On the occasion of leaving Google

FOR RELEASE 12:01 AM September 16th, US/Pacific

To my fellow Googlers,

I want to start by saying that my nearly five years at Google have been the happiest years of my life. The people I’ve met here and my experiences fighting alongside you to make positive change in the world have enriched my life more than I can say.

This isn’t really a “why I’m leaving” post. You all know many of the reasons, and I do believe retaliation occurred. This is a “what you should do about it” post.

When some of us co-authored the safe-workplace petition in 2018Q1, we called for the company’s management to protect us — as individuals — from the public dangers associated with being marginalized people known to work here. They failed to act, and I called them out on it. That was a time when I still naively believed that company’s show of support for diversity and inclusion was heartfelt rather than public-relations posturing. It was before we learned that the company was pursuing military contracts and hiding it from most employees. It was before we learned that the company was building a search experience to meet the demands of oppressive government censorship. It was before a slide deck revealed upper management’s boldly printed assertion that Googlers wouldn’t object to a policy change because we wouldn’t know about it. It was before we learned that Google’s commitment not to renew the Maven contract was two-faced, as evidenced by a plan (now implemented) to spin out a startup to continue the same work.

In short, when Google apologizes for things, they’re sorry they got caught. Don’t let them get away with that. Keep holding them accountable. This movement is strong; I’ve done my best to pass on what I know to others, and there are far more people actively working for positive change than when I started. This is a relay race. Not all of us will see the finish, but we will win together.

There’s nothing unique about what’s happening inside Google. Attempts to intimidate minorites and prevent us from working for change are happening all over the world.

Google isn’t only a corporation, it’s a community. For those who still care about freedom and supporting each other, building community is of high strategic importance. People without community cannot fight effectively. It’s why the users of hate sites compile exhaustive lists of social spaces and the people who make them possible. My greatest achievements at Google are the communities I’ve built and defended. I have done all I can to make sure that these places are in good hands and will stand the test of time. I urge you all to stand by your communities and be there for each other.

Even with Google being caught doing some new horrible thing on a weekly basis, it was still a very difficult decision to leave. I’ll be continuing my activism from the outside where I expect to have more ability to make change, not less. But I am, in a real sense, abandoning my teammates and all the people doing privacy work at Google. For that, I’m very sorry. But I just can’t take it anymore. My heart is with you and I hope that I will still see you all in professional contexts, though our roles will be different.

But about that activism: I will not stop working for change in the tech industry. I am not abandoning you, and I am not giving up on Google. I am graduating from Google, off to apply the things I have learned to do here, but with activism as my full-time job rather than as a second job. I will take a few months to rest and recover first, and then I will be jumping back into the fray. And since many of you may be curious, I’m going to let you know some of the things that I plan to do in the next few quarters.

First, I have substantial expertise in advertising privacy. My day job at Google has been in a self-regulatory role, in fulfillment of Google’s legal obligations, doing what I can to make the system better from within. Though Google as a company deserves no loyalty, I will keep my commitments not to share specific things I have learned in the course of this work, because that is what being a professional means to me. However, the insight and experience that I gained in doing so is my own, to do with as I see fit. I will be continuing my career in privacy, but in the dimension of working for positive change in public policy. I haven’t talked much about it up to now, but my role at Google involved (among other things) threat modeling how Cambridge Analytica and similar actors might attack advertising systems. Once I am outside Google, I will no longer have a conflict of interest preventing me from speaking freely. I think that there is a need for legislation on this topic, and I am excited to play a part in crafting some. I don’t yet know what affiliation I’ll be doing it under, but I have put out feelers and found substantial interest.

Second, I will be working with Tech Inquiry, a non-profit recently founded by former Googler Jack Poulson and several other well-known tech accountability activists. We will support activists within Google and throughout the tech industry by providing advice and resources, making connections, and more. This complements the kinds of general labor advice that organizations like Coworker.org can provide — for example, they were instrumental in building the employee-shareholder alliance that we’ve been enjoying for a year now. Please know that if you have concerns about events at Google, I will still be there to help you.

Third, as I recently mentioned to some of you, I will be building a platform to facilitate community-building so that people can talk with their co-workers off-corp, in ways that are resilient against the company’s attempts to silence people who speak out. It’ll be a while before it’s ready, but please sign up for updates at rockgarden.space. I hope many of you will join me there.

When you are running a movement, you are fighting to get your message heard. You must speak both loudly and clearly. Meanwhile, people who want to stop your movement will be trying to confuse your message, to inject uncertainty, and to refocus the attention of your audience on any contradiction (no matter how small or irrelevant) or failure to address the needs of a particular constituency. This is a lot easier for those people when they have real-time aggregated sentiment metrics, as Google’s upper management easily could.

As someone who has spent considerable time in the past year driving public conversations, I have often felt that it’s been an asymmetric battle. I attribute this in large part to the heavily monitored nature of all communications on corp. Moving off-corp should help significantly in making activism conversations the honest, even exchange of ideas that they should be.

I also feel that your social group should not be tightly coupled to your employer. In addition to off-corp activism communities, I also see a need for purely social communities as well as peer support communities. By signing up for rockgarden.space updates, you’ll hear about it as soon as my platform is ready. :)

You can reach me via email or Hangouts at ireneista@gmail.com; on Twitter @ireneista; on LinkedIn; and on Keybase. I am always thrilled to chat with Googlers, whether they’re people I know well or people I’ve never met. I am happy to offer emotional support, political advice, or anything else you need. You all have been here for me during these many years, and it’s important to me that I continue to be here for you.

You do not have to stay out of history as it is happening around you. As workers, you have a voice, and a chance to influence the world for the better. Never lose that voice.

In solidarity,

Irene Knapp

Privacy expert, software engineer, labor organizer. Asexual, autistic, bipolar, plural, trans-feminine. The adult in the room, and feeling surprised about it.

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