“F— you,” said the male Google employee standing at the microphone during a pivotal moment at the company all-hands meeting on Thursday night.
According to three sources in attendance who spoke with Business Insider, the man was addressing whomever within Google was relaying in real time what was said at the gathering to a New York Times reporter. The reporter had posted statements to Twitter that had been made just minutes before by Google’s cofounder Sergey Brin and its CEO, Sundar Pichai, and her tweets were displayed on a large screen before the gathering.
Sharing what is said during these discussions — known internally as TGIFs — between leaders and employees has long been considered a no-no at Google. Few companies have as much regular open and frank communication about sensitive subjects with their staff, and the general consensus at the company is that leaks would make them impossible.
And that is probably why many inside Google appeared sympathetic to the sentiment expressed by their colleague at the mic. After he said the profanity and exhorted the leaker to leave, some in the audience applauded, the sources said. The man also received praise on Google’s internal communications systems.
The man at the mic spoke for many at Google
For Googlers, their colleague’s exhortation was an extraordinary event, and it came amid an exceptionally fractious period at the company.
Brin and Pichai were expected to discuss media reports from two weeks ago that Google planned to restart its operations in China, the sources said. In 2010, Google pulled out of that country rather than censor its search results to exclude information the Chinese government found objectionable. Many people inside and outside the company consider government censorship to be a human-rights violation.
A Google spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
According to an August 2 report in The Intercept, Google has experienced a change of heart about China and has built a search application that, if launched, would filter out websites and other data banned by the Chinese government. The news angered and saddened many Google employees, who thought Brin and other leaders had abandoned at least some of the company’s stated ethical values.
Google has long been known as a hippie haven, a workplace whose leadership and employees largely possessed and encouraged left-leaning political views.
That reputation was shaken, however, when news leaked earlier this year that Google had agreed to allow the Pentagon to use its artificial intelligence technology to help analyze drone video footage. Some experts argued the technology could also improve the accuracy of drone missile strikes. Thousands of Google workers signed a petition demanding leaders put an end to the relationship and promise to never produce AI-enhanced weapons. At least a dozen people quit in protest.
The protesters appeared to triumph. Google’s management released a set of governing principles for AI that included a promise never to build AI weapons and said the company would let its AI contract with the Pentagon expire.
The press leaks backfired this time
The Googlers’ success sparked similar protests by like-minded tech workers at Amazon, Microsoft, and Salesforce. It helped give many tech workers the feeling they have the power to influence the ways their companies approach ethical questions.
As they’ve pushed their companies on ethics, the workers have discoverd that press leaks can make for potent weapons. But at Google on Thursday, that weapon backfired, according to the sources.
The person or people who shared the information with The Times gave Pichai and Brin an excuse to stop discussing anything substantive about China at the meeting, said the sources, two of whom strongly oppose the building of a censored search engine by Google. What’s more, the executives were made to look like victims of a breach of trust, the sources said.
All of the sources who talked to Business Insider agreed that the display of the reporters’ tweets at the meeting stunned the audience and marked a turning point. All the momentum and sympathy swung in the direction of management. Some of the sources said they feared the leaks might have a chilling effect on the willingness of employees sympathetic to the protests to share information.
The leaker and The Times “overplayed their hand,” one source said.
It was a “stupid mistake” to tweet during the meeting, another source said.
“It shocked Googlers, and it was so unnecessary,” that person said. “Why didn’t they just wait until after the meeting to publish a full story?”