Google cloaks itself in virtue, lawsuit may unmask it

The wealthy and powerful have a way of steamrolling those who have less. Silicon Valley, however, prefers to cloak itself in virtue. Unlike the company towns of yore, Mountainview, California was supposed to be different. There, it was supposed to be about “Googliness,” an almost mythical “mashup of passion and drive that’s hard to define but easy to spot.”

But every now and then reality intrudes. These days, Google finds itself in the barrel for alleged political discrimination in connection with the termination of James Damore and David Gudeman, two ex-employees and the lead plaintiffs in a recently commenced class action brought in a California state court.

In its most rudimentary form, the case raises the question raises of whether Google discriminates against plaintiffs (i) “due to their perceived conservative political views”; (ii) “due to their male gender”; and/or (iii) “due to their Caucasian race.”

To be sure, they may have been fired for “all of the above.” Or they may have been canned for being first class jerks and flaunting internal policy. In the end, the trial court will sort that out. Regardless, this is one lawsuit that Google can definitely do without.

The Damore class action raises questions about what Google is about, and whether all of its high-minded rhetoric and self-image are simply illusory.

For a company whose motto is “don’t be evil,” Google is not having the easiest time. This latest episode follows a September 2017 lawsuit brought by three women who alleged that the tech giant systemically paid men more. There was also the company’s opposition to legislation that sought to halt online child sex trafficking.

So how did Google become embroiled in this latest mess? Well, last summer Damore unleashed his salvo against Google’s “ideological echo chamber” – at the same time that Google’s compensation practices were being put under the figurative microscope. Damore also suggested that biology may have something to do with men being particularly suited for hi-tech. And yes, that’s a big deal.

To put things in perspective, Lawrence Summers, Bill Clinton’s former Treasury Secretary, was forced to walk away from his job as president of Harvard a year after he told a 2005 economics conference that “under-representation of female scientists at elite universities may stem in part from ‘innate’ differences between men and women.” Suffice to say, comments like that can have serious consequences.

Like Summers at Harvard, Damore struck a nerve. According to court papers, Google employees demanded that Damore be axed, and that those who shared his views should be purged.

Google’s senior managers allegedly told Damore that he was fired for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.” The Complaint even contains a quote from another Google employee who demanded that Google fire Damore, but also “severely” discipline or terminate those “who have expressed support.” Was that righteous indignation, conformity run amok, or a little of both?

As for Gudeman, he questioned a Muslim co-worker who claimed he was being targeted by the federal government because of his religion. According to the lawsuit, Google alleged that Gudeman had accused his colleague of terrorism.

Do Damore and Gudeman come up short in the tact department? Bigly. Are they clods, clowns, or worse? Maybe so. But that’s not the end of the discussion. There are two pesky things out there. One is called free speech, and the other is the State of California.

Under California law, political speech appears to be protected from retaliation – even from private actors. Unlike the First Amendment that guaranties speech rights in the face of government retribution, California appears to extended speech protections to private sector employees.

Whether Google broke the law will likely be hashed out in court, and it’s safe to say that lots of folks will be watching – and with good reason. The Damore case raises questions about what Google is about, and whether all of its high-minded rhetoric and self-image are simply illusory.

In the end, trial-related discovery has a way of shining a light on things corporations don’t want to be exposed, like lobbying practices and internal ethics. For example, when Google was slapped with an antitrust investigation in 2010 by the Texas Attorney General’s office, it had no qualms about hiring Ted Cruz, then merely a former state solicitor general and the AG’s former deputy, to help kill the investigation. When pressed, Google offered no comment on its strategy.

Google’s official documents are also potentially problematic. According to Google’s filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company prides itself on its uniqueness and its commitment to democracy – their words, not mine. Google put it this way: “Google is not a conventional company … We believe that technology is a democratizing force, empowering people through information.” As for its corporate culture, Google had this to tell the SEC: “We strive to hire great employees, with backgrounds and perspectives as diverse as those of our global users.”

In other words, Google’s version of diversity was not just about fielding a corporate softball team that could double as a United Colors of Benetton ad. Rather, diversity at Google was also supposed to be about heterodoxy, multiplicities of thought and viewpoints.

But from the looks of things, apparently not so much. The spiel it gave to federal regulators and sold investors may not comport with actual reality. From the looks of things, Google is finding out that moral hygiene can get complicated, and that lawsuits seldom wind up the way parties hope they do. If these cases drag on, Google will have some explaining to do.