As recently as a decade ago Google’s company image verged on beloved. Buoyed by a tide of Steve Jobs-style cool, the corporate giant (even in 2008 giant seemed to sell the search engine short: ‘juggernaut’ perhaps? ‘behemoth’?) had parlayed their superior product and canny artistic flair into the kind of global domination that had more in common with (in)famous nineteenth century titans of industry such as John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie than their ostensibly utopian silicon valley philosophy suggested. However they’d shrewdly built up their reputation as ‘one of the good ones’ which served as a seemingly indestructible shield to criticism. The public loved them and assumed that they had humanity’s best interest at heart, in a way that, only a handful of years later, seems hopelessly naïve. Their corporate culture of pranks, hidden Easter Eggs and niche references painted a picture of a company composed of benign geniuses with a sense of humour. Nothing summed up this image of Google as a leading light of the information age, changing things for the better, than Google’s original corporate code of conduct: which consisted of the wonderfully blunt “Don’t be evil”. It is unfortunately telling that they retired it as a motto back in 2015.
It’s hard to pinpoint the moment where Google lost the public’s trust (though not the public’s custom. What are you going to use instead, Bing?) but the perception of the company as the stalwart vanguard of the better future promised by the internet has been warped like a reflection in a funhouse mirror. Google are now seen as an all-powerful, notably authoritarian company that answers to nobody and nothing but itself; in much the same way as the dreams of the utopian future created by the internet has been withered by the endless barrage of fake news, cyberbullying and Donald Trump’s twitter feed . This darker take is, of course, as reductive a reading of Google as the previous one, but public opinion rarely goes in for nuance. It was the disconnect between these two versions of Google that has led to such outcry at the recent revelation that Google had privately partnered with the U.S. Department of Defence. Helping the Pentagon by providing some of its image recognition technologies as part of Project Maven, specifically by streamlining the process of analysing combat and recon drone footage.
Many of Google’s employees still subscribe to the companies redacted “Don’t be evil” motto and have vocally come out against this partnership. More than 3,000 Google employees, including dozens of senior engineers, have signed a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai protesting the company’s work with the Pentagon that could help with drone strikes. The letter’s basic thrust boils down to the statement: “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war.” In the past Google has been careful of getting involved with the US military in any capacity, previously pulling one of its robots from a Pentagon-organised competition, despite it being the favourite to win, due to this uneasiness. To so openly tie themselves to the military industrial complex and particularly combat drones, which are beset by a seemingly endless tide of controversy on the morality of their usage, is a sign that Google are prepared to pivot in directions that would have been unthinkable even a few short years ago. Google has over 70,000 employees, so the 3,000 rebels are a far smaller fraction of the company than it might appear, but it is a serious demonstration of the snaking fault-line developing across the heart of one of the largest corporations on earth, and a noisy skirmish in the public war being fought over its soul.