For years, Google tasked Ross LaJeunesse with executing its plan to protect human rights in China, after Google announced a decade ago it would stop censoring search results there to safeguard security and free speech.
LaJeunesse took the mission to heart: He later devised a human rights program to formalize Google’s principles supporting free expression and privacy. He began lobbying for it internally in 2017 – around the time when the tech giant was exploring a return to China, in a stark reversal of its 2010 move that made its search engine unavailable there.
Now, LaJeunesse is alleging that Google pushed him out for it in April.
“I didn’t change. Google changed,” LaJeunesse, who was Google’s global head of international relations in Washington, D.C., told The Washington Post. “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.”
Within Google, China was seen as a booming market that represented concerns about the ways technology could be used to suppress free expression or enable surveillance. LaJeunesse modeled his human rights program on the way Google approached privacy and security issues, designing the team of employees, in functions like supply chain, policy, and ethics and compliance, to help Google integrate, coordinate and prioritize human rights risk assessment.
But his mentor Kent Walker, Google’s powerful chief lawyer and head of policy, bristled at the idea, according to interviews with LaJeunesse and emails and documents viewed by The Post. Walker raised the concern that a formal commitment to human rights could increase Google’s liability, LaJeunesse said.
“We have an unwavering commitment to supporting human rights organizations and efforts,” said Google spokeswoman Jenn Kaiser, who said LaJeunesse’s departure was due to a “reorganization of our policy team.” Walker declined to comment.
Google’s shifting moral calculus around China illustrates the tech giant’s transformation from an organization that portrayed itself as an exception to corporate norms into one driven by business imperatives and market opportunities. “Google is not a conventional company,” its co-founders wrote in 2004. When Google announced the suspension of its search engine in China, it cast the move as being driven by ethical concerns. “We don’t want to run a service that’s politically censored,” co-founder Sergey Brin said onstage at TED in 2010.
Eight years later, Google confirmed it was working on Project Dragonfly, a secretive plan to launch a censored search app in China, which would have blacklisted terms like “student protest” and link a user’s searches to their phone number, according to the Intercept. “It’s a wonderful, innovative market. We wanted to learn what it would look like if we were in China, so that’s what we built internally,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said about Dragonfly at a Wired magazine conference in 2018. “Given how important the market is and how many users there are – we feel obliged to think hard about this problem and take a longer-term view.”
“It’s not enough to just say we believe in human rights,” said David Kaye, United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, who interacted with LaJeunesse in human rights circles. “It’s extremely important for people like Ross, who are making arguments for human rights inside the company, to have the support of the company itself – from the senior leadership on down.”
The 11 years that LaJeunesse spent at Google mirrors a period of change at the Silicon Valley giant. After news of Project Dragonfly leaked, more than 1,400 employees signed an internal letter criticizing Google’s failure to be transparent about its plans in China, part of a recent trend of tech workers taking their employers to task for business and labor practices. Months earlier, employees petitioned executives to protest Project Maven, a deal with the Pentagon to provide computer vision for drones, which it later decided not to renew.
But LaJeunesse is one of the most senior former executives to break ranks after he says he was sidelined with the offer of a much smaller role amid the reorganization of the policy team. He said he received a 98% approval rating as a manager in his most recent review and had been a member of Google’s uber-selective Foundation program for top talent since 2012. LaJeunesse, who is openly gay and was a member of the Google policy team’s Diversity & Inclusion Council, believes he was also targeted for his internal advocacy work on diversity.
Google said the reorganization was unrelated to individual performance and that LaJeunesse’s old role did not fit into the new structure, which divided policy into regional teams and particular products.
Rather than accept what he saw as a demotion, especially when his days at Google seemed to be numbered, LaJeunesse left the company without signing a nondisclosure agreement, in order to speak freely about what he sees as Google’s abuse of corporate power. In November, LaJeunesse launched a campaign to run for Senate as a Democrat challenging Susan Collins in Maine, where he was born and raised, a return to his political roots.
“Ross was offered a new position at the exact same level and compensation, which he declined to accept,” said Google’s Kaiser. “We wish Ross all the best with his political ambitions.”
Workers at major tech companies including Google, Amazon and Microsoft have increasingly raised ethical concerns as the products they helped develop have been put to use in controversial military applications or as a surveillance tool for law enforcement and repressive regimes. Some of Google’s internal critics say the company has gone to great lengths to silence them. Several activist Google workers claim they were unfairly terminated recently because Google wanted to extinguish their dissent.
Brett Solomon of Access Now, an international group advocating for an open and free internet, publicly called on Google, Facebook and Twitter to prioritize human rights during an event at the U.N. headquarters in January 2019. He said it’s alarming to hear tech companies invoke ethics as a way to govern artificial intelligence and other technology.
“Ethics are subjective and it depends upon the company,” said Solomon. Decisions made by tech companies on human rights “have real implications for marginalized populations – the Uighurs in China, the protesters in Hong Kong, the democracy advocates in Iran,” he said.
Over the past year, particularly after the United Nations rebuked Facebook for its role in spreading ethnic hatred of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, there has been more openness to the idea that a human rights framework can help navigate problems posed by Big Tech. Both Twitter and Facebook have hired human rights directors. Facebook told The Post the director was hired six months ago and will be announced in January. Google’s Kaiser said it does not have an equivalent role and instead relies on cross-functional cooperation between teams.
