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Google and Censorship: Interview with Jack Poulson, former Google research scientist

By: 
Kevin Taghabon

December 6, 2018

Jack Poulson is a tech worker and former senior research scientist at Google. He joined the company in 2016, and was working to improve Google's search functions. Poulson resigned in August of 2018 over his objections to the development of Google services that will be used as tools of repression in China, and perhaps more broadly. Poulson believes his own work may have been implicated in the project, which will likely be used at minimum to stifle dissent and censor online activism. China already runs a massive surveillance state which it uses to target unwanted people and political organizing. The Uighur minority in the country is especially surveilled, categorized, and targeted for re-education camps.

Poulson's resignation came just weeks before the massive Google walkouts on November 1st. Over 20,000 workers across the world left work to protest the company's mistreatment of sexual assault cases, inequity, and lack of worker representation. Poulson is now a volunteer with Tech Workers Coalition, a network of people in the industry which aims to, "work in solidarity with existing movements towards social justice, workers' rights, and economic inclusion." Poulson spoke about his resignation and the ethical issues in tech more broadly in an interview with Socialist.ca.

Kevin Taghabon: You left Google at the end of August. Why did you leave?

That was part of a long process. I was trying to have an impact on the decision that Google had apparently made – which I found out through The Intercept reporting – to build and arguably deploy a version of search which agreed to the demands of the Chinese government. In particular, to censor a very large amount of language including basic political expression. Anything involving human rights queries, or queries about Chinese government officials, as well as from what I observed internally, some possibilities of serious surveillance.

Not having an impact directly speaking with managers, submitting a resignation was one way to get a bit more bargaining power internally. Getting basically stonewalled during that escalation process ultimately led to a resignation, which then turned into a more public battle as opposed to an internal battle, after a couple of weeks.

KT: For the engine you believe they're building in China: why should activists – anywhere in the world – be worried about this kind of tool being created by Google for a state? Any state.

If nothing else, direct oppression of human rights activists. There's a long history here. Google had entered China, I believe in 2007. There was a big public discussion about them explicitly providing a censored search engine. People like Vint Cerf, who's a pretty famous internet pioneer, were arguing for it. I think they kind of won that public battle.

Then in 2009 there was something called project Aurora, which is where the Chinese government hacked in to the source code infrastructure through, I believe, their Perforce repository by brute-forcing the encryption. Breaking in by trying countless password combinations with an automated program. They were ultimately able to get in to Gmail, and were found by Google to have been directly targeting human rights activists.

There's a long history here of the surveillance and censorship being part of the same basic political suppression. Given that Google publicly pulled out due to not wanting to aid that human rights abuse in 2010 – there's a nice interview [Google co-founder] Sergey Brin did in Der Spiegel that I would point to for that view – they are now ignoring the human rights side of the situation, and the surveillance side.

I think there's serious concerns there. Numerous human rights groups have brought up these issues, with one of the basic questions being, "what changed since 2010?" The other is, "what protections, if any, are being put into place by Google to protect human rights activists?" The key document here would be the August 28th open letter from 14 human rights organizations.

KT: You noted that a tool like this being created for China is not just something that's given to China and that's where the story ends. What happens when this kind of thing is developed by Google or a tech company?

That was actually the central motivation, the central thesis of the resignation letter. For context, internally at the company there's a very large number of mainland Chinese employees, who very much wanted to say that if you are not a Chinese citizen then you should have no say in the situation. The international argument I think is critical to even having standing. My perspective, having paid attention to the oppression of even labour activists in the US – for example there's a famous story that Bloomberg ran on the Wal-Mart labour organizing effort where Lockheed Martin was contracted to surveil their organizing efforts.

Internationally, there's currently a grey line between what's a national security threat and what is protected activism. When a US company forfeits something so unambiguous such as basic human rights activism, then any controversial activism like labour organizing at a major company, Standing Rock, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, all of these things – it's really difficult to argue that a US company is going to protect them if they're going to give up quintessential human rights activism in the name of government requests. Standing up for what your ethical red lines are is something that's important, internationally.

KT: Tell us a little bit about how labour organizing is particularly hard in the tech sector, whether it's because of structural barriers, legal barriers, cultural barriers.

I'd say it's in its infancy right now. The basic argument that's used is that tech employees are already paid well, so what do you have to actually argue for? I think that's a little myopic. For one, not all tech workers are highly paid engineers. It's fairly well reported that close to the majority of employees at several major tech companies are now precarious. Whether that's someone that's in sales as a contract worker, or kitchen staff member, the point is that in many places actually the majority of employees are precarious. That argument falls on its face.

