A Google worker who spent nearly a decade at the company claims she’s being forced to resign for speaking critically of the company’s secretive $1.2 billion cloud project with the Israeli government.
The worker, marketing manager Ariel Koren, spoke with Gizmodo and wrote about her decision to leave the company in an open letter Tuesday. Koren, who identifies as Jewish, says she had “no choice but to leave the company” this week after allegedly facing retaliation and “illegal actions” from Google.
Koren is a leading activist voice within the company who helped drive multiple petitions calling on Google to abandon the contract, known as Project Nimbus. One of those petitions received signatures from more than 800 Google workers and 37,500 members of the public. Though specific details about Project Nimbus remain sparse, the joint Google and Amazon project would reportedly provide AI and cloud tools to the Israeli government and military, something Koren and other workers at the company claim represents a violation of Google’s own AI principles. Koren claims the tools provided through Nimbus “have the potential to expand Israel’s pattern of surveillance, racial profiling, and other forms of tech-assisted human rights violations.”
“Instead of listening to employees who want Google to live up to its ethical principles, Google is aggressively pursuing military contracts and stripping away the voices of its employees through a pattern of silencing and retaliation towards me and many others,” Koren wrote.
Koren detailed Google’s alleged retaliation during a phone interview with Gizmodo. She told us that she returned from disability leave late last year and was presented with an intractable choice: relocate from San Francisco to Google’s São Paulo, Brazil, office within 17 days or lose her job. Koren claims there was no obvious reason justifying the sudden abrupt location change. Instead, the Googler believes the ultimatum amounted to a “creative” way for Google to force her to leave without actually having to fire her.
“There was a time when Google would just fire people in order to retaliate and I think the fact that there is so much scrutiny means that Google has tried to become a little more creative and retaliation takes forms that are different from firing folks,” Koren said.
Google refuted Koren’s claims and said it prohibits retaliation in the workplace in a statement sent to Gizmodo.
“We thoroughly investigated this employee’s claim, as we do when any concerns are raised, and as we’ve stated for many months, our investigation found there was no retaliation here,” a Google spokesperson said.
The spokesperson went on to provide empathic support for the Project Nimbus contact.
“We are proud that Google Cloud has been selected by the Israeli government to provide public cloud services to help digitally transform the country,” the spokesperson added. “The project includes making Google Cloud Platform available to government agencies for everyday workloads such as finance, healthcare, transportation, and education, but it is not directed to highly sensitive or classified workloads.”
750 Google workers reportedly signed a petition earlier this year protesting the alleged retaliation, and Koren filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations board. The NYT notes an investigation from both Google and the National Labor Relations Board into the complaint found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Google has received wide scrutiny in recent years for firing employees who have spoken critically of the company. In 2020 more than 1,500 Google employees signed a petition condemning the company for its firing of the AI ethicist Timnit Gebru after she raised concerns about the company’s diversity protocols.
The Alphabet Workers Union, a union representing workers at Google and Alphabet’s other businesses, defended Koren in statement sent to Gizmodo.
“It is the right of all Alphabet workers to voice our concerns and objections to projects like Nimbus and organize against them internally, completely free from fear of retaliation,” Alphabet Workers Union Executive Chair Parul Koul said in a statement. “Thousands of Google workers have previously organized against military contracts, like Project Maven, and we deserve to do the same now and in the future. Ariel should never have faced this retaliation and harassment. She should never have been forced into a position where resigning was her only option.”
Koren’s criticism goes beyond Project Nimbus though and extends fundamentally to Google’s company culture. In her view, Google “systematically silences” Palestinian, Jewish, Arab, and Muslim workers who attempt to speak critically of Google’s connections with the Israeli government. Koren described an environment where Google workers speaking critically often go unheard. At the same time, Koren said the company is “extremely receptive” to workers expressing pro-Israeli viewpoints.
Those concerns were echoed on Tuesday by fifteen additional Google workers, including several who identify as Palestinian, who provided statements detailing perceived anti-Palestinian bias within the company.
“Working at Google was always my dream job until I learned about Project Nimbus,” one Google worker wrote. “I feel like I am making my living off the oppression of my family back home.”
Other workers expressed concerns that Palestinian voices in the company weren’t being properly heard.
“As a Palestinain, my feelings of marginalization only grew when I began seeing my coworkers issued warnings just for having empathy for Palestinians,” another Google worker said.
If all of this sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because Google’s been here before, albeit in a different country. In 2018, around a dozen Google employees resigned in protest of the company’s Project Maven military contract, a controversial program where Google provided AI services to the U.S. Department of Defense for analyzing drones footage. Those resignations, along with a wave of activism throughout company, ultimately led Google to abandon Project Maven. Reports released last year suggest Google’s taken a renewed interest in a new Pentagon cloud computing project.
Speaking with Gizmodo, Koren described Google’s recent response to workers’ criticism of Nimbus as an “extension” of its actions following the Project Maven fallout. According to Koren, Google’s internal communications shifted after Maven—from relatively open communication to one cloaked in secrecy. Other Google workers speaking with Gizmodo have shared similar statements in the past.
“Nimbus is a continuation of that pattern,” Koren said. “When Google launched Nimbus they were not forthcoming at all with their workforce. They were extremely secretive.”
Update 5:55 PM: Added statement from Google.