Google’s internal political battles keep spilling out into the publicSeptember 13, 2018
It’s an unhappy time at Google.
Ever since the James Damore controversy last year, Google has faced regular eruptions from unhappy employees who wish to protest the company’s politics in public. In January, a former security engineer said he had been stopped from sharing his pro-diversity views. This summer, a group of employees successfully pressured the company to stop building an AI project for the military. A similar group is now pushing to prevent the company from re-entering China.
All of this has played out in unusually public ways — and against a political backdrop that has grown increasingly unfriendly to Google and its parent company, Alphabet. President Trump has repeatedly tweeted baseless allegations that the company is biased against conservatives. Lawmakers have conducted hearings that seem designed primarily to embarrass Google and its tech-giant peers.
On Wednesday, amid reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions might open antitrust and consumer-protection law investigations against the tech companies, someone at Google handed him a gift: an hourlong video of Google’s first all-hands meeting after the 2016 US presidential election, in which crestfallen executives attempt to console the employees they’re addressing.
The video has apparently been floating around for half a year; The New York Times’ Jack Nicas referred to it in an article from March. Now Breitbart has posted the entire meeting, known internally as TGIF, for everyone to watch.
I know what you’re thinking: Finally, a chance to revisit the 2016 election!
The video turns out to be less damning than Breitbart’s breathless framing — and almost comically in-depth notations — might suggest. Meetings like this took place at many, many companies in the days after the November election, as progressives, people of color, LGBT folks, and other marginalized communities came to grips with what a Trump administration might mean for them and their families and loved ones. These concerns were … not unfounded! Executives everywhere felt compelled to reassure employees that they understood their fears and would do their best to support them.
And, of course, some of them — including immigrants, like Google cofounder Sergey Brin — themselves were disappointed by the news.
“Most people here are pretty upset and pretty sad,” Brin says as the meeting begins. “I find this election deeply offensive, and I know many of you do too. It’s a stressful time, and it conflicts with many of our values. I think it’s a good time to reflect on that. … So many people apparently don’t share the values that we have.”
At the same time, executives do not directly criticize Trump, or suggest that their political beliefs will manifest in changes to the company’s products or services.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai tells the audience that many employees had emailed him saying they were afraid of the consequences of a Trump administration. He encourages them to speak up, reach out to political opponents, and embrace the democratic process.
“It was a fair and democratic process, and we honor that,” says Kent Walker, who leads Google’s legal and policy team.
In a statement to Buzzfeed, Google notes that the company encourages people to share their views. “For over 20 years, everyone at Google has been able to freely express their opinions at these meetings,“ the company said. “Nothing was said at that meeting, or any other meeting, to suggest that any political bias ever influences the way we build or operate our products. To the contrary, our products are built for everyone, and we design them with extraordinary care to be a trustworthy source of information for everyone, without regard to political viewpoint.”
I believe this to be true, though I’m not sure it will matter. Conservative organizations were quick to call the video “a smoking gun.” I expect that lawmakers will quote from it in future hearings. And even if the individual links in the chain of evidence suggesting Google is “biased” are little more than a string of accidents, endless repetition by the right-wing noise machine still could shape it into a powerful narrative.
I view the video as more of a time capsule. It’s no secret that groups of Google employees have opposed the Trump agenda, particularly as it relates to immigration. If anything, the video captures a time that Googlers were more unified. That one of them leaked it to Breitbart — surely knowing full well what would follow — offers yet more evidence that that time has passed.
My colleague James Vincent offers us an overview of the European Union’s Copyright Directive, which critics say threaten the internet as we know it. Its provisions could further entrench incumbents while breaking parts of the internet for the rest of us. It faces a final vote in January, but is expected to pass:
Critics of the Copyright Directive say these provisions are disastrous. In the case of Article 11, they note that attempts to “tax” platforms like Google News for sharing articles have repeatedly failed, and that the system would be ripe to abuse by copyright trolls.
