In 2016, Google announced that it was renaming its small Google Ideas unit to "Jigsaw," giving the new unit a much broader, "wildly ambitious" mandate: to tackle "surveillance, extremist indoctrination, and censorship."
In the years since, the company — now a separate entity under Google's Alphabet parent-company — has made a lot of headlines for products that, on closer inspection, were deeply flawed: the troll-detecting AI that could be terminally confused by typos (which was then used to produce a deeply flawed map of America's most trolly places). Other projects (generally more modest than the "wildly ambitious" mission statement implied) were more credible, but so far have not borne much fruit: turning Change My View into a standalone, separate from Reddit; publishing a giant, amazing open data-set of news links; producing a censorship-busting DNS proxy; providing a pop-up dictionary of security terms.
Some of the other "wildly ambitious" projects were never released: the company crushed its own report on the use of trolling by state actors to achieve authoritarian ends.
One project stands out as living up to Jigsaw's promise: Project Shield, which helps journalistic organizations defend themselves against Denial of Service attacks, a frequent tactic employed by state actors to silence unflattering reportage.
People who work at (or partner with) Jigsaw are bound by tight, far-reaching nondisclosure agreements, but Motherboard's Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai (previously) got many current and former Jigsaw employees to speak anonymously about the conditions inside the mysterious "think/do" tank.
They describe a toxic work environment where complaints are met with vicious retaliation; where women are demeaned, sidelined and degraded (the women of Jigsaw have a secret bathroom kit "with mascara, moisturizing spray, and other items to help employees in distress hide their tears"); and where women on Google's anonymous gwe-anon message board warn any woman thinking of applying for a job at Jigsaw that it is a misogynist cesspool.
As to the actual mission of Jigsaw, the insiders say that the first priority is not to fix the internet or defend its most vulnerable users, but to generate headlines and accolades for Jared Cohen — a US State Department veteran who served under Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton before becoming senior advisor to Eric Schmidt, longtime CEO of Google and now Chair of its Board. Cohen and Schmidt have a very close relationship, and co-authored a book: "The New Digital Age."
The insiders say that Jigsaw's internal leadership are alternately patronizing and hostile when it comes to the internet users they say they want to defend, and cite an incident in which Cohen threatened to scuttle a joint project with the world-leading Citizen Lab if they did not feature Jigsaw's logo on the project's site.
Franceschi-Bicchierai claims that Jigsaw has hemorrhaged two dozen employees (out of 60) since mid-2018, including Lucas Dixon, the first engineer at Jigsaw, who was chief scientist when he resigned and published an open letter to colleagues decrying Jigsaw's culture of retaliation, fear, and ego.
Google and Jigsaw are apparently aware of their cultural problem, but their major effort to address it has been nothing short of bizarre: "Jigsaw's leaders tasked six employees to form an internal committee, interview all other employees—including each other—and write a report that would detail the team's problems and potential solutions, according to current and former employees." The committee's report was "dismal," revealing widespread dislike of Cohen, but it was also "purposefully vague, because employees would not have felt comfortable sharing personal complaints with the whole team and feared retribution for speaking up."
Franceschi-Bicchierai appeared on this week's Cyber podcast — another Motherboard project — to discuss his article. In the interview, he describes Jigsaw as serving the role of a diplomatic corps for Google — a company that is larger than many of the world's governments — helping shape public opinion of Google and its role in an ethical, sustainable internet.
Cohen would not comment on Franceschi-Bicchierai's article. After its publication, he sent an internal memo to Jigsaw employees, lamenting that he was "deeply disappointed for all of you to see our culture characterized in this way," and "as CEO, I take this responsibility seriously and I'm committed to ensuring we continue to improve." (The odd phrasing of the former does not inspire confidence in the latter).
"The abuse has been so great that there's now a support group for people to get out of the fucking team," another former employee told Motherboard. "There is an organized underground network of Google current and former employees helping women leave the team, given how bad the abuse and discrimination have been."
Years ago, so many women felt mistreated that other colleagues set up a kit in the bathroom with mascara, moisturizing spray, and other items to help employees in distress hide their tears, according to two sources who used to work at Jigsaw. The kit was not discussed in the office, but it became an open secret among women on the team.
A Jigsaw spokesperson denied any issues with retaliation, and said the company has improved its workplace culture in the last two years, and is committed to continue improving. Jigsaw repeatedly declined to answer any specific questions for this article and declined to make Cohen available for interview. (Cohen did not respond to request for comment sent directly to his work email address.)
"Jigsaw is committed to maintaining a culture of trust and transparency where team members feel free to voice their opinions," a spokesperson said in a statement sent via email. "We continuously work to make Jigsaw a place where team members can do their best work in an equitable, open, and respectful environment."
And yet, according to a former employee who remains in touch with people still working at Jigsaw, there was no significant change after the report.
"Business as usual," she said.
Google's Jigsaw Was Supposed to Save the Internet. Behind the Scenes, It Became a Toxic Mess [Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai/Motherboard]