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Google spooks employee activists with new guidelines for political speech at work - The Verge

Google has updated its employee guidelines to caution against unnecessary political debate and improper disclosure of company information.

Unveiled on Friday, the guidelines direct Googlers to be respectful in all internal communications, with prohibitions against trolling or blanket statements against groups of people that make fellow employees unwelcome.

“Don’t troll, name call, or engage in ad hominem attacks,” the new guidelines read. “Be respectful in your comments about (and to) your fellow Googlers.” The previous version of the guidelines was unveiled just over a year ago in the wake of the James Damore incident.

The new version also includes language specifically aimed at political discussion in the workplace, a prohibition that has some worried that the company is cracking down on internal activism.

“While sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build community, disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story does not,” the new guidelines read. “Our primary responsibility is to do the work we’ve each been hired to do, not to spend working time on debates about non-work topics.”

Reached for comment, Google said the new guidelines were focused on maintaining user trust. “Working at Google comes with tremendous responsibility,” a Google representative said in a statement. “It’s critical that we honor that trust and uphold the integrity of our products and services. The guidelines are official policy and apply when employees are communicating in the workplace.”

Still, it’s plausible that the new guidelines could be used against employee activists, many of whom continue to have moral concerns about Google’s work with US immigration agencies. “Following years of organizing inside Google, the bosses are trying to stop workers from discussing workplace issues,” one former Googler said after the guidelines were posted. “The idea that discussion over whether Google does business with CBP and ICE is not related to their work is preposterous.”

In a further comment, Google pushed back against that interpretation, saying the guidelines were not intended to limit political expression. “Our intent is not to chill internal speech or limit Googlers voicing concerns,” a representative said. “We want Googlers to speak up when they feel something isn’t right and we provide ample ways for Googlers to use their voice to promote change.”

The new guidelines also spell out employee protections under US labor laws, which have become particularly relevant in the wake of Google’s walkout in November. The new language makes it clear that employees “may communicate about pay, hours, other work terms and conditions, or about any violation of law” — which are all rights that are protected under US law.

But the new guidelines also emphasize the limits of those protections, stating that employees “disclose confidential information other than as provided by law.” That language appears to be a reference to whistleblower disclosures around several internal projects, including a US military image recognition project called Maven and a nascent search engine collaboration with the Chinese government known as Dragonfly.

Still, many whistleblowers see the new guidelines as an inevitable response to the recent wave of internal activism. Former employee Jack Poulson, who disclosed the existence of the Dragonfly program in 2018, told The Verge that those changes had been expected within the company for some time. “Now that employees are learning to exercise their supposed democratic power, it is being taken away,” Poulson said.

Update 12:37PM ET: Updated with further comment from Google.

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