A small group of Google employees, in response to a company contract with a Pentagon-backed program called Maven, have discussed the idea of staging a protest at a conference in July. Employees fear that the project, which provides artificial intelligence tools to the military, could be used in fatal drone strikes.
The protest, as discussed in preliminary exchanges over Google’s internal communications platform, would take place at a Google Cloud conference in San Francisco, according to messages obtained by HuffPost and an interview with an employee.
Now Google employees are debating showing resistance in a more active way, through a potential demonstration.
Discussions regarding the possibility of a protest took place this week on an internal thread devoted to criticism of Maven. The thread, called “maven conscientious objectors,” includes hundreds of employees, but only a small percentage of those were active in the discussion.
The debate about staging a physical demonstration took place on Wednesday and Thursday and was started by a departing engineer. The employee called the project “the greatest ethical crises in technology of our generation” and suggested that “Maven protesters” go to the conference with the aim of “making some noise.”
The employee’s last day was Friday, but by late morning, someone from human resources had asked them to leave immediately due to their “recent statements” related to the conference. “As such, we’re going to move up your exit by a few hours and we’ve ended access, effective immediately,” the HR person wrote.
In response to the initial thread, another employee called the engineer an “agent provocateur.” Someone else said such an action would “be enough reason to fire us lot with popular support.”
The debate became heated and personal, with some employees questioning whether their colleague who originally suggested the idea of a physical protest should even belong in the “conscientious objectors” group.
But there were a few employees who supported the idea, calling the discussion “legitimate topics for this mailing list.” Another said that while they were not based in San Francisco and were thus unable to join the action, they personally thought the protest was “a good idea since it increases Google’s PR cost of getting involved in military projects.”
Representatives for Google did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. The Intercept reported Friday afternoon that Google will not renew its contract to work on Project Maven, though the company plans to work on the project through June 2019 and has not ruled out taking on similar work in the future.
This isn’t the first round of discord from Google employees. In an April petition to Google CEO Sundar Pichai protesting the Pentagon contract and signed by thousands, petitioners referenced “Don’t be evil,” Google’s famous former unofficial motto, as an argument for canceling the contract.
“This contract puts Google’s reputation at risk and stands in direct opposition to our core values. Building this technology to assist the US Government in military surveillance ― and potentially lethal outcomes ― is not acceptable,” the signers of the petition wrote.
Hundreds of academics subsequently wrote a letter to Google co-founder Larry Page, as well as Pichai and other company leaders, supporting the petitioning employees.
The academics expressed concern that Project Maven will help the military become “just a short step away from authorizing autonomous drones to kill automatically, without human supervision or meaningful human control.” The letter also cited recent Cambridge Analytica scandals as demonstrating “growing public concern over allowing the tech industries to wield so much power.”
At a recent companywide meeting, Sergey Brin, one of Google’s co-founders, reportedly responded to a question about the project and addressed some of the controversies, according to The New York Times. Brin explained that he thought it was better for the world’s militaries to be partnered with an international company like Google, rather than nationalistic defense contractors.
The employee who started the discussion about protesting Google’s involvement with Maven implied on the thread that they gave notice due to a violation of their own ethical standards.
“The time to protest is now or never,” the employee wrote.
Are you a Google employee who wants to talk about your experience with Maven? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story has been updated with information from The Intercept’s report.