More than 650 Google workers have signed on to a petition lobbying the tech behemoth to adopt policies that could protect and provide support for employees and consumers seeking abortion care.
The demands were threefold: workers asked that the company extend access to reproductive healthcare benefits already offered to full-time employees to temporary and contract workers; second, the company stops any and all political lobbying of politicians or organizations “because these politicians were responsible for appointing the supreme court justices who overturned Roe v Wade and continue to infringe on other human rights issues”. Last, they demanded Google stop storing health-related data that could later be used to criminalize users and address the disinformation and misinformation found in search results.
The petition, addressed to company executives including Google’s chief executive Sundar Pichai; head of human resources Fiona Cicconi, and the vice-president of ads at Google Jerry Dischler, was circulated by the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU), a minority or members-only union comprised of about 1,000 Google workers.
A Google spokesperson said the company had nothing to add but pointed the Guardian to links indicating how it planned to support employees in the wake of the US supreme court’s decision on abortion rights.
The AWU is one of the byproducts of an era of tech-worker activism around both labor and ethical issues sparked initially by the Google walkout in 2018 during which 20,000 employees around the world left their offices in protest of the way the company handled sexual harassment complaints . And for the union, weighing in on concerns about the upheaval of national abortion rights aligned with the group’s goals of uplifting staffers’ voices on matters of ethics and workplace issues.
“It is a healthcare problem,” said Alejandra Beatty, a technical program manager at Google-owned Verily and an AWU steward. “That is a concern for labor. It is a labor right. So that is where we are focusing the conversation on: this is healthcare necessary for all employees and we all should have it.”
The union’s demands are lofty, she admits. For instance, workers in the union discussed asking that Google only donate to certain politicians rather than stop all of its lobbying efforts. But the stakes are too high to go in softly, Beatty said.
“We’re trying to make the point that the whole entire system is broken and democracy needs to be returned to the people, to the citizens,” she said. “Companies should not be involved in this space and until there is a better system where that undue influence is not there, there’s just no way to [lobby politicians] without participating in a fundamentally broken system.”
However, Google has not always responded kindly to worker activism. In the years since the walkout, several organizers of the global labor action alleged that the company retaliated against them. Recently, Ariel Koren, an employee who helped draft a letter opposing a $1.2bn contract Google entered with the Israeli military, has accused the company of pushing her out for her activism. The company said it investigated the incident and found no evidence of retaliation.
And workers may have even less leverage in the current job market and economic climate. Tech companies have laid off hundreds of employees in the past few months, making it hard for workers to take stands that may put their jobs on the line.
But Beatty said she’s hopeful for a “reasonable response” and that the union has seen some indications of support from “lower level leadership”.
While the union’s demands to limit lobbying are all-encompassing, the privacy demands are much more narrowly tailored. The petition calls for “immediate user data privacy controls for all health-related activity” and that information, which could tie someone to seeking abortion care, can “never be saved, handed over to law enforcement, or treated as a crime”. But that may not be a sufficient means of protecting users from being criminalized for seeking abortion care. Nebraska police retrieved private Facebook messages between a mother and daughter that they used to file charges against the duo for allegedly conducting an illegal abortion. The search warrant, Facebook contends, did not ask for health-specific data and did not mention anything about an abortion.
Experts say that cases with more general warrants like this will probably be more common and that protecting users would require both technological solutions as well as a limit on how much information companies collect in the first place.
“If companies really care about protecting themselves and their customers from many types of risk, they should implement end-to-end encryption and stop collecting our data,” said Jackie Singh, a director at Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “Most crucially, we also need a national data privacy law to help close our collective Pandora’s Box.”
It’s a complex problem for company employees. Beatty said she recognizes that law enforcement could seek non-health-related data that could serve to criminalize those seeking abortions, but she’s not sure if wiping out all of the data companies like Google has on everyone is a viable option for the company. At the same time, she said she’s heard activists discourage people from using Google products entirely.
“Frankly, I don’t know how Google ads would then continue to run [without user data]. It’s part of how the company makes money,” said Beatty. “But what’s that like when we have more and more users who just don’t feel like they can even trust our systems and then they stop using them,” she continued. “We don’t want to be there either.”
Singh said she commends the workers on their ongoing efforts but that the most rational policy would be to enable end-to-end encryption – a mechanism Beatty also suggested might be the best path forward. Singh also argued that asking the company to focus on protecting one type of data may actually introduce more privacy concerns.
“Unfortunately, anytime we ask organizations to be more specific about detecting certain types of content, we’re essentially asking them to improve their surveillance capabilities to achieve this,” she said, explaining that the company would have to more deeply analyze content to determine if it’s abortion related.