Advertisement

Google’s Jigsaw Was Supposed to Save the Internet. Behind the Scenes, It Became a Toxic Mess

Google’s internet freedom moonshot has gotten glowing attention for its ambitious projects. But current and former employees, leaked documents, and internal messages reveal a grim reality.

by Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai
|
Jul 2 2019, 1:34pm

Image: Cathryn Virginia/Motherboard

In early August 2017, an anti-diversity memo written by an engineer named James Damore went viral within Google. The company was quickly thrown into crisis: Multiple employees complained about the memo both internally and on social media, claiming this was not an isolated incident, but, as one Google employee put it, “a manifestation of what ails all of Silicon Valley.”

Advertisement

In response, executives and managers at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, shared public messages to show they disagreed with Damore, and also sent messages to their teams expressing support for women at the company.

When Motherboard broke the news of the memo, Jared Cohen, the founder and CEO of Google's Jigsaw, was traveling in Papua New Guinea, where he visited the Chimbu region. During the trip, he spent time with a native tribe whose members coat themselves in skeleton paint for a ritual dance, and asked them if he could join in. The locals painted Cohen’s whole body black, with white lines highlighting his rib bones. His face was painted white, with black circles around his face and nose. On his head, he donned an oversized feather headdress.

Then he took a selfie.

On Monday, August 7, just two days after the news of the Damore memo broke, Cohen emailed his staff the picture, along with a short message. “I was the first visitor they ever painted,” Cohen wrote, referring to the Chimbu natives. The email, which was seen by Motherboard, didn't mention the Damore memo. The next day, Google CEO Sundar Pichai cut his own vacation short to deal with the chaos the engineer had caused.

Some of Jigsaw’s employees, still reeling from Damore’s memo, were appalled by Cohen’s apparent lack of awareness.

“You have the team working through a burning crisis of culture in the office. Once again the boss is MIA, and the first communication we get from him is essentially a blackface picture from his vacation? I’m not sure one can get more tone deaf,” a former Jigsaw employee told Motherboard.

Jigsaw's CEO Jared Cohen. (Image: Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Another former employee, who wasn’t referring to this incident, echoed some of the same sentiments. “Jared [Cohen] considers himself very worldly. It’s part of his shtick. In the end, he’s as worldly as a lot of tech bros. It’s a condescending worldliness,” the former employee said.

Advertisement

Cohen’s problem, another former employee said, is that he thinks he can come in like a “white knight in shining armor,” and solve very complex problems that countries in the developing world have been struggling with for centuries. “Jared has a white savior complex,” the former employee said. “The mission of the team is to save the day for the poor brown people.”

Several current and former employees Motherboard spoke to said that the timing and content of that email was another example of how out-of-touch Cohen is, and a symptom of widespread problems within Jigsaw, a Google moonshot division formed in 2010. Founded as Google Ideas, its goals included using technology to fight radicals from San Salvador to the Middle East; investigating human trafficking, terrorism, and cybercrime; and developing software to conduct the first public opinion poll in Somalia.

It's an organization that over the years has earned a seemingly endless run of glowing press coverage: Jigsaw has been called the “internet justice league,” an “elite think tank,” and a team that is “fighting the darkest parts of the internet.”

While trying to save the internet from censorship, extremists, and hackers may sound like one of the best jobs in tech, more than a dozen current and former employees of Jigsaw told Motherboard that the reality inside Google's moonshot is bleak. Motherboard granted sources in this story anonymity to speak about sensitive workplace issues that are covered by Google's non-disclosure agreements, and to avoid retaliation—a problem sources said is very present at Jigsaw.

”I hope that my departure, as well as the many others before and after it, will inspire the change Jigsaw needs to live up to its promise.”

Advertisement

Current and former Jigsaw employees describe a toxic workplace environment, mismanagement, poor leadership, HR complaints that haven't resulted in action, retaliation against employees who speak up, and a chronic failure to retain talent, particularly women engineers and researchers. Sources describe a place full of well-intentioned people who are undermined by their own leaders; an organization that, despite the breathless headlines it has garnered, has done little to actually make the internet any better.

Jigsaw’s internal problems are driving away employees. Since mid-2018, a total of roughly two dozen Jigsaw employees have left, according to sources on the team. As of this week, Jigsaw has about 60 employees, according to a current employee.

In April, Lucas Dixon, Jigsaw’s first-ever engineer, who built the Jigsaw’s engineering team and had been there since 2012, left the company.

