Last year, Google was rocked by a succession of mass uprisings by its staff, who erupted in fury after discovering that the company was secretly pursuing a censored Chinese search tool and an AI project for US drones, and that it had secretly paid Android founder Andy Rubin $150m to quietly leave the company after women who worked for him accused him of sexually assaulting them.
In the end, 20,000 googlers walked out in protest, and, after attaining victory for most of their demands, continued to press the company to hold itself to high ethical standards, successfully blocking the inclusion of a transphobic, racist, xenophobic ideologue on the company's "AI Ethics" committee.
Google management didn't take this lying down: they illegally retaliated against uprising organizers Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton (leading to a predictable second uprising among googlers).
Now, Google management is taking things further, circulating a company-wide memo warning employees what they can expect to be terminated if they access documents that are "need to know" (which would have included the documents that led to the unrest about the drone project, the China project, Andy Rubin's payoff, and the inclusion of a Heritage Foundation extremist on the AI Ethics committee).
Googlers are predictably upset about this — not least because there are no consistent standards for "need to know" classification, and not all "need to know" documents are correctly labeled, a situation that creates an employment minefield for googlers.
It's part of a general trend towards secrecy within Google, including an end to the practice of archiving videos from the company-wide, weekly "TGIF" meetings, and also an end to the practice of allowing any employee to ask questions of management at these meetings.
The Thursday email titled "An important reminder on data classifications" referenced changes to Google's data security policy that were updated in October. Although the policy has been in place since 2007, and updates are visible internally, employees weren't notified by email at the time. The timing of the email announcement rattled employees who've been involved with organizing within the company's ranks and who told BuzzFeed News they saw it as a blow to internal accountability mechanisms.
These employees said the "need to know" language in the data security policy leaves which particular documents are considered "need to know" up to Google's interpretation; "need to know" documents aren't necessarily labeled as such, and the punishment for accessing such documents without permission can vary but include termination.
Google Exec's Internal Email On Its Data Leak Policy Has Rattled Employees [Caroline O'Donovan/Buzzfeed]