By Stefan M. Kløvning
In an exposé released on Thursday, the New York Times reported that Google had kept silent about allegations of sexual assault against Android creator Andy Rubin. Since he resigned in October 2014 the company has also handed him a $90 million exit package of $2.5 million a month over the first two years and $1.25 million a month the last two years, the last payment of which is scheduled for next month. The writers of the report criticized the move as they opined that Google “could have fired Mr. Rubin and paid him little to nothing on the way out.”
According to two Google executives knowledgeable about the incident, a woman Mr. Rubin had had an extramarital relationship with claimed that he had coerced her into performing oral sex in a hotel room in 2013. They said that Google had conducted an investigation into her claims and found them to be credible and that Mr. Rubin resigned soon after being notified about the allegations and the investigation. A spokesman for Rubin, Sam Singer, in contrast, disputed that Mr. Rubin had been told of any such misconduct allegation and that he had left the company of his own accord. Then-CEO Larry Page later said in a public statement that “I want to wish Andy all the best with what’s next. With Android he created something truly remarkable – with a billion-plus happy users.” In later years he has said that he felt Mr. Rubin was “never properly compensated for his contribution to Android,” despite the exit package and the fact that Google has invested millions of dollars in his next venture.
In a statement made after the publication of the NYT article, Mr. Rubin claimed that
The New York Times story contains numerous inaccuracies about my employment at Google and wild exaggerations about my compensation. Specifically, I never coerced a woman to have sex in a hotel room. These false allegations are part of a smear campaign by my ex-wife to disparage me during a divorce and custody battle.
However, the story also describes that security staff had found videos of bondage sex on Mr. Rubin’s computer and that he regularly berated his subordinates as stupid or incompetent, according to some of his former colleagues. Mr. Singer denied the allegations and further claimed that Mr. Rubin was “known to be transparent and forthcoming with his feedback,” and that he never called anyone incompetent. According to Mr. Rubin’s ex-wife Rie Rubin, he additionally had multiple “ownership relationships” with other women during their marriage, and that he paid them hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the divorce between Rie and Andy in August this year, a screenshot of an email from Mr. Rubin to a woman in August 2015 showed him writing that “You will be happy being taken care of. Being owned is kinda like you are my property, and I can loan you to other people.”
Google has also protected two other executives accused of sexual misconduct in the past decade. NYT writes that “In two instances, it ousted senior executives, but softened the blow by paying them millions of dollars as they departed, even though it had no legal obligation to do so. In a third, the executive remained in a highly compensated post at the company. Each time Google stayed silent about the accusations against the men.” They further claimed that in two of the instances Google mostly did so to protect their own interests by avoiding legal fights and to keep them from working for competitors.
Eileen Naughton, Google’s vice president for people’s operations, claimed, however, that the company reviews every complaint and takes harassment seriously. She further said that 48 people had been fired the past two years for sexual harassment and that none of them had received any compensation.
We investigate and take action, including termination. In recent years, we’ve taken a particularly hard line on inappropriate conduct by people in positions of authority. We’re working hard to keep improving how we handle this type of behavior.
Sundar Pichai, the current CEO of Google, further wrote that
We are committed to ensuring that Google is a workplace where you can feel safe to do your best work, and where there are serious consequences for anyone who behaves inappropriately.
Some Google employees, however, claim that the efforts of the company are insufficient. Liz Fong-Jones, a Google engineer for over ten years and an activist on workplace issues, asserted that “When Google covers up harassment and passes the trash, it contributes to an environment where people don’t feel safe reporting misconduct. They suspect that nothing will happen or, worse, that the men will be paid and the women will be pushed aside.”
The NYT writers went so far as to claim that Google has “fostered a permissive workplace culture from the start” of the company in 1998. To defend this claim, they argue that
- Co-founder Larry Page had dated one of the company’s first engineers;
- Former Google CEO Erich Schmidt “once retained a mistress to work as a company consultant”;
- Second co-founder Sergey Brin along with Mr. Page had a consensual extramarital affair with an employee in 2014; and
- General counsel since 2002 David Drummond had an extramarital relationship with a senior contract manager in the legal department, Jennifer Blakely.
