A lawsuit has been filed against Google by one of its employees, alleging the company’s policies improperly muzzle workers. The suit, posted on the website of the plaintiff’s lawyer, challenges the legality of Google’s policies and seeks damages for 12 alleged violations of California labor code under the state’s Private Attorneys General Act. The case was filed by Google product manager identified only as “John Doe,” who says he was falsely accused by a Google manager of ‘‘leaking” information to the press.
Coming at a time when media giants and social networks like Facebook and especially Google – whose executive chairman was recently revealed to have a close relationship with the Clinton campaign after he created a “strategic plan” to help the Democrats win the election and track voters – have a come under intense pressure for their treatment of freedom of speech, and role in the dissemination of “fake news”, the lawsuit is sure to be scrutinized by the general public especially if it gets to a discovery phase.
According to the lawsuit, Google’s employee confidentiality agreement fails the company’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto by making it a firiable offense to whistle-blow or to disclose salaries, work skills or experience to future employers. The plaintiffs accuse Google of illegally muzzling workers by threatening dismissal for speaking about wages, working conditions or to government regulators, lawyers or the press.
As the lawsuit notes, “as a condition of employment, Defendant Google, Inc. requires all of its employees, including supervisors and managers (collectively “Googlers”), to comply with illegal confidentiality agreements, policies, guidelines, and practices. These illegal policies and agreements restrict the Googlers’ right to speak, right to work, and right to whistle-blow. The policies prohibit Googlers from speaking plainly – even internally – about illegal conduct or dangerous product defects, because such statements might one day be subject to discovery in litigation or sought by the government. The policies prohibit Googlers from telling a potential employer how much money they make, or what work they performed, when searching for a different job. The policies prohibit Googlers from using or disclosing all of the skills, knowledge, acquaintances, and overall experience at Google when working for a new employer. The policies prohibit Googlers from speaking to the government, attorneys, or the press about wrongdoing at Google. The policies even prohibit Googlers from speaking to their spouse or friends about whether they think their boss could do a better job.”
This case does not concern Google’s trade secrets, consumer privacy, or information that should not be disclosed under the law (such as material non-public information under the securities laws). This case instead concerns Google’s use of confidentiality and other policies for illegal and improper purposes. Google defines essentially everything as “confidential information.” However, a publicly-traded company with Google’s reach, power, and close ties to the federal government cannot be permitted to declare to its workforce that everything it does and everything that happens – from the location of a water cooler to serious violations of the law – is “confidential” upon pain of termination and the threat of ruinous litigation.
Among some of the claims in the filing, is the explosive allegation that Google is a dominant, politically powerful entity, “particularly at the national level.”
Google is politically powerful – particularly on the national level. According to a recent newspaper article, “[Google] executives enjoyed lavish parties and regular contact with the highest-ranking people in the executive branch. Personnel seemingly moved from one entity to the other and back on a regular basis. More than 250 individuals have left the government for Google or vice versa during [President] Obama’s tenure. This kind of integration with one company and the executive branch is extraordinary.”
Google engages in a concerted effort to prevent both internal and external whistleblowing. Specifically, Google restricts what Googlers say internally in order to conceal potentially illegal conduct. It instructs employees in its training programs to do the following “Don’t send an e-mail that says ‘I think we broke the law’ or ‘I think we violated this contract.’” The training program also advises employees that they should not be candid when speaking with Google’s attorneys about dangerous products or violations of the law. The program advises Googlers that some jurisdictions do not recognize the attorney-client privilege, and “Inside the U.S., government agencies often pressure companies to waive the privilege.” Google advises Googlers that they “should write e-mails with the assumption that somebody outside of Google, who may not be friendly to us, will get to read it.”
Additionally, the lawsuit claims that Google policy prevents employees communicating directly with regulators such as the SEC about potential law violations, in effect making whistleblowing impossible.
Courtesy of the lawsuit we also learn that Google’s Investigations Team engages in a ‘‘Stopleaks’’ campaign to enforce confidentiality policies by asking employees to file “suspicious activity reports” about colleagues, according to complaint, in other words engage in internal witch hunts:
Google’s Investigations Team is in charge of “Stopleaks,” Google’s companywide effort to prevent the disclosure of any information about Google and enforce its illegal policies. According to Google, “non-malicious leaks happen when an employee shares information with an external person they trusted, and other times internal and confidential information is accidentally marked public. If you know you were inadvertently responsible for a leak, let us know quickly by emailing [email protected] We understand that mistakes happen!”
The Stopleaks program is managed through an internal website that includes a Chrome extension to facilitate the reporting of alleged “leaks” on the internet. Employees are required under Google policies to report “leaks” to Stopleaks. A violation of Google’s policies can result in termination.
Under its “Stopleaks” program, after a Googler submits a leak report to the Stopleaks site, Google’s “team of Stopleaks super sleuths investigate every leak. . . . The Stopleaks team researches the project/product that was leaked and aims to determine the leak’s origin. From here, [the Stopleaks team] often liaise with other cross-functional Google teams that may contribute additional context to the investigation.”
In addition to “leaks,” Google also asks Googlers to file “suspicious activity reports,” which Google states can include “strange things you observe or strange things that happen to you – like someone asking you really detailed questions about your project or job.”
The purpose of Google’s “Stopleaks” program is to deter employees from asking questions (even of one another), or disclosing any information about Google in violation of their constitutional and statutory rights.
The lawsuit makes it clear that the crackdown on “leakers” will be severe:
Google also enforces its illegal confidentiality policies with dire warnings and the threat of termination. A Google co-founder has assured Googlers in all hands meetings that anyone who “leaks” “confidential information” will soon be an ex-Googler. Google’s attorneys and executives advise Googlers by email and orally that they will be terminated if they disclose “confidential information.” Brian Katz assures Googlers by email and otherwise to “[b]e aware of the company information you share and with whom you share it. If you’re considering sharing “confidential information” to a reporter – or to anyone externally – for the love of all that’s Googley, please reconsider! Not only could it cost you your job, but it also betrays the values that makes us a community.”
And yet somehow this organization, which openly preaches paranoia and threatens retaliation against anyone even considering blowing a whistle on the company, has been deemed, together with FaceBook, the guardian of the biggest privilege an American has: free speech.
Below is the statement on the Google “blackout” case made by the plaintiff’s attorney Baker Curtis & Schwartz:
Google claims that everything at Google is “confidential.” Indeed, in its Data Classification Guidelines, Google instructs its employees – upon threat of termination – that they must treat even public information as “confidential” by default.
Fortunately for Googlers, it is illegal for an employer to declare everything “confidential.” California law gives employees the right to disclose information about their wages and working conditions. Cal. Labor Code §§ 232, 232.5. The law gives them the right to blow the whistle both inside and outside the company. Labor Code § 1102.5. The law gives them the right to engage in lawful conduct during non-work hours. This includes the constitutional right to free speech. Cal Labor Code §§ 96(k) and 98.6.
Google’s illegal confidentiality agreements, policies, and practices have real-world consequences. They harm employees. They restrict competition and freedom of speech. They suppress the legal right of employees to blow the whistle when they see something wrong.
There is a dedicated “Investigations Team” at Google – led by a former government operative – who is charged with tracking down every supposed leak. This team asks employees to preemptively confess to potential violations of illegal policies. The team directs employees to report or inform on one another. This is unnecessarily authoritarian.
Google can do better. It must change its illegal agreements and policies. It must allow fair competition, even from former employees. It must clearly advise employees of their rights under California law, and then it must act accordingly. To date, Google has steadfastly refused to do so.
Full lawsuit is below (link)