"Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."
Maybe it's time to update that famous mission statement, which I copied and pasted from Google's corporate website, with an asterisk: "*but not information about what goes on within Google itself. We'd prefer to keep that to ourselves."
Of course, very few companies in any industry would be comfortable exposing their internal communications and deliberations to outsiders. And a technology firm like Google, which prides itself on dazzling the world with science-fiction-worthy innovations every few months, has more than its share of trade secrets to protect.
Still, the culture of secrecy detailed in a new whistleblower lawsuit first reported by The Information goes well beyond what's standard practice. According to the plaintiff, an anonymous former product manager at Nest, Google instructs employees never to put into writing concerns about possible illegal activity within the company for fear it could be subpoenaed. Its overly broad confidentiality clause prohibits workers from discussing their work with anyone outside of Google, including friends or spouses. It seeks out and fires leakers and encourages employees to tattle on each other.
The clearest evidence of paranoia is a provision that bars employees from writing "a novel about someone working at a tech company in Silicon Valley." Anyone seeking to publish such a work must submit the final draft to Google's lawyers for approval. (And who doesn't enjoy a novel that's been worked over by corporate lawyers?)
The anonymous whistleblower believes these onerous conditions violate California labor laws and the National Labor Relations Act. The latter, among other things, allows employees "to communicate with the news media, government agencies, and other third parties about wages, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment." (The whistleblower was reportedly fired for complaining about his boss, then-Nest CEO Tony Fadell, in a Facebook post.)
Asked about the new suit, a Google spokesperson called it "baseless" in a statement:
"We're very committed to an open internal culture, which means we frequently share with employees details of product launches and confidential business information. Transparency is a huge part of our culture. Our employee confidentiality requirements are designed to protect proprietary business information, while not preventing employees from disclosing information about terms and conditions of employment, or workplace concerns."
But saying that strong confidentiality is necessary to preserve an "open internal culture" doesn't justify measures that are clearly meant to insulate Google from criticism or the legal consequences of its actions. The prohibition on putting concerns about wrongdoing into writing call to mind the time Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, told a fellow executive not to send any emails pertaining to a gentleman's agreement the company made with several other big tech companies not to poach one another's key employees. "I don't want to create a paper trail over which we can be sued later," Schmidt told his colleague. The agreement resulted in Google, Apple, Intel and Adobe being sued for illegal collusion to suppress wages, a suit they settled for $415 million.
The idea of Google using its confidentiality agreements to keep employees from writing snarky romans-à-clef about life at Google is sort of funny - but it's also sort of chilling. As I've argued, the world's biggest tech companies are increasingly unable to ignore the moral dimensions of what they're building. While they'd love nothing more than be Switzerland, outside actors--from the Kremlin to ISIS to the Trump Administration--are forcing them to clarify where they stand on issues like freedom of speech, privacy and online harassment.
Google has another famous motto, after all. And it's not "Don't get caught."