“What's actually important to me now is 'being real' … this applies both for team culture, for technical work, and for having an impact on the world,” Dixon, who was Jigsaw's chief scientist, wrote to his coworkers in a goodbye email obtained by Motherboard. “That means having a space that is free from retaliation, and more importantly, from fear. Even fear of fear. It's too easy to slide into a culture of 'positivity' where we rewrite our history to our benefit, hiding the difficult parts and spinning messages to suit our ego.”

Do you work or have you worked at Jigsaw, Google, or another tech company? We'd love to hear from you about workplace culture. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai securely on Signal at +1 917 257 1382, OTR chat at lorenzofb@jabber.ccc.de, or email lorenzofb@vice.com

Last week, another employee left, sending another emotional goodbye email.

Advertisement

“Jigsaw truly is a special place with enormous potential to use its position of privilege to benefit people at-risk. Using technology for the benefit of those typically left behind it is nothing short of inspiring. In theory, this makes it a very attractive place to work. Many people use Jigsaw as an antidote to fight their disillusion with the tech industry. I certainly did!” the email, obtained by Motherboard, read.

“As I lifted my head and gained visibility into the inner workings of the company, I noticed how some individuals used this goal to justify their pursuit for power at the expense of their peers dignity and self-worth,” the email continued. “If nothing else, I hope that my departure, as well as the many others before and after it, will inspire the change Jigsaw needs to live up to its promise.”

*

In 2010, then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt tapped Cohen to be the leader of Google Ideas, a “think / do tank” to research problems at the intersection of technology and geopolitics. The focus largely remained the same when, in 2016, Schmidt announced in a blog post that Google Ideas was rebranding as Jigsaw.

“Why Jigsaw? For one thing, the new name acknowledges that the world is a complex puzzle of physical and digital challenges. For another, it reflects our belief that collaborative problem-solving yields the best solutions,” Schmidt wrote.

Before Jigsaw, Cohen studied at Stanford University and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. His book, Children of Jihad, is about “a young American's travels among the youth of the Middle East.” In the mid 2000s, Cohen became a State Department staffer under Condoleezza Rice.

Advertisement

“He started social networks of people who could talk about how to combat terrorism worldwide. He put that together really pretty much on his own,” Rice told The New York Times Magazine in 2010.

Cohen then became one of the youngest members of the policy planning staff in Hillary Clinton’s State Department under President Barack Obama. Working for Clinton, he became the poster boy for what some called “digital diplomacy” or “21st century statecraft,” a wide-ranging effort to modernize the US government’s foreign policy using technology and social media.

After meeting him in 2010, then-CEO of eBay John Donahoe said that “guys like Jared are going to change the world.” A year later, The Washington Post called him “an informed doer who moves diverse knowledge into great action.” And in 2013, TIME magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world, labeling him “one of the pre-eminent navigators of the networked world.” That year, he cowrote The New Digital Age with Google's Schmidt, a book pitched as "a brilliant analysis of how our hyper-connected world will soon look, from two of our most prescient and informed public thinkers."

Cohen seemed like a perfect fit to lead Jigsaw, with its huge, world-changing ambitions—especially at a time when the press and tech world became more skeptical of Google, which had sunsetted its "Do No Evil" motto as it gained more power over the internet than any company on the planet.

“Every single day, I want us to feel the burden of the responsibility we’re shouldering,” Cohen told Wired in 2016, referring to Jigsaw’s mission to protect the weakest populations of the internet.

Jigsaw released a steady stream of products that showed a more righteous side of Google, one that wanted to keep the internet open and free.

Advertisement

Among Jigsaw’s products and research projects are Project Shield, a free service to stop distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks; Outline, a controversial VPN for people who live under censorious regimes that’s used by 50,000 people, according to a source with knowledge of the product; a tool to automatically moderate comments and a hate-speech-fighting AI that can spot “toxic” comments that’s used by The New York Times; and a program to steer people away from violent extremist content called the Redirect Method.

More recently, Jigsaw pitched journalists its latest research project, one as confusing as it was controversial.

Jigsaw researchers and a security firm they partnered with paid $250 to a Russian organization that specializes in disinformation campaigns. Jigsaw then created a site with fake content criticizing Joseph Stalin, and the Russian troll services company launched a two-week disinformation campaign on Twitter, forums, and via fake sites to attack the phony sites’ agenda. The purpose of the experiment was nominally to show how easily online disinformation campaigns can be set up, Critics lambasted the experiment, in which Jigsaw paid for a Russian troll army to orchestrate a disinformation campaign. For some, this was a misguided attempt to document the problem of disinformation and fake news.

