Former Google executive Ross LaJeunesse says he was pushed out of the company for trying to institute human rights policies at the search giant.
Image: Panayiotis Tzamaros/NurPhoto via Getty Images
By Matt Binder2020-01-02 18:55:53 UTC
To kick off the new year, a former Google executive is sharing details about how he was allegedly pushed out of the company for attempting to center human rights principles within the search engine giant.
Ross LaJeunesse just penned a detailed blog post running through his decade-plus at the company. In 2010, as head of public policy for Asia Pacific, LaJeunesse executed the company’s “landmark decision” to stop censoring search results in China.
At the time, Google had been running a search product in the country while trying to maintain its “Don’t be evil” mantra. However, the situation in China became volatile after a hacking attempt on Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and an increase in censorship demand. So, the company decided it would stop cooperating with Chinese government.
As LaJeunesse explains:
“Our 2010 decision to stop cooperating with Chinese government censorship on Search results was the first time a non-Chinese corporation stood up to the Chinese government. In doing so, Google put everything on the line — its future in the world’s fastest-growing internet market, billions of dollars in profit, even the safety of our Chinese employees. At one point, I began planning for a possible mass evacuation of all our Google employees based in China, as well as their families. Although difficult, I was intensely proud of the principled approach the company took in making this decision.”
The company later ended most of its search product operations in China, and LaJeunesse went on to become the company’s head of international relations. He describes the position as “a role responsible for Google’s relationships with diplomats, civil society, and international organizations like the UN, and for global issues like trade, internet governance, and free expression.”
However, as the company grew and its founders became less involved in Google’s operations, LaJeunesse noticed a major shift in how the company viewed human rights. Google attempted to once again roll out a search product in China, this time giving in to the government’s censorship demands. He also discovered that Google was actively trying to close deals with countries with records of human rights abuses, like Saudi Arabia. (Google has been criticized previously for allowing a Saudi app that allows men to track women in their families in its Google Play store.)
A major eye-opener for LaJeunesse occurred in December 2017, when the company announced its Google Center for Artificial Intelligence in Beijing. Google had not informed its head of international relations about the decision ahead of time.
As he explains it, the move “surprised me, and made it clear to me that I no longer had the ability to influence the numerous product developments and deals being pursued by the company.”
LaJeunesse attempted to create a company-wide set of human rights principles which would guide Google’s products and market decisions, but felt his attempts were rebuffed at every turn.
“Just when Google needed to double down on a commitment to human rights, it decided to instead chase bigger profits and an even higher stock price,” he writes.
It wasn’t only his human rights advocacy that led to his departure, however. LaJeunesse believes the final straw came when he went to Google HR to complain about workplace culture.
“Senior colleagues bullied and screamed at young women, causing them to cry at their desks. At an all-hands meeting, my boss said, “Now you Asians come to the microphone too. I know you don’t like to ask questions.” At a different all-hands meeting, the entire policy team was separated into various rooms and told to participate in a “diversity exercise” that placed me in a group labeled “homos” while participants shouted out stereotypes such as “effeminate” and “promiscuous.” Colleagues of color were forced to join groups called “Asians” and “Brown people” in other rooms nearby.”
In 2019, after 11 years with Google, LaJeunesse was told he was being let go. After he retained counsel, LaJeunesse says the company offered him a smaller role, which he turned down. He officially left the company in May.
Before working at Google, LaJeunesse worked as an attorney for the California utility company PG&E and as deputy chief of staff for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is currently running for U.S. Senate in Maine.