Article 13, they say, is even worse. The legislation requires that platforms proactively work with rightsholders to stop users uploading copyrighted content. The only way to do so would be to scan all data being uploaded to sites like YouTube and Facebook. This would create an incredible burden for small platforms, and could be used as a mechanism for widespread censorship. This is why figures like Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee came out so strongly against the directive.
Among the EU’s critics are Wikipedia and Reddit, my colleague Russell Brandom reports:
“Today’s vote dealt a significant blow to the open Internet, and to smaller companies like Reddit,” a representative told The Verge. “It is disappointing to see the Parliament disregard the concerns of those constituents and experts who know the Internet best– including its very architects. We’re evaluating what this means for Reddit, and we will continue to keep our community informed.”
Hey, he actually signed it!
“We felt it was important to demonstrate the president has taken command of this issue, that it’s something he cares deeply about — that the integrity of our elections and our constitutional process are a high priority to him,” said national security adviser John Bolton.
In the order, the president declared a national emergency, an action required under sanctions authority, to deal with the threat of foreign meddling in U.S. elections.
The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing September 26th to discuss the privacy practices at Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter, reports John D. McKinnon:
“Americans are struggling to understand what’s being collected and how it’s used,” said Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.), the committee chairman. “We’re holding this hearing to help inform consumers and to determine where the federal government may need to assert itself.”
The hearing will give lawmakers a chance to understand how internet companies have fueled their rapid growth by leveraging consumer data to sell advertising and other services and products.
Here’s an article that may come up at that September 26th hearing: A lawsuit by New Mexico’s attorney general accuses a popular app maker, as well as online ad businesses run by Google and Twitter, of violating children’s privacy law. From Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Natasha Singer, Aaron Krolik, and Michael H. Keller:
Before Kim Slingerland downloaded the Fun Kid Racing app for her then-5-year-old son, Shane, she checked to make sure it was in the family section of the Google Play store and rated as age-appropriate. The game, which lets children race cartoon cars with animal drivers, has been downloaded millions of times.
Until last month, the app also shared users’ data, sometimes including the precise location of devices, with more than a half-dozen advertising and online tracking companies. On Tuesday evening, New Mexico’s attorney general filed a lawsuit claiming that the maker of Fun Kid Racing had violated a federal children’s privacy law through dozens of Android apps that shared children’s data.
Russian trolls can be policy wonks too, report Stephanie Armour and Paul Overberg:
A newly identified group of nearly 10,000 tweets shows that while Russian trolls often focus on such hot-button issues as Hillary Clinton’s email or athletes kneeling during the national anthem, they also target substantive and divisive policy areas like health care.
Nearly 600 IRA-linked accounts posted toTwitter about the ACA and health policy from 2014 through this past May, with the most prolific ones tweeting hundreds of times, the new data show. One account, called TEN_GOP, rocketed from fewer than 1,000 followers to more than 138,000 in two years, sending 60 tweets that potentially reached followers more than four million times.
It’s not totally clear why, but one of the top gathering places for QAnon moonbats has been shut down. It’s apparently part of a larger effort to begin enforcing rules adopted last year.
Reddit has banned its subreddit devoted to QAnon conspiracy theories, stating that it violated rules against “inciting violence, harassment, and the dissemination of personal information.” NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny tweeted about the ban of r/GreatAwakening earlier today. It’s the second high-profile purge of a QAnon subreddit — a board called r/CBTS_stream was banned in March for repeatedly violating Reddit guidelines. Some of the subreddit’s users have regrouped on Reddit clone Voat, which takes a more hands-off approach to moderation.
Instagram COO Marne Levine, who has kept a low profile while helping to grow the brand into a major business for Facebook, will now take over all partnerships at Big Blue, reports Kurt Wagner, who just got back to the office from his honeymoon. Congratulations Kurt!
It’s a big promotion for Levine, who will join Facebook’s management team, though her appointment isn’t a total surprise. She was a likely internal candidate for the position, as reported by Recode last month, and was a top Facebook executive running public policy at the social giant before joining Instagram. She’s also best friends with Sandberg.
