Google Free Speech Row Reverberates across the Web

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google free speech row

This post was originally published on Financial Times.

The online culture wars that have engulfed Google looked set to spread further next week, as political passions stirred up by the sacking of an engineer over an outspoken memo on gender reverberated across the internet.

A backlash against the company from alt-right websites and Twitter users, leading to fears of online harassment of individual workers who had criticised the engineer, has already forced the world’s biggest internet company to cancel a company-wide meeting on the issue.

And in a sign of the escalating pressure, Jack Posobiec, a pro-Trump activist, called for demonstrations outside Google campuses across the US on August 19, claiming support for the #MarchOnGoogle from what he called a “coalition of free speech activists”.

The sacked engineer, James Damore, took to the internet himself to criticise management, in interviews with alt-right hosts on Google’s own YouTube service. Mr Damore claimed he had been made a scapegoat by Google management and said he had filed an unfair dismissal complaint against the company.

In a bid to equate himself with past victims of the suppression of free speech, Mr Damore posted a picture of himself wearing a T-shirt bearing the word “Goolag” — in the process launching another anti-Google online meme.

Mr Damore was dismissed on Monday after a memo he posted on an internal Google site, criticising the company for suppressing open discussion about gender diversity, was leaked publicly. Parts of his memo claimed that women were less well suited to be engineers and leaders for biological reasons.

The storm over the sacking has turned into the biggest public test in Sundar Pichai’s two years as Google chief executive, and a challenge to Google’s culture of open internal debate.

Mr Pichai returned from vacation early on Thursday to discuss the issue at an all-hands meeting at Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, which was to be broadcast to the company’s entire 60,000 workforce.

But he was forced to call off the meeting at the last minute after hearing from workers who were worried that speaking up at the event would make them targets of online abuse. Questions submitted from employees in advance of the meeting were leaked, leading to some cases of online harassment, according to a person close to the company.

In an email to staff explaining why the meeting had been called off, Mr Pichai said that “on some websites Googlers are now being named personally”. He added: “Googlers are writing in, concerned about their safety and worried they may be ‘outed’ publicly for asking a question in the Town Hall.”

Employees with opinions on both sides of the debate had expressed the concerns, according to one person close to the situation, though it was only websites and Twitter users with alt-right sympathies who had exposed the names and views of individual workers.

Mr Pichai said “the vast majority” of Google workers he had heard from this week had backed the decision to sack Mr Damore. He added: “A smaller percentage of you wish we would do more. And some are worried that you cannot speak out at work freely.”

Critics of the company claim that many employees who support Mr Damore’s position have been afraid to speak up, and the former Google engineer has said he has received many private messages of support from inside the company.

Google would instead use other channels for staff discussions about the issues in the coming days, Mr Pichai said.

This post was originally published on Financial Times.