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Lawsuit: Google employees were fired for upholding “Don’t be evil” code

The fictional character Dr. Evil in front of a Google sign.

Three former Google software engineers who sued the company yesterday claim they were fired for following Google’s famous “Don’t be evil” mantra.

“Google terminated each plaintiffs’ employment with it for adhering to the directive ‘Don’t be evil’ and calling out activity by Google that they each believed betrayed that directive,” according to the complaint filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court by Rebecca Rivers, Sophie Waldman, and Paul Duke. The ex-employees say Google falsely blamed them for a data leak after they circulated an internal petition.

The lawsuit notes that the Google Code of Conduct “that each full-time Google employee is required to sign as a condition of employment” specifically instructs them not to be evil. The ex-employees say they tried to uphold the “Don’t be evil” policy in August 2019 by circulating a petition “requesting that Google affirm that it would not collaborate with CBP [US Customs and Border Protection] or ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] with respect to enforcement of the Trump border control policies.”

“[E]ach plaintiff protested Google’s engagement in supporting BCP policies that resulted in separation of families and ‘caging’ of immigrants who were seeking asylum in the United States,” the complaint said.

Google’s firings of Rivers, Waldman, and Duke are also part of an ongoing case in which the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Google.

Plaintiffs “harmed by their reliance” on Google code

Each of the three plaintiffs had “relinquished other employment opportunities” to work for Google and “believed that by accepting employment with Google, their labor would not be used to produce products or services that would facilitate unethical, inhumane or ‘evil’ conduct,” the complaint said. The fired employees were allegedly “harmed by their reliance upon Google’s representation that Google employees were entitled, and required to ‘call out’ Google for engaging in action that they believed violated its ‘Don’t be evil’ code of conduct.”

The plaintiffs also allege that Google violated California labor law by restricting their political activities, specifically by “interrogating and subsequently terminating the employment of plaintiffs for speaking out about and objecting to Google’s involvement in contracting with the Trump administration’s CBP and ICE agencies to provide goods and services.”

The plaintiffs are seeking financial damages. We contacted Google about the lawsuit and will update this article if we get a response.

Google blamed plaintiffs for data leak

The petition the then-employees circulated included the information “that Google had already offered a ‘free trial’ of its new cloud platform, ‘Anthos,’ to CBP.” Rivers found this information “by conducting ordinary online searches and reviewing internal Google documents that were readily available to her and all other full-time Google employees,” and the petition “expressly directed their co-workers to refrain from sharing this information outside of Google,” the lawsuit said. But the information about the free trial was leaked and reported by Business Insider.

The three employees say they were fired on November 25, 2019, “within minutes of one another,” even though Google’s investigation found no evidence that they leaked the information. “Neither Duke, Waldman or Rivers ever shared any information pertaining to the free Anthos trial (or any other ‘confidential’ or ‘need to know’ information) to Business Insider or any other publication or person outside of Google,” the complaint said.

The employees “fully complied” with their terms of their employment, including by “complying with the directive to tell Google if they believed that Google, other employees, or its Board members were violating the obligation ‘Don’t be evil,'” the complaint said. The plaintiffs say they upheld the “Don’t be evil” directive when they “questioned Google management regarding its intent to enter into a contract with the Trump administration’s” immigration and border control agencies.

A month before circulating the petition, Waldman “openly questioned Google’s commitment to refraining from working with CBP,” leading to comments and followup questions from hundreds of employees, the complaint said. A Google manager allegedly “took the highly unusual step of advising Waldman that the comments on this topic were going to be closed.”

Shortly after that, the lawsuit says, Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian said “during a workplace meeting that Google in general and Google Cloud in particular would not participate in any projects ‘associated with the Southern Border,’ and affirmed that Google products and services would only be used for ‘good stuff’ such as crop protection.”

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