These projects have gotten a lot of attention when they’ve launched, but none have been transformative for the internet. Experts say it’s unclear how much of a difference Jigsaw has made.

Advertisement

“I don't think Jigsaw has been particularly effective compared to others in the field. While some of their tools (such as uProxy) are certainly well-used and appreciated, others, such as Perspective, are inherently problematic yet continue to be developed without broader input from civil society. Overall, I think Jigsaw would benefit from being more open and connected with the community,” Jillian York, the director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said. “As for ‘making the internet better’—I think the question to ask would be: Has Jigsaw done any empirical research into the efficacy of their methods?”

Motherboard has also learned that Jigsaw is working on a new project called SimSquad, a VR tool that aims to reduce police violence. Although the team has consulted with civil liberty experts, some employees Motherboard has spoken to are concerned that Jigsaw’s leaders are more worried about appeasing law enforcement partners than addressing systemic racial bias.

*

Months before the Damore memo rocked Google, Jigsaw was already going through its own reckoning.

In the fall of 2016, a former employee returned to the Jigsaw office to talk during a team meeting about his work after leaving the company. He recounted a trip to the Middle East with Yasmin Green, Jigsaw’s director of research, that they'd taken while he was still working there. He said the two had gone to interview radicals and extremists in prison, and joked that Green was not wearing “nearly enough” clothes, prompting laughter in the group. A current employee then quipped that during a recent trip to an Iraqi prison, Green was also not wearing enough clothes, prompting more laughter.

Green wasn't present at the meeting. But Jigsaw’s managing director Scott Carpenter was, and he didn’t do anything to stop the sexist remarks. A source who was present described this episode to Motherboard, and two sources who were not present but had knowledge of it confirmed the circumstances of the meeting.

Advertisement

“It was deeply misogynistic,” the former employee who was at the meeting said. “It’s just rude.”

Weeks later, in early 2017, a Jigsaw employee posted on gwe-anon, an internal anonymous message board for women engineers at Google. The short post encouraged Googlers to apply for jobs at Jigsaw, where it “would be awesome to have more strong women on the team.”

The thread quickly became a place for Jigsaw employees to warn women to stay away, and to vent about the conditions inside the team.

“Proceed with caution,” warned the first reply.

Another Jigsaw employee wrote that “the politics on this team are overwhelming, culture is poisonous & women are leaving the team because of issues specifically with how women are treated.”

“Terrible environment,” concluded another employee, who complained about an “incredibly toxic” work climate.

Google Jigsaw's head of research Yasmin Green at SXSW in 2017. (Image: Mindy Best/Getty Images for SXSW)

Months later, in the same thread, a woman wrote a long, scathing post describing Jigsaw’s problems: meetings where team leaders make “awful comments/jokes” about trips to developing countries, “overtly inappropriate comments or decisions reportable to HR,” which will then be shut down, “with rampant retribution against the team members that dared speak up.”

Advertisement

“When their product launches, things will get even weirder. Journalists will be paraded into the office to write about their project, and they wouldn’t be one of the people interviewed (leadership will),” the woman wrote. “If they’re a woman, a man on the team that was only somewhat related to their product will suddenly get pulled in to present about it.”

The message was punctuated with all caps condemnations: “SOCIAL JUSTICE IS NOT A PRIORITY,” “SOCIAL JUSTICE IS AN ISSUE ON THE TEAM ITSELF,” “PRODUCT SUCCESS AND USERS INTERESTS ARE NOT A PRIORITY,” and “JIGSAW IS A PYRAMID SCHEME BUILT TO ENABLE ITS LEADERSHIP AND GET THE 3 DIRECTORS PERSONAL PR.”

The gwe-anon thread was seen by a vice president of engineering at Google, who promised to figure out a way to make sure Google isn’t “ignoring missing stairs/tolerating pockets of toxic culture.” (The VP did not answer to a request for comment and it’s unclear what came out of her initiative to help Jigsaw employees.) But the company did, in the aftermath of that thread, perform an internal survey to evaluate morale. It came out overly negative.

In response to the survey, Jigsaw’s leaders tasked six employees to form an internal committee, interview all other employees—including each other—and write a report that would detail the team’s problems and potential solutions, according to current and former employees.

Advertisement

This solution seemed unusual to some within the team, and even to people outside of it. While she has no direct knowledge of what happened at Jigsaw, when Motherboard described the internal committee to Ellen Pao, the former Reddit CEO and the CEO of Project Include, a non-profit that works on improving diversity and inclusion in the tech industry, she said these are not typical best practices for a team that has an inclusivity problem.

