Tech media is abuzz today over news that Google’s top HR manager, Eileen Naughton, is due to step down from her post relatively soon.
A report at CNET cites tensions within the company as a possible factor in the change, where Naughton, who has been at Google for 14 years, will now be moved to a new, as of yet undecided, job position.
Writer Richard Nieva also enumerates some of the workplace issues that Google has been dealing with over the past couple of years. Not all of them are garden-variety corporate culture problems, although reporters have shown that workers allege their efforts to unionize have been vulnerable to management pushback, and that some have filed charges of unfair labor practices.
On the other hand, another factor cited by reports of Google’s workplace problems involve artificial intelligence contracts with US government, and what the report cryptically refers to as “China involvement.”
What does that mean?
“Word of Google’s plans to substantially expand its currently minimal role in the Chinese market—through the potential launch of a censored search engine code-named Dragonfly—has provoked … uproar,” wrote Suzanne Nossel at FP in September 2018. Since then, other reports have shown increasing concerns over Google’s work in China: Peter Thiel, for one, has suggested we peer behind the curtain at Google’s work in the Middle Kingdom.
“Billionaire investor Peter Thiel this week accused the U.S. technology giant of working with the Chinese military and called for the U.S. government to investigate Google,” wrote Arjun Kharpal last July for CNBC. “In response, President Donald Trump said his administration will ‘take a look’ into Google. … The tech giant has denied working with the Chinese military.”
Though we saw a rash of headlines at that time, search for “Trump investigates Google 2020” and you won’t get squat. As for Dragonfly, Google terminated that project quickly.
Still, all of this makes Google’s internal divisions more than just a question of individual salaries and benefits or a toxic or hostile workplace environment.
In a sense, Google workers seem to be looking out for the rest of us, keeping pressure on Google to limit its big brother operations in tandem with the governments of superpowers.
Now, Naughton’s departure also heightens the sense that Google is experiencing some form of musical chairs within the organization. This in itself is troubling to many outside observers, since quick changes in leadership can often signal the purging of independent minds and the intake of loyalists who will do the bidding of the top brass. Alphabet’s contention that legal chief David Drummond retired because of “personal relationships” is another string for reporters to look into, in order to verify that none of this purging activity is going on at one of the biggest companies in the world. There’s a reason that Nieva calls Google a “search giant” no less than three times in the first 150 words of the report. Google is big. And that means privacy and civil rights advocates are going to always have an eye on what it does, and it explains why these internal tensions matter so much to the public.