The last couple started dating in 2004 and had a child in 2007 after Mr. Drummond had made the company aware of the relationship. According to Mrs. Blakely, the then-head of human resources Stacy Sullivan told her that the company discouraged managers from having relationships with subordinates. Blakely said that “One of us would have to leave the legal department. It was clear it would not be David.” Mr. Drummond has since become the chief legal officer of Google’s parent company Alphabet and a chairman of Google’s venture capital fund CapitalG, and has, according to company filings obtained by the NYT, “reaped about $190 million from stock options and awards since 2011 and could make more than $200 million on other options and equity awards.” Mrs. Blakely, in comparison, was transferred to sales in 2007 and left the company a year later. Mr. Drummond left her in late 2008 and they later had a custody battle for their son which Mrs. Blakely won. She claimed that how he was treated by the company “amplifies the message that for a select few, there are no consequences. Google felt like I was the liability.”
In another event, the director of Google X – the research and development branch – Richard DeVaul, had told hardware engineer Star Simpson during a job interview that he and his wife were “polyamorous” (referring to having an open marriage) and invited her to an annual festival the following week. Ms. Simpson claims to have brought “conservative clothes suitable for a professional meeting” to the festival where she thought she would have an opportunity to talk to him about the job. What happened instead, she said, was that Mr. DeVaul asked her to remove her shirt and had offered her a backrub. After refusing, she eventually relented as he instead insisted on a neck rub. “I didn’t have enough spine or backbone to shut that down as a 24-year-old,” she recalled. Google sent her a notice a few weeks later to inform her that she did not get the job, without explaining why. After waiting two years to report the incident to the company, a human resources official told her that her account was “more likely than not” true and that “appropriate action” was taken. Ms. Simpson claimed that the official told her to stay quiet about the complaint, which she did until DeVaul’s public figure inflated with articles in the NYT and the Atlantic. Head of human resources at Google X, Chelsea Bay, defended the department by claiming that “We would never tell a complainant to stay quiet,” and asserted that they had investigated and taken “appropriate corrective action”, without details as she cited employee confidentiality. Mr. DeVaul later said in a statement that he had made an “error in judgment” and that he should not have invited her to the festival as he had already decided that she would not get the job. According to the NYT, he also claimed to “not realize she had not been informed.”
Similar to the case with Mr. Rubin, senior vice president Amit Singhal also received millions of dollars as he resigned from the company after allegedly having groped an employee in 2015 at a boozy off-site event. Google found her claims credible though they during an investigation found that Mr. Singhal was inebriated and that there were no witnesses, but still didn’t decide to fire him. However, they accepted his resignation and paid him millions to keep him from working for their competitors. Singhal said in 2016 that he wanted to focus more on his family and on philanthropy. He became the head of engineering at Uber less than a year later but was dismissed when they obtained knowledge of the misconduct accusation he had failed to inform them about. Mr. Singhal still emphatically denies the allegation.
Discontent towards Google after the release of such exposés doesn’t seem to be significantly reflected in their stock value, but considering the reactions by the Progressive #MeToo movement to allegations against Harvey Weinstein and Brett Kavanaugh, it is highly possible that also Democrats will become less favorable to Google. Republicans have lately been skeptical to Google considering that their algorithms may potentially be programmed in a biased manner against conservatives as 94% of their 2016 election campaign donations went to Democrats. This concern is especially grounded in the already perceived bias of large social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Many have also been convinced by a misleading Breitbart article to believe that an internal Google report called “The Good Censor”, “advises tech companies to move away from the ‘American tradition’ of free speech if they wish to attract advertising revenue and continue global expansion,” while the report, meanwhile, actually warned that it was becoming a trend rather than advocating it to do so.
The bottom line, either way, appears to be that a certain common distrust against big tech firms may be forming across the political spectrum, though for bias among conservatives and for social injustices among progressives. The common distrust is especially reflected in an agreement in a recent debate at Politicon between progressive host of The Young Turks show Cenk Uyghur and Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson that tech firms has become too powerful, two popular figures who otherwise vehemently disagree on a number of topics.