“I haven’t heard of people going and doing their own investigative report internally at a company,” Pao said on a phone call. “It seems like it would be easy for management to dismiss because it’s not an independent party that’s conducting the research.”

Nonetheless, the conclusions of the internal report, which was read by Motherboard, were dismal.

“It was so clear that the real problem was people don’t like Jared and they don't like the leadership,” a former employee, who read the report after she left, said.

Current and former Jigsaw employees told Motherboard the report was purposefully vague, because employees would not have felt comfortable sharing personal complaints with the whole team and feared retribution for speaking up.

“The abuse has been so great that there’s now a support group for people to get out of the fucking team,” another former employee told Motherboard. “There is an organized underground network of Google current and former employees helping women leave the team, given how bad the abuse and discrimination have been.”

Years ago, so many women felt mistreated that other colleagues set up a kit in the bathroom with mascara, moisturizing spray, and other items to help employees in distress hide their tears, according to two sources who used to work at Jigsaw. The kit was not discussed in the office, but it became an open secret among women on the team.

Advertisement

“SOCIAL JUSTICE IS NOT A PRIORITY,” “SOCIAL JUSTICE IS AN ISSUE ON THE TEAM ITSELF,” “PRODUCT SUCCESS AND USERS INTERESTS ARE NOT A PRIORITY,” and “JIGSAW IS A PYRAMID SCHEME BUILT TO ENABLE ITS LEADERSHIP AND GET THE 3 DIRECTORS PERSONAL PR.”

A Jigsaw spokesperson denied any issues with retaliation, and said the company has improved its workplace culture in the last two years, and is committed to continue improving. Jigsaw repeatedly declined to answer any specific questions for this article and declined to make Cohen available for interview. (Cohen did not respond to request for comment sent directly to his work email address.)

“Jigsaw is committed to maintaining a culture of trust and transparency where team members feel free to voice their opinions,” a spokesperson said in a statement sent via email. “We continuously work to make Jigsaw a place where team members can do their best work in an equitable, open, and respectful environment.”

And yet, according to a former employee who remains in touch with people still working at Jigsaw, there was no significant change after the report.

“Business as usual,” she said.

At this point, “no one really expects that meaningful change will happen,” according to one of the current employees.

Advertisement

The workplace culture issues within Jigsaw mirror some of the issues facing other teams at Google, where employees have organized walkouts to protest military contracts, a project that would help China censor Google Search, multimillion-dollar payouts for executives facing accusations of sexual harassment, and an over-reliance on temporary contractors who don’t enjoy the same benefits as full-time employees.

“It is well-known that the leadership and governance bodies of tech companies are dominated by wealthy white men," Amie Stepanovich, the U.S. policy manager for human rights organization Access Now, said. “This far too frequently establishes a power dynamic that fuels harassment and discrimination, a story we’ve unfortunately heard repeated again and again across tech communities. And where these toxic environments exist, the risk for worse patterns of harassment and abuse is high, including from the highest ranking officials who sit at the top, where company culture often stems.”

*

Outside of Cohen’s office in the Google building in Manhattan, a wall displays framed press clips about Jigsaw and its work, including portraits of Cohen and Schmidt.

For many Jigsaw employees, this is a constant reminder of Cohen and the rest of Jigsaw leadership’s true goals. Some of Cohen's employees believe that his real ambition for Jigsaw is to get positive press for himself. “[Cohen] is using the positive mission as a way to build trust in his brand,” a former employee said.

Advertisement

This obsession with press attention even created tension with outside partners. In 2017, the digital rights group Citizen Lab collaborated with Jigsaw to launch Security Planner, a website designed to teach human rights activists, dissidents, and other at-risk populations how to be safer online. Before the launch, Cohen insisted the Jigsaw logo had to be prominently displayed on the Security Planner homepage, and even threatened to shut down the project unless that request was met. Cohen also wanted to make sure Jigsaw would get credited in press articles, according to two Jigsaw insiders with knowledge of the incident.

“That was a total disaster,” another former employee said. “It ended up burning the relationship [with Citizen Lab].”

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Jigsaw's founder Jared Cohen. (Image: Dave M. Benett/Getty Images)

A current employee said the tension made clear that, for Cohen, “when it comes down to helping people, it’s not worth helping them unless you get credit for it.”