When Google launched its localized search engine in China in 2006, the company justified censoring results by arguing that Google’s presence in search could make China more open because it indicated when information had been blocked, unlike competitors in the Chinese market Baidu and Yahoo. Google complied with the Chinese government’s increasing demands for more takedowns for nearly four years, until the company at the end of 2009 discovered a sophisticated cyberattack, originating in China, to steal Google’s code and access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
Google dispatched LaJeunesse to Hong Kong in January 2010, as Google’s first head of policy in Asia. He negotiated directly with the Chinese government, traveling to Beijing every week for months.
Tensions were running hot. During a phone call with Walker and David Drummond, now the top lawyer for Google parent company Alphabet, LaJeunesse said he stressed his concern about the safety of employees in China. Drummond heatedly replied that he did not need to be reminded to consider the fate of Chinese employees, according to LaJeunesse. That evening, Walker called LaJeunesse to give him a pep talk and assure him that he was doing the right thing, LaJeunesse said, recalling it as one of the most compassionate acts he experienced at Google. Drummond did not respond to requests for comment.
LaJeunesse “was basically the guy that [Google leadership] depended on for two and a half years of the most fraught relationship the company has ever had,” said William Fitzgerald, who handled communications for Google Cloud AI and worked for LaJeunesse in Hong Kong. Fitzgerald left Google in 2018 and launched the Worker Agency, a campaign advisory firm in San Francisco.
Within a year, however, LaJeunesse said he was approached by the Maps team about launching in China. New plans to reenter the market, which seemed to be introduced every year, were largely driven by fears around losing control of Android, Google’s open-source mobile operating system. Without agreeing to China’s demands for censorship and access to user data, Google could not launch an app store or operate an official version of Android with demands that Chinese phone manufacturers give apps like Google Search space on the home screen. As Google’s go-to policy guy for China, LaJeunesse interceded when proposals raised concerns, such as Project Sidewinder, an app store for Android phones in China.
But for Google, the debate around China was also existential. The Chinese market represents not just Google’s best chance at another billion users, but also the future of innovation, talent and artificial intelligence. In December 2017, Google launched an academic AI Center in Beijing, which alarmed LaJeunesse because he knew from experience that in China there was no distinction between the government, industry and academia.
LaJeunesse said he had heard about Project Dragonfly before Google had even given it a code name. But in 2017, he says, he was alarmed to notice Google moving forward with its plans, even after he warned that the Chinese government would expect access to user data. Around the same time, Google’s cloud-computing division was barreling ahead with Project Maven, its plans to provide computer vision technology to the Pentagon for use in drones, and pursuing potential deals to provide cloud computing to the Saudi government, LaJeunesse said.
LaJeunesse says he became convinced that Google needed to adopt a formal human rights program because he could no longer be certain that he or his deputies would be in the room or that their advice would be heeded, he told The Post. LaJeunesse said he saw Google expanding so quickly and with such zeal into dangerous new ventures and countries with weak rule of law, just as its co-founders seemed more removed and new decision-makers were at the helm. Google says it conducts human rights impact assessments across its products and services.
At first, his vision for a human rights program was grand. While LaJeunesse was still in Asia, he had seen Google overhaul privacy policies after a scandal around Google Street View collecting WiFi data, including training employees in privacy principles and elevating a director of privacy.
In his initial pitch to Walker in June 2017, LaJeunesse mentioned that companies like Yahoo put a program in place only after a human rights disaster. Here, Google had a chance to lead and even tout all the human rights work it was already doing, such as Google’s role as a founding member of Global Network Initiative, a consortium of companies, nonprofits and academics that does human rights spot-checks and publishes an annual report.
“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,” said LaJeunesse. “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 after seeing Walker’s face when he first floated the idea, LaJeunesse said he decided to dial it back to a “narrative” around human rights. LaJeunesse kept the vital part of his grand plan: asking Google to publicize its commitment to established legal standards.
Over the next two years, LaJeunesse says, Walker continually raised new reservations or questions, without ever vetoing the project. In response to LaJeunesse’s first official memo, Walker said it would be better to have product teams deal with human rights. “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 email to several executives in June 2017, referring to Google’s CEO.
“It’s like quicksand. You get bogged down in this lack of confrontation, lack of clarity,” said LaJeunesse.
As Google faced PR crises over Maven and Dragonfly, LaJeunesse tried reframing the proposal in ways he thought would be palatable to Google’s higher-ups. He sent his deputies to meetings about the formation of an AI ethics council instead of going himself, hoping Google might be more open if the advice was not coming from him.
Google said its decision-making is guided by a set of AI principles, launched in June 2018, which say that Google will not design or deploy AI in technologies whose purpose contravenes “widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.”
“I was always very constructive. I’m not a flamethrower. I really believe that you get things done by working with people,” LaJeunesse said. “But it was one series of excuses after the other,” down to even which of Google’s corporate blogs its statement should appear on.
In February, LaJeunesse was informed his role would be eliminated as part of a reorganization of Google’s D.C. office, which included shifting the focus of two of his team members working on human rights. Google offered him the position of foreign policy institutions leader, which sounded to LaJeunesse like a glorified lobbyist position. Before the D.C. office overhaul, LaJeunesse had a 23-person team that worked on issues from election safety in Latin America to fighting Russia and China over the future of the internet to developing relationships with many of the civil society organizations railing against Google.
Three months after LaJeunesse’s departure, at a Senate hearing on Google and censorship through search engines, the company testified that Dragonfly had been “terminated.” But Google did not rule out plans to relaunch search in China.
“Just when we needed a human rights lens for all of our activities,” LaJeunesse said, “we went in the opposite direction.”