Former Google exec rails against firm over human rights policies

Google sign above a glass entrance to a building
Google HQ London (Image credit: Google)

A former Google executive has claimed he was sidelined for promoting human rights while the tech giant pushed on with plans for a censored search engine in China.

Google faced a growing internal backlash throughout 2019, with employees accusing the company of squashing protests and retaliating against members of staff that sought action for harassment.

One issue where employee protests seemed to have succeeded was Project Dragonfly, a proposed censored search engine in China, which was officially shut down in July.

However, the tech giant only pushed for this expansion into China when it changed leadership, according to Ross LaJeunesse, the company's former head of international relations.

The initial idea for censored search in China was raised in 2010, according to LaJeunesse. Under the old leadership of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the company chose to ignore the censorship requests of the Chinese government and adhere to the mantra "Don't be evil".

Page and Brin stepped down from their executive roles in 2015 to be replaced by current CEO Sundar Pichai. Both executives also recently announced that they would be departing their leadership roles at Google's parent company Alphabet.

"I was alarmed when I learned in 2017 that the company had begun moving forward with the development of a new version of a censored Search product for China, codenamed 'Dragonfly'," LaJeunesse wrote on Medium. "But Dragonfly was only one of several developments that concerned those of us who still believed in the mantra of 'Don't be evil'.

The former head of international relations said he was also concerned with attempts by Google Cloud executives to pursue deals with the Saudi Arabian government and that the company made no secret of the fact that they wanted to hire their own policy team. LaJeunesse claimed this would effectively block any review of their contracts by his team.

LaJeunesse said he was then "completely surprised" by Google's decision in December 2017 to establish the Google Center for Artificial Intelligence in Beijing, adding that it made it clear that he no longer had the ability to influence the numerous product developments and deals being pursued by the tech giant.

"Just when Google needed to double down on a commitment to human rights, it decided to instead chase bigger profits and an even higher stock price," he added.

A Google spokesperson told The Verge the company committed to human rights and that LaJeunesse was moved as part of a reorganisation that affected many others.

"As part of this reorganisation, Ross was offered a new position at the exact same level and compensation, which he declined to accept," the spokesperson said. "We wish Ross all the best with his political ambitions."

LaJeunesse is not the first ex-employee to call the company out; last year a number of female workers accused the company of sacking them for protesting against its handling of sexual harassment. In his blog post, LaJeunesse also claimed senior colleagues bullied and screamed at young women, causing them to "cry at their desks".

LaJeunesse said he brought these issues to HR and senior executives and was assured the problems would be handled. Yet in each case, there was no follow up to address the concerns.

He said that one day he was accidentally copied in on an email from a senior HR director. In the email, the HR director told a colleague that he "seemed to raise concerns like these a lot", and instructed her to "do some digging" on him instead.

Bobby Hellard

Bobby Hellard is ITPro's Reviews Editor and has worked on CloudPro and ChannelPro since 2018. In his time at ITPro, Bobby has covered stories for all the major technology companies, such as Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, and regularly attends industry-leading events such as AWS Re:Invent and Google Cloud Next.

Bobby mainly covers hardware reviews, but you will also recognise him as the face of many of our video reviews of laptops and smartphones.