Employees end up being disillusioned by the reality of idealistic projects, as well as the impression that Jigsaw’s leaders care more about making the world think they’re making a difference, rather than actually making a difference, according to multiple current and former employees.

“If you come to Jigsaw and think everyone is there to make tools for people at risk,” said another current employee, “then the reality makes it hard.”

A former employee, who left several years ago, said that their tenure at Jigsaw was filled with “dramatic incompetence and pointlessness.” Jigsaw’s real goal “was very much how many news stories can we get about this,” and all strategic decisions were made “based on what Jared thought would get lots of press,” they said.

“They were like feathers in his cap,” the former employee said, referring to Cohen. But at the end of the day, even after working there “it is still not really clear: what it is that they’re doing?”

Even people who still work at Jigsaw agree Cohen has done a poor job at Jigsaw’s helm, along with the other two leaders, Carpenter and Green. “Jigsaw's executive leadership is completely disconnected with the day-to-day at the company. Jared Cohen is absolutely absent from product decisions and more concerned with using Jigsaw as a vehicle to gain visibility and enhance his geopolitical network,” a current employee said.

A screenshot of an Instagram post from Jordan's Crown Prince Al Hussein Bin Abdullah II, from the time he was working at Jigsaw.

Part of Jigsaw's international network includes Jordan's royal family, according to an email obtained by Motherboard and employees who worked there. In early January 2018, Jigsaw's COO Dan Keyserling sent an email to the staff to announce an unusual hire: the Crown Prince Al Hussein Bin Abdullah II.

Advertisement

Keyserling wrote that the Crown Prince will have an “unusual position” that he described as “a research analyst primarily focused on the current geopolitical landscape around cyberwar.”

“I know this is somewhat unusual, but please regard him as you would any of our colleagues. He prefers to keep things low-key and would prefer everyone call him Hussein,” Keyserling wrote in the email, in which he also warned that Hussein would have a security detail outside of the Google office in Manhattan while he was working.

Sources Motherboard spoke to found this employment bizarre, but few wanted to talk about it. A Jigsaw spokesperson declined to comment on Hussein’s employment at Jigsaw. The Jordanian embassy in Washington DC did not answer a request for comment.

“Having someone this closely linked to a foreign government work for Jigsaw—which bills itself as a ‘think/do tank’—is an engagement worth questioning. While the Crown Prince currently has a ceremonial role, he is the heir apparent to the King and therefore, I’d think, can’t easily recuse himself from those vested interests in this post,” Gissou Nia, a human rights lawyer who focuses on the Middle East and North Africa, said. “The practice of foreign governments buying influence at US think tanks is well documented, but to actually bring someone on with this title, in an official capacity, is taking it a step further.”

*

Advertisement

Late last month, a day before a call between Motherboard and a Jigsaw spokesperson, Keyserling called for an all-hands meeting to discuss Motherboard’s investigation. The email he sent to all Jigsaw full-time employees and contractors referred to this story as a “negative press article” that was coming soon. (During the call, Jigsaw spokespeople declined to answer a series of specific questions, saying they couldn’t talk about employee matters.)

“We wanted to have a teamwide conversation to discuss what we know about the story and talk about Jigsaw’s journey—what we have learned (sometimes the hard way), and what’s changed,” Keyserling wrote in the email.

“It's too easy to slide into a culture of 'positivity' where we rewrite our history to our benefit, hiding the difficult parts and spinning messages to suit our ego.”

In the meeting, which Cohen did not attend for personal reasons, Keyserling said the story was focused on past problems that the company had worked to improve. Current employees who have knowledge of the meeting said that the general thrust of it was that Jigsaw's problems are in the past—that the article would focus on things that happened years ago, and that it's time to move past them.

Current employees say that Jigsaw still has a lot of the same problems, given how many people who have left the team—more than 20—in the last year. And the recent goodbye emails indicate that Jigsaw's issues persist.

“When people leave, there’s a tendency to say it’s because they’re moving on to awesome opportunities—and often they are,” a current employee said. “But in many cases it’s not just the pull of a good opportunity, but also the push of being unhappy at Jigsaw.”

Advertisement

(Full disclosure: in 2016, Jigsaw sponsored a VICE News series called “Blackout.” Jigsaw also invited this reporter to an off the record dinner with other reporters in Manhattan in April of 2017.)

Subscribe to our new cybersecurity podcast, CYBER.

Tagged:
Google
Censorship
HUMAN RIGHTS
workers rights
internet freedom
Jigsaw
digital rights
Google Ideas
toxic workplace
Jared Cohen