Former Google Exec Says He Was Forced Out after Trying to Launch Human-Rights Program

(Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

Google’s first head of policy in Asia and a key player in the firm’s 2010 decision to withdraw its search engine from China says he was forced out of the company for pursuing an official company commitment to human rights.

Ross LaJeunesse, who is now running for Maine Senator Susan Collin’s seat, told The Washington Post in an interview that he “didn’t change. Google changed,” causing him to leave his role as global head of international relations in April.

“Don’t be evil” used to top the company’s mission statement. “Now when I think about ‘Don’t be evil,’ it’s been relegated to a footnote in the company’s statements,” he said.

According to emails and documents reviewed by the Post, Kent Walker, Google’s top lawyer and LaJeunesse’s mentor, “raised the concern that a formal commitment to human rights could increase Google’s liability” after LaJeunesse began to advocate for a formal human-rights program. LaJeunesse alleges that Walker’s opposition was based on concerns that an official human rights program might jeopardize Google’s business in oppressive foreign countries, where its operation is contingent on state cooperation.

“I was very conscious that we could use that narrative internally to guide conversations and get into conversations we needed to get into, like decision-making about Dragonfly,” LaJeunesse said. “We could say, ‘Hey, we committed to doing this. We better do it. If we don’t do it, we’re really going to be raked over the coals.’”

But his efforts drew resistance from Walker, despite their previous relationship and work in helping Google extract itself from China in 2010 after hackers targeted the accounts of Chinese human-rights activists.

“Addressing each of these issues on its merits is likely to feel more grounded and authentic and fit better with Sundar’s product focus,” Walker wrote in an June 2017 email, referencing Google’s CEO to several other executives.

LaJeunesse said his efforts quickly got “bogged down” by “one series of excuses after the other,” and was told in February that his role was being eliminated in a “reorganization of our policy team,” according to a Google statement.

“We have an unwavering commitment to supporting human rights organizations and efforts,” Google spokeswoman Jenn Kaiser told the Post. She added that “Ross was offered a new position at the exact same level and compensation, which he declined to accept.”

But LaJeunesse disagrees.

“Just when we needed a human rights lens for all of our activities, we went in the opposite direction,” he said.

LaJeunesse, who did not sign a non-disclosure agreement when he left in the company, also cited toxic examples of Google’s corporate culture in a Medium post published Thursday.

“The entire policy team was separated into various rooms and told to participate in a ‘diversity exercise’ that placed me in a group labeled ‘homos’ while participants shouted out stereotypes such as ‘effeminate’ and ‘promiscuous.’ Colleagues of color were forced to join groups called ‘Asians’ and ‘Brown people’ in other rooms nearby,” he wrote.

LaJeunesse said that there was no follow up when he brought concerns to HR, despite assurances the problems would be solved.

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