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Ex-Google workers sue company, saying it betrayed 'Don't Be Evil' motto

Google employees fill Harry Bridges Plaza in front of the Ferry Building during a walkout Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, in San Francisco.
Eric Risberg
Google employees fill Harry Bridges Plaza in front of the Ferry Building during a walkout Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, in San Francisco.

Three former Google employees have sued the company, alleging that Google's motto "Don't be evil" amounts to a contractual obligation that the tech giant has violated.

At the time the company hired the three software engineers, Rebecca Rivers, Sophie Waldman and Paul Duke, they signed conduct rules that included a "Don't be evil" provision, according to the suit.

The trio say they thought they were behaving in accordance with that principle when they organized Google employees against controversial projects, such as work for U.S. Customs and Border Protection during the Trump administration. The workers circulated a petition calling on Google to publicly commit to not working with CBP.

Google fired the three workers, along with a fourth, Laurence Berland, in November 2019 for "clear and repeated violations" of the company's data security policies. The four deny they accessed and leaked confidential documents as part of their activism.

In the lawsuit filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court on Monday, Rivers, Waldman and Duke argue that they should receive monetary damages because the company allegedly retaliated against them when they tried to draw attention to Google's "doing evil," the suit states.

It may be an uphill battle to convince a jury of exactly what constitutes "evil." But the plaintiffs' lawyer, Laurie Burgess, said it is not beyond what courts regularly must decide.

"There are all sorts of contract terms that a jury is required to interpret: 'don't be evil' is not so 'out there' as to be unenforceable," she said. "Since Google's contract tells employees that they can be fired for failing to abide by the motto, 'don't be evil,' it must have meaning."

Google did not immediately return a request for comment.

The "Don't be evil" principle is often attributed to Paul Buchheit and Amit Patel, two early Google employees. The phrase was written on every white board at the company during its early years, according to the 2008 book Planet Google by Randall Stross.

"It became the one Google value that the public knew well, even though it was formally expressed at Google less pithily as, 'You can make money without doing evil,'" Stross wrote.

In 2018, there were reports suggestingthat Google had removed "Don't be evil" from its code of conduct. But an updated version, dated September 2020, shows the phrase remains. It is unclear when the motto was re-introduced.

The suit comes amid a surge in labor activism at tech companies like Apple Facebook, Netflix and Amazon. A group of workers at Google, which is owned by Alphabet, formed a minority union earlier this year around issues including sexual harassment, its work with the Pentagon and the treatment of its sizable contract workforce.

The National Labor Relations Board is investigating the firing of the three Google workers who sued on Monday. The Board wrote in May that Google "arguably violated" federal labor law by "unlawfully discharging" Rivers, Duke and Waldman. The NLRB matter is awaiting a final resolution.

Meanwhile, the software engineers say Google should be punished for not living up to its own moral code.

"Google realized that 'don't be evil' was both costing it money and driving workers to organize," the ex-Googlers said in a statement on Monday. "Rather than admit that their stance had changed and lose the accompanying benefits to the company image, Google fired employees who were living the motto."

Editor's note: Google is among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.

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