ON A BRIGHT Monday in January 2017, at 2:30 in the afternoon, about a thousand Google employees—horrified, alarmed, and a little giddy—began pouring out of the company’s offices in Mountain View, California. They packed themselves into a cheerful courtyard outside the main campus café, a parklike area dotted with picnic tables and a shade structure that resembles a giant game of pickup sticks. Many of them held up handmade signs: “Proud Iranian-American Googler,” “Even Introverts Are Here,” and of course, “Don’t Be Evil!” written in the same kindergarten colors as the Google logo.
AFTER A FEW rounds of call-and-response chanting and testimonials from individual staffers, someone adjusted the rally’s microphone for the next speaker’s tall, lanky frame. Sundar Pichai, Google’s soft-spoken CEO of 15 months, stood in the small clearing in the dense crowd that served as a makeshift stage. “Over the last 24 to 48 hours, we’ve all been working very hard,” he said, “and every step of the way I’ve felt the support of 60,000 people behind me.”
It was, to be precise, January 30; Donald Trump’s presidency was 10 days old. And Executive Order 13769—a federal travel ban on citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, and a wholesale suspension of US refugee admissions—had been in effect for 73 hours, trapping hundreds of travelers in limbo at the nation’s airports. For the moment, the company’s trademark admonition against evil was being directed at a clear, unmistakably external target: the White House.
To all the world it looked as if Google—one of the most powerful, pro-immigrant, and ostensibly progressive corporations in the United States—was taking a unified stand. But that appearance of unanimity masked a welter of executive-level indecision and anxiety. It probably would have been more apt if Pichai had said that, over the previous 48 hours, he had been backed into a corner by thousands of his employees.
In those first days of the Trump era, Google’s leaders were desperate to avoid confrontation with the new regime. The company’s history of close ties to the Obama administration left executives feeling especially vulnerable to the reactionary movement—incubated partly on Google’s own video platform, YouTube—that had memed, rallied, and voted Trump into office. (It didn’t help that Eric Schmidt, then executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, had been an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, or that some 90 percent of political donations by Google employees had gone to Democrats in 2016.) Kent Walker, Google’s risk-averse vice president of public policy, had been advising staffers not to do anything that might upset Steve Bannon or Breitbart. So when the travel ban was announced on the afternoon of Friday, January 27, Google executives initially hoped to “just keep [their] heads down and allow it to blow over,” according to an employee who was close to those early calculations.
But the tribal dictates of Google’s own workforce made lying low pretty much impossible. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the former Montessori kids who founded Google as Stanford grad students in the late ’90s, had designed their company’s famously open culture to facilitate free thinking. Employees were “obligated to dissent” if they saw something they disagreed with, and they were encouraged to “bring their whole selves” to work rather than check their politics and personal lives at the door. And the wild thing about Google was that so many employees complied. They weighed in on thousands of online mailing lists, including IndustryInfo, a mega forum with more than 30,000 members; Coffee Beans, a forum for discussing diversity; and Poly-Discuss, a list for polyamorous Googlers. They posted incessantly on an employee-only version of Google+ and on Memegen, an internal tool for creating and upvoting memes. On Thursdays, Google would host a company-wide meeting called TGIF, known for its no-holds-barred Q&As where employees could, and did, aggressively challenge executives.
All that oversharing and debate was made possible by another element of Google’s social contract. Like other corporations, Google enforces strict policies requiring employees to keep company business confidential. But for Google employees, nondisclosure wasn’t just a rule, it was a sacred bargain—one that earned them candor from leadership and a safe space to speak freely about their kinks, grievances, and disagreements on internal forums.
Finally, to a remarkable extent, Google’s workers really do take “Don’t Be Evil” to heart. C-suite meetings have been known to grind to a halt if someone asks, “Wait, is this evil?” To many employees, it’s axiomatic: Facebook is craven, Amazon is aggro, Apple is secretive, and Microsoft is staid, but Google genuinely wants to do good.
All of those precepts sent Google’s workforce into full tilt after the travel ban was announced. Memegen went flush with images bearing captions like “We stand with you” and “We are you.” Jewglers and HOLA, affinity groups for Jewish and Latinx employees, quickly pledged their support for Google’s Muslim group. According to The Wall Street Journal, members of one mailing list brainstormed whether there might be ways to “leverage” Google’s search results to surface ways of helping immigrants; some proposed that the company should intervene in searches for terms like “Islam,” “Muslim,” or “Iran” that were showing “Islamophobic, algorithmically biased results.” (Google says none of those ideas were taken up.) At around 2 pm that Saturday, an employee on a mailing list for Iranian Googlers floated the possibility of staging a walkout in Mountain View. “I wanted to check first whether anyone thinks this is a bad idea,” the employee wrote. Within 48 hours, a time had been locked down and an internal website set up.
Employees also spent the weekend protesting as private citizens, out in the open. At San Francisco International Airport, a handful of Google lawyers showed up to offer emergency representation to immigrants; many more staffers joined a demonstration outside the international terminal. But one Googler in particular made national newscasts. On Saturday night, without informing anyone at Google, Sergey Brin showed up at the airport to join the crowds. He offered no other comment to the press except to tell Forbes, “I’m here because I’m a refugee,” and to make clear that he was there in a personal capacity.