employees seeking to solve other types of disputes.
- A sexual harassment review. Looking at whether the company should adopt and implement additional policies on sexual harassment, and to report its findings.
- Increased equitable employment practices.
- A report on human rights concerns in China.
- Appointing an employee representative to the board of directors.
Ultimately, all of these (and others) were voted down by the board of executives. Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin – who collectively have 51% of voting power – didn’t attend the meeting, leaving other board members to face a number of difficult questions in the ensuing Q&A.
CEO Sundar Pichai was in attendance but did not respond to any questions directly.
Any positive outcomes?
While progressive outcomes from these protests and calls were seemingly not forthcoming on June 19, employees at Alphabet/Google, their contractors, and supporters are not being silenced by the board’s inaction.
Google has recently announced it would invest one billion dollars toward affordable housing after years of community and employee activism on the issue. Questions may remain as to whether they could be doing more in this area and what exactly this housing will look like, but persistence on the part of those taking direct action does seem to work, if slowly.
The issue of Dragonfly and whether it has been “dropped” has been handled by Google with just enough vagueness to keep some activists satisfied and others still pushing the issue.
In the days following the meeting, Students For A Free Tibet announced that they were viewing Google’s public confirmation that there are “no plans to offer a search engine in China” as a win after 10 months of campaigning.
However statements like these have been said before and, of course, do not assure critics that Google is not assisting a search player in China in some capacity. Not everyone will be convinced that their work is not supporting (or will not support) the surveillance state, even if only indirectly.
Google employees have a loud voice, but minimal power at board level
Conclusively, it seems to me that the biggest issue on seeing progressive change within Alphabet and Google depends on the make-up of the board. While a concentrated few people have a massive amount of supervoting power, and no employee representative is allowed to sit there, we can fully expect progress on employee rights within the business to improve at a frustratingly slow pace.
As for how long Google continues to be vague about its work in the Chinese search market, I imagine there will be many people inside and outside of Alphabet expecting little movement in this area either – unless we do see some significant changes with the make-up of the board and voter powers there.
Follow the Google Walkout Twitter feed for ongoing information about employee action and related issues.
June 13 saw the release of a new tool by London-based company Trint which can assist the crawlability and visibility of video content in search engines by automatically attaching transcripts using AI.
In May, Google announced the launch of a new website aimed at explaining how they serve and address news across Google properties and platforms.
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