Google pursued profits over free speech in China, former head of international relations says

Google said in a statement that the company has an “unwavering commitment” to human rights organizations and efforts.
Senate candidate Ross LaJeunesse
Democratic Senate candidate Ross LaJeunesse, in Portland on Dec. 5, 2019.Gregory Rec / Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

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By David Ingram

An expert in human rights who spent more than a decade at Google and directed its international diplomacy says the tech giant pushed him out last year because it no longer takes human rights seriously.

Ross LaJeunesse, who is now a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in his native Maine, said in a blog post Thursday that Google abandoned its former, famous motto “Don’t be evil” as potential business in countries such as China and Saudi Arabia became too enticing.

“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 said in the post.

Google said in a statement that the company has an “unwavering commitment” to human rights organizations and efforts.

“We wish Ross all the best with his political ambitions,” the company said.

The criticism from LaJeunesse adds to a rising backlash against Google and other large tech firms from privacy advocates, regulators and current and former employees and executives.

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Google has been embroiled in turmoil after outside critics and its own employees attacked it for its handling of sexual misconduct cases in which it paid multimillion-dollar exit packages to executives involved, as well as its business plans in China and its contracts with the U.S. military.

LaJeunesse said that, while still at Google, he pushed for the adoption of a company-wide human rights program that would review new products as they were developed and assess the human rights impact of all major product launches and market entries.

“But each time I recommended a Human Rights Program, senior executives came up with an excuse to say no,” he wrote.

LaJeunesse also talked about his decision to leave Google in a video posted to Twitter.

Google, which stopped cooperating with Chinese censorship demands in 2010 and has since been banned there, was planning a way to reenter the search-engine market under the codename Dragonfly. But it abandoned the project after protests and congressional inquiries.

After the fight over Dragonfly, LaJeunesse said he “realized that the company had never intended to incorporate human rights principles into its business and product decisions.” The motto “Don’t be evil” had become “just another corporate marketing tool,” he said.

LaJeunesse said his job was eliminated as part of a reorganization of Google’s policy team, and that after he hired a lawyer, Google offered him “a small role in exchange for my acquiescence and silence.” He said he decided to leave.

Google, in its statement on Thursday, said he was offered a position at the same level and compensation.

Other big American tech companies are also grappling with how to do business internationally in an ethical way. Last year, Facebook ramped up hiring for a new team with the goal of avoiding contributing to genocide, as the company was accused of doing in Myanmar.

LaJeunesse becomes the lastest former Google employee to speak out publicly against the company. Last month, four engineers fired by Google just before Thanksgiving asked for an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that the company was unlawfully trying to quash organizing by workers.