Three former Google employees who were fired by the company in 2019 sued Google on Monday, claiming that the company violated the part of its code of conduct that says “Don’t Be Evil.”
"Don't Be Evil" was, famously, Google's motto for years. The company moved away from the motto after renaming itself Alphabet in 2015, but "Don't Be Evil" is still part of the company's official employee code of conduct: “Remember… don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right – speak up!,” the final line of Google’s code of conduct states. Employees are expected to sign the contract as a condition of their employment at Google.
The new lawsuit, which alleges a breach of contract by Google, comes as part of drawn out legal proceedings between Google and three former employees who were fired within minutes of each other on November 25, 2019. Google claimed to fire the workers for leaking “confidential” information to the press, and because they engaged in “systematic searches” for information “outside the scope of their job.”
But the software engineers say they were fired for protesting Google’s decision to sell cloud computing software to Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which at the time was caging migrants and separating parents from children. They circulated a company-wide petition requesting Google affirm that it would not collaborate with CBP or ICE.
The three workers, Rebecca Rivers, Paul Duke, and Sophie Waldman, are now suing Google for allegedly violating its own code of conduct as well as California public policy. California sued Trump in 2019 over the indefinite detention of migrant children.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit arrives amid a wave of white-collar tech workers organizing at Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix, Facebook, and other tech companies, largely focused on ethical issues, such as contracts with oil and gas companies, sexual harassment, and misinformation. It also coincides with a pending National Labor Relations Board lawsuit that alleges Google illegally fired the same three worker activists in 2019 for engaging in labor organizing activity, which is protected under the National Labor Relations Act.
The new complaint alleges that all three of the fired employees saw Google’s collaboration with CBP under the Trump administration as “evil” and had followed Google’s mandate to call out unethical conduct by protesting the company’s actions. It claims that Google never informed the fired employees that they had in any way violated the company’s “data security policy,” and that none of the employees had engaged in “systematic searches.” They had only accessed documents that any full-time Google employee could have found on their own, court documents say.
“Rivers, Waldman and Duke each engaged in activities consistent with Google’s ‘Don’t be evil’ contractual obligation,” the lawsuit states. “Specifically, they questioned Google management regarding its intent to enter into a contract with the Trump administration’s Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and/or Office of Refugee Resettlement agencies.”
In 2018, Google significantly backtracked on its “Don’t be Evil” motto. It quietly moved “Don’t Be Evil,” it to the very end of the code of conduct, and slashed a large section about its ethics that said:
“‘Don’t be evil.’ Googlers generally apply those words to how we serve our users. But “Don’t be evil” is much more than that. Yes, it’s about providing our users unbiased access to information, focusing on their needs and giving them the best products and services we can. But it’s also about doing the right thing more generally – following the law, acting honorably and treating each other with respect.
The Google Code of Conduct is one of the ways we put ‘Don’t be evil’ into practice. It’s built around the recognition that everything we do in connection with our work at Google will be, and should be, measured against the highest possible standards of ethical business conduct.”
That motto originated during a different era at Google, in the late ‘90s, when Google began making its first big deals to monetize its search feature. The move raised ethical concerns among some of the company’s most idealistic employees who wanted the much smaller company to commit in writing to the mission of making the world a better place. Since then, Google has grown into a global behemoth with many lines of business, and critics feel that its “Don’t Be Evil” mantra has fallen to the wayside.
In early 2020, employees of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, launched a union with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), citing the company's response to sexual harassment, drone contracts with the Department of Defense, and the firing of Timnit Gebru, a prominent Black artificial intelligence researcher.