Google is being sued over its internal confidentiality policies which bar employees from putting in writing concerns over “illegal” activity, posting opinions about the company, and even writing novels “about someone working at a tech company in Silicon Valley” without first giving their employer sign-off on the final draft.
The lawsuit, revealed by industry news site The Information, accuses Google of breaching California labour laws through its confidentiality provisions, by preventing employees from exercising their legal rights to discuss workplace conditions, wages, and potential violations inside the company.
It has been brought by an individual employee under a Californian act that allows employees to sue on behalf of co-workers; if the employee wins, the state gets 75% of the penalty, while the remaining payout would be split among Google’s employees. The maximum fine in Google’s case is almost $4bn.
The lawsuit opens with a strong claim: “Google’s motto is ‘don’t be evil.’ Google’s illegal confidentiality agreements and policies fail this test,” it says.
The core of the complaint is that Google’s confidentiality policies prevent employees from exercising speech rights which are protected, both constitutionally and in federal and state law.
In a statement given to the Guardian, Google described the suit as “baseless”.
“We’re very committed to an open internal culture, which means we frequently share with employees details of product launches and confidential business information”, the company added. “Transparency is a huge part of our culture. Our employee confidentiality requirements are designed to protect proprietary business information, while not preventing employees from disclosing information about terms and conditions of employment, or workplace concerns.”
The policies, the lawsuit claims, restrict Googlers from effectively seeking new work, because they cannot use all the skills they gain at the company in future jobs; they unlawfully limit what employees can do out of work, by preventing employees from speaking to the press “or otherwise exercising their speech rights”; and they prevent employees from disclosing information to government or regulators, even if the employee believes that Google is breaking the law.
One such policy, cited in the lawsuit, instructs Googlers to “avoid communications that conclude, or appear to conclude, that Google or Googlers are acting ‘illegally’ or ‘negligently,’ have ‘violated the law,’ should or would be ‘liable’ for anything, or otherwise convey legal meaning.”
Another training program warns them: “Don’t send an email that says ‘I think we broke the law’ or ‘I think we violated this contract.’” The filing also claims “the training program also advises employees that they should not be candid when speaking with Google’s attorneys about dangerous products or violations of the law.”
The suit says that Google’s confidentiality policies go so far that they also “prohibit employees from writing creative fiction. Among other things, Google’s Employee Communication Policy prohibits employees from writing ‘a novel about someone working at a tech company in Silicon Valley’ unless Google gives prior approval to both the book idea and the final draft.”
While confidentiality policies are common in Silicon Valley, the suit argues that Google has a responsibility to include in its employee training the fact that staffers are allowed to speak about Google with non-Googlers, even press and regulators, in certain circumstances.
This article was written by Alex Hern, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 21st December 2016 14.31 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010