There's also just a culture of a huge number of auxiliary benefits being given, like free food, liberal dress code, at least for the engineers. That keeps people feeling that the employer is their friend and has their best interests in mind, even though that's objectively not true. I think that as there are more efforts to fight for things...I think the sexual harassment case at Google is a pretty good example. Even though management says they are going to take some action, like end forced arbitration, but in reality they won't even apply it to existing cases. There will be a better understanding that this is a power struggle, not just a debate. I think that when people understand that, they'll understand why organizing is necessary.

KT: So you see the recent Google walkout as part of this, building towards something bigger to effect change inside the institutions?

Absolutely. Over 20,000 people walked out internationally in 50 offices. One could argue that's the biggest international labour organizing event in some time. It wasn't people risking their jobs, but I think it was people actually taking a stand, and seeing that taking a stand collectively has an impact. I think that's a huge step forward, if nothing else, in the consciousness of employees, seeing that concrete working conditions can be improved through organizing.

KT: Do you think that kind of action would have happened without a movement like #MeToo creating the space, socially, for those conversations?

I think it would have taken a lot more work, but I wouldn't go so far as to say it wouldn't happen. I don't think it could have been organized as quickly as it was without #MeToo. The New York Times expose came out October 25th, and the walkout was November 1st. That's a pretty short amount of time to be able to organize 20,000 people internationally walking out, which is a huge credit to the organizers.

KT: Tech doesn't have a reputation of being the forefront of militant organizing for higher wages or better conditions, things like this. Do you think that's a misperception, or is that changing, that culture in the tech industry?

In terms of perception, there's very skewed perception in terms of how tech leans, and how it doesn't. Part of what has kept back a lot of organizing historically is this illusion that Silicon Valley has set up that tech is too progressive, and needs to be reined in. So if you tried to do any organizing or activism or stand up for ethics, you were told, "oh, that's just your politics, we have to keep politics in check, we're already too liberal, we need to skew a little more conservative to keep things fair." That has kept a lot of organizing in check.

There's an increasing understanding that that is an illusion, and that tech really isn't this progressive bastion, that really it is just out for its own image. Largely, these projections are just marketing.

If tech were progressive you wouldn't have had a $90 million payout to someone with sexual harassment charges being internally validated. You wouldn't have, even after proclamations that this forced arbitration would be ended, refusal to institute it for existing cases. You wouldn't have basic political speech being forfeited in the name of access to a market. Even conservatives in America think that censorship is too far.

KT: Google's own mission statement and the image they project to the public have been those of progress. It's pretty clear from this story, and the walkout story, that's not what's going on. Is this just another case of a big industry acting as capital normally would? Or is tech unique in some way?

I think tech is unique in how long it was able to maintain the illusion. I think now it's being understood that even Google – to quote Brin and [search engineer Brandon] Downey in a recent Bloomberg article – is now a traditional company. So if Google was leading the charge of being an exception in terms of making large amounts of money but maintaining progressive values and even that mask has slipped, then I think that's the canary in the coal mine for what's going on in the broader tech industry.

You see a backlash against essentially every major tech company, whether it's Twitter, Facebook, Google, there's just an understanding of where their actual emphasis is, which is protecting their bottom line at all costs. If they can market themselves as progressive along the way, then all the better. But the moment that those two are in direct conflict they'll essentially just try to stop talking about the issue and continue to move forward with it.

KT: There's probably a lot of other ethically minded people who have had the same kind of frustrations and feelings you've had inside that industry. What would you advise them?

I'd push back a little on the framing and partly even my own wording earlier. I think it's useful to maybe have a hierarchical understanding of what effective framing is for such push back. One is definitely allowed to have their own personal politics, but I think in cases where it is a legitimate human rights violation it's important to emphasize that it is a human rights violation, and not even just an ethical disagreement.

I would argue in terms of an understanding that human rights are better defined than ethics, which is better defined than politics. If there is a human rights violation, one should center the conversation there. If it's not a clear human rights violation but it's an ethical violation then discuss on those grounds. Failing that, it falls back to politics, but these are very different battles. There's been an increasing understanding of the importance of that framing.

You'll see tech employees – and they [tech companies] have done this repeatedly – argue that any push back against their decisions is just a vocal political minority. I think maybe that's the most important advice is to understand that you're not alone. There are many people, whether it's Coworker.org or Tech Workers Coalition, there's groups of people trying to help organize against human rights abuses, unethical actions, and sometimes just politics.

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