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15 Nov 2023

Sam Biddle, The Intercept

Google again faces pushback from its workers against "Project Nimbus" deal with Israel amid allegations of its use in surveillance by military forces; Incl. Co. comment

"Google Activists Circulated Internal Petition on Israel Ties. Only the Muslim got a Call from HR"

A GOOGLE EMPLOYEE protesting the tech giant’s business with the Israeli government was questioned by Google’s human resources department over allegations that he endorsed terrorism, The Intercept has learned. The employee said he was the only Muslim and Middle Easterner who circulated the letter and also the only one who was confronted by HR about it.

The employee was objecting to Project Nimbus, Google’s controversial $1.2 billion contract with the Israeli government and its military to provide state-of-the-art cloud computing and machine learning tools.

Since its announcement two years ago, Project Nimbus has drawn widespread criticism both inside and outside Google, spurring employee-led protests and warnings from human rights groups and surveillance experts that it could bolster state repression of Palestinians...

a Google software engineer, sent an email to two internal listservs on October 18 saying Project Nimbus was implicated in human rights abuses against Palestinians — abuses that fit a 75-year pattern that had brought the conflict to the October 7 Hamas massacre of some 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians. The letter, distributed internally by anti-Nimbus Google workers through company email lists, went on to say that Google could become “complicit in what history will remember as a genocide.”

Twelve days later, Google HR told [the engineer] they were scheduling a meeting with him, during which he says he was questioned about whether the letter was “justifying the terrorism on October 7th.”

In an interview, [the engineer] told The Intercept he was not only disturbed by what he considers an attempt by Google to stifle dissent on Nimbus, but also believes he was left feeling singled out because of his religion and ethnicity. The letter was drafted and internally circulated by a group of anti-Nimbus Google employees, but none of them other than Khatami were called by HR, according to [the engineer] and [...] another anti-Nimbus organizer at Google who helped spread the letter. Though he declined to comment on the outcome of the HR meeting, [the engineer] said it left him shaken.

“It was very emotionally taxing,” [the engineer] said. “I was crying by the end of it.”

“I’m the only Muslim or Middle Eastern organizer who sent out that email,” he told The Intercept. “Strangely enough, I was the only one of us who was sent to HR over people saying I was supporting terrorism or justifying terrorism.”...

Google spokesperson Courtenay Mencini told The Intercept, “We follow up on every concern raised, and in this case, dozens of employees reported this individual’s email – not the sharing of the petition itself – for including language that did not follow our workplace policies.” Mencini declined to say which workplace policies [the engineer]’s email allegedly violated, whether other organizers had gotten HR calls, or if any other company personnel had been approached by Employee Relations for comments made about the war.

The incident comes just one year after former Google employee Ariel Koren said the company attempted to force her to relocate to Brazil in retaliation for her early anti-Nimbus organizing. Koren later quit in protest and remains active in advocating against the contract. Project Nimbus, despite the dissent, remains in place, in part because of contractual terms put in place by Israel forbidding Google from cutting off service in response to political pressure or boycott campaigns.

Dissent at Google is neither rare nor ineffective. Employee opposition to controversial military contracts has previously pushed the company to drop plans to help with the Pentagon’s drone warfare program and a planned Chinese version of Google Search that would filter out results unwanted by the Chinese government. Nimbus, however, has managed to survive...

With the rank and file disturbed by the company’s role as a defense contractor, Google has attempted to downplay the military nature of the contract.

Mencini, the Google spokesperson, said that anti-Nimbus organizers were “misrepresenting” the contract’s military role.

“This is part of a longstanding campaign by a group of organizations and people who largely don’t work at Google,” Mencini said. “We have been very clear that the Nimbus contract is for workloads running on our commercial platform by Israeli government ministries such as finance, healthcare, transportation, and education. Our work is not directed at highly sensitive or classified military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services.” ...

[the engineer] objected in particular to the co-worker’s claim that Israel is killing Palestinians “because they are used as shields by the terrorists” — a justification of violence far more explicit than the one he was accused of, he said. Khatami questioned whether widespread references to the inviolability of Israeli self-defense by Google employees have provoked treatment from HR similar to what he received after his email about Nimbus.

Internal employee communications viewed by The Intercept show tensions within Google over the Israeli–Palestinian conflict aren’t limited to debates over Project Nimbus. A screenshots viewed by The Intercept shows an Israeli Google employee repeatedly asking Middle Eastern colleagues if they support Hamas, while another shows a Google engineer suggesting Palestinians worried about the welfare of their children should simply stop having kids. Another lamented “friends and family [who] are slaughtered by the Gaza-grown group of bloodthirsty animals.”...

While [the engineer] says he was unnerved and disheartened by the HR grilling, he’s still committed to organizing against Project Nimbus...