“Since she began at Instagram four years ago, Marne has been an invaluable COO,” Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom said in a statement shared with Recode. “We have grown from a community of 300 million to more than a billion, from a team of just over 100 to more than a thousand employees and opened offices all over the world. There are few executives with the range and skill of Marne.”
It’s hard to overstate what a bad year Snap has had, from a business perspective. Two years ago the company paid $114 million for a mobile search app called Vurb; its CEO quit Wednesday without bothering to vest all his stock. One reason why this was an easier choice than it might have been otherwise is that the stock dropped to an all-time low Wednesday, Josh Constine reports:
Given Snap is known to back-weight its stock vesting schedules, Lo could be leaving over half of his retention shares on the table. That decision should worry investors. As a solo founder, Lo already made off with a big chunk of the acquisition price that including $21 million in cash and $83 million in stock, so with the company’s share price so low, he might have had little incentive to stay.
Since last July, Snap has lost a ton of talent including SVP of Engineering Tim Sehn, early employee Chloe Drimal, VP of HR and Legal Robyn Thomas and VP of Securities and Facilities Martin Lev, CFO Drew Vollero, VP of product Tom Conrad, TimeHop co-founder Jonathan Wegener, Spectacles team lead Mark Randall, ad tech manager Sriram Krishnan, head of sales Jeff Lucas, and just last week, its COO Imran Khan.
In a significant development, someone who committed fraud by writing fake reviews will get jail time for it in Italy:
An Italian court handed down a nine-month prison sentence to a person who wrote fake hotel reviews on TripAdvisor in exchange for money from hotels aiming An Italian court has ruled that writing fake TripAdvisor reviews using a false identity is illegal and sentenced someone to nine months in prison.
Taylor Lorenz reports that teenagers are hoping to use social-media pressure to get out of one of the most dreaded rituals in education: speaking in front of the class:
In the past few years, students have started calling out in-class presentations as discriminatory to those with anxiety, demanding that teachers offer alternative options. This week, a tweet posted by 15-year-old high school student declaring “Stop forcing students to present in front of the class and give them a choice not to” garnered over 130,000 retweets and nearly half a million likes. A similar sentiment tweeted in January also racked up thousands of likes and retweets. And teachers are listening.
Apple on Wednesday announced three new iPhone models: the XS, XS Max, and XR. Catch up here!
After facing months of criticism for how easy it is to find drugs on the platform, Instagram is adding some basic measures to direct drug users to resources that can help them, starting with a pop-up message that shows up when you search for drugs:
“If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid or substance misuse, find ways to get free and confidential treatment referrals, as well as information about substance abuse, prevention, and recovery.”
The user can then opt to get support resources that Instagram developed with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, and the Partnership for Drug Free Kids. There will also be advice for family and friends of people with substance abuse problems.
Farhad Manjoo investigates why Elon Musk aside, tech CEOs aren’t flashy any more.
It’s no mystery why tech leaders are turning inward. “Tech is now such a huge and dominant industry,” said Joshua Reeves, the proudly boring founder and chief executive of Gusto, a start-up that makes human resources software. “The fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants mind-set is just not viable when you have a trillion-dollar market capitalization or if you have more influence than many governments around the world.”
Ben Thompson kindly links yesterday’s newsletter about Facebook fact-checking and makes this smart point:
Oh, and by the way, read again the headline of the piece I started with: does the author think it is actually true that Facebook’s idea of fact-checking is censoring ThinkProgress because a conservative site told them to? Or is the thirst for clicks worth choosing hyperbole over truth, and the outrage less about the pursuit of objective truth and more about the insistence that the powers that be enforce one’s own political goals?
And finally …
Y’all already know I think that email is the future of media. Could it be the future of Apple events as well?
Apple Events are the world’s largest meetings that could’ve been an email.
— Louis Virtel (@louisvirtel) September 12, 2018
Talk to me
Send me tips, questions, corrections, and an Apple Watch Series 4: firstname.lastname@example.org.