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Google workers protest $1.2B Project Nimbus contract with Israeli military

·7-min read

A group of Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim and Arab Google employees are speaking out against the tech giant's Project Nimbus, a $1.2 billion contract involving Google, Amazon and the Israeli government and military.

"We are proud that Google Cloud has been selected by the Israeli government to provide public cloud services to help digitally transform the country," Google spokesperson Shannon Newberry told TechCrunch. "The project includes making Google Cloud Platform available to government agencies for everyday workloads such as finance, healthcare, transportation, and education, but it is not directed to highly sensitive or classified workloads.”

But according to a report from The Intercept, Google is offering advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning to the Israeli government, which could augment the country's use of digital surveillance in occupied Palestinian territories. The contract also reportedly prevents Google from denying services to specific Israeli government entities, such as the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

When Google announced its involvement in Project Nimbus in May 2021, the West Bank was in the midst of some of the worst violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict since 2014. As the decades-long conflict rages on, global human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have described Israel's actions as apartheid. On the other hand, some leaders like former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu call criticism of Israel's attacks antisemitic.

The violence in the West Bank has sparked debate among the Jewish diaspora for decades. Naturally, these debates extended to an internal Google affinity called the "Jewglers," which represents Jewish Google employees. Ariel Koren, a Jewish employee at Google who worked in its marketing division for seven years, spoke out in the Jewglers group to raise concerns about the company's relationship with the Israeli military.

A month later, she was "put on moderation" by unelected Jewglers leaders, meaning that she was banned from participation in the affinity group.

For more than a year, Koren continued to protest against Project Nimbus in an effort to get Google to back out of the deal, even appearing on television to speak out against her employer. Koren said that Google prides itself on being a transparent, open workplace, but that these values were not reflected in regard to Project Nimbus.

"The minute that this contract was announced, Google has had a very tight lockdown on information and has created a culture where it's impossible to have any sort of transparency as a worker," Koren told TechCrunch. "What is the technology being used for? What are the actual parameters of this project? What are you going to be doing with this technology?"

After taking disability leave last summer, she returned to work in November and was faced with an ultimatum: she could either relocate to Brazil in less than three weeks or lose her job. Koren claimed that this was an act of retaliation against her activism, but the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) dismissed the case.

"I was told by the NLRB representative who was working my case that Google refused to allow the NLRB to meet with my manager," Koren told TechCrunch. "A lot of key evidence that would have helped the case be investigated in a fair way was withheld intentionally by the company."

Seven hundred Google employees and 25,000 outside supporters signed a petition demanding that Google ensure Koren remained in her position. But this week, Koren made the decision to leave Google, calling it a "hostile work environment."

Newberry, the Google spokesperson, told TechCrunch that Google prohibits retaliation in the workplace and offers a clear policy on the subject. "We thoroughly investigated this employee’s claim, as we do when any concerns are raised, and as we've stated for many months, our investigation found there was no retaliation here," Newberry said.

Koren told TechCrunch that she felt the internal investigation was biased, since the investigator was on retainer with Google.

"If you're on retainer with the company, you're not a neutral party," Koren said. "So the fact that Google is able to hire a lawyer to run these investigations and then try to use those results as a way to invalidate and delegitimize the person who's coming forward is, I think, unfortunately a flaw that exists within the system."

Workers speak out against Google

After being alienated by the Jewglers, Koren and other employees launched a group called Jewish Diaspora in Tech.

"Just as in any community, Jews have differing backgrounds, political perspectives, and -- yes -- views on the Israeli government’s actions," Koren wrote in her resignation letter. "Millions of Jews oppose Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. Google knows this, and has intentionally silenced hundreds of voices, putting profit over people through contracts like Project Nimbus."

Alongside Koren's announcement that she would depart Google, the Jewish Diaspora in Tech group released a series of testimonies from 15 Google employees in opposition to what they see as anti-Palestinian bias within the company. This week, six Google workers and several Palestinian rights activists and academics held a press conference at one of Google's San Francisco offices, and next week, the activists plan to host a multi-city protest organized under #NoTechForApartheid.

"It has become impossible to express any opinion of disagreement of the war waged on Palestinians without being called into an HR meeting with the threat of retaliation," a Palestinian Google employee said, remaining anonymous due to fear of repercussions. Another Palestinian employee said that they were told in a Google-wide forum that the phrase "support Palestine" was offensive. A third Palestinian worker added to the series of testimonies, "I feel like I am making my living off of the oppression of my family."

According to Google's AI principles, Google will not deploy AI to cause harm, develop weapons or conduct surveillance that violates international norms. But members of Jewish Diaspora in Tech think that Project Nimbus violates these statutes.

"We need to ask ourselves: Do we want to give the nationalist armies of the world our technology? Or do we need to stand by the original theory behind Google: that we can make money without doing evil," said Jewish Google employee Gabriel Schubiner in a testimony.

Mushtaq Syed, a Muslim Google employee, said that Project Nimbus has made him reconsider working at Google.

"Google continues to stand by its lucrative work building technology to support the Israeli government and military, even though Israel consistently breaks international law, dispossesses more and more Palestinians families from their lands and homes, imprisons children, and even murdered a journalist," Syed wrote as testimony. "How can this be reconciled with Google's DEI objectives?"

An anonymous Jewish Google employee who was born and raised in Israel and served in the IDF said they were called an "un-Jew" by a co-worker after sharing anti-Zionist sentiments.

"If this is the sort of power structure Google allows within the Jewish community, I can’t imagine the attitude and abuse towards Palestinians at Google," the employee said.

Google's canceled Pentagon project

Despite its commitment to certain ethical principles, Google has found itself in hot water with its employees before.

In 2018, Google partnered with the United States Department of Defense in an initiative called Project Maven, an AI contract that could be leveraged to improve the accuracy of drone strikes. But after employee protests, Google chose not to renew the contract.

"The fact that Google actually canceled Project Maven is an important precedent for us as workers," Koren said. "When people tell us, 'Do you think there's a chance that Google could rescind project Nimbus?' We say, 'Well, there's actually a precedent.'"

Google also terminated work on Dragonfly, a censored search product and news app for use in China, after it was panned by free speech advocates, ex-staff and politicians on both sides of the aisle.

"There was immense amounts of worker protest and worker organizing," Koren remembered. "There is a precedent for the company listening to workers, and that's a huge part of what motivates us."