Business

HIAWATHA BRAY | TECH LAB

When Google silences dissent, it bodes poorly for the rest of us

Google has been in the spotlight this week because of James Damore, the Google employee whose notorious internal memo, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” was leaked to the press.
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press/file
Google has been in the spotlight this week because of James Damore, the Google employee whose notorious internal memo, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” was leaked to the press.

Well, now we know what you’re not allowed to say if you work at Google. Next question: What are the rest of us allowed to say on the Internet?

When one of the planet’s most powerful information providers stifles dissent, I find myself wondering: How long before it’s our turn?

By now, we’ve all heard of James Damore, the Google employee whose notorious internal memo, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” was leaked to the press last week.

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Damore argued that fundamental biological differences go a long way toward explaining why Google has a lot more male engineers than females. For this reason, Damore argued, Google’s current policies for achieving gender equality are destined to fail, and he suggested a number of alternative strategies.

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Whatever the merits of Damore’s argument, I’m struck by the fact that hundreds of the hypersmart, highly intelligent people who’ve made Google such a marvel can’t bear to be in the same building with somebody who thinks this way. These are the same people who write the code that’s supposed to generate accurate, unbiased Internet searches for billions of people. After the firing of Damore, how can we trust them to be honest brokers of information when they won’t tolerate dissent in their own ranks?

James Damore.

Google just ran face-first into a credibility problem that’s particular to today’s Internet titans. Last year, a whistle-blower at Facebook accused the company of deliberately tinkering with the news stories that appeared in its Trending Topics list, in order to suppress stories from politically conservative sources.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg denied the charge, but the allegation played into a perception that Facebook employees had a cultural bias that affected the information its customers received. Facebook has since replaced human editors with computers to generate news lists.

Twitter has also taken fire for policies aimed at stamping out bigoted and hateful messages. Many conservative users have complained bitterly about being temporarily or permanently banned.

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All three companies are steeped in the progressive culture of Silicon Valley, not that there’s anything wrong with that. But they are among the world’s most critically important information gatekeepers. They’ve supplanted old-school sources like newspapers, which had cultivated a deep if imperfectly enforced tradition of balance and fairness. But the firing of Damore mocks this tradition, which is rooted in the recognition that none of us has full possession of the truth. The Googlers know better; they already know the truth, so losers like Damore have nothing to offer.

But in firing him, Google has decisively confirmed one of the key claims Damore made in his manifesto: “ . . . when it comes to diversity and inclusion, Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence.”

Yes, Pichai said that some of Damore’s arguments are worthy of debate. But the sight of Damore’s empty desk might have a chilling effect on any subsequent discussion.

The lesson is clear: To get along at Google, you must go along. Either embrace the company’s progressive principles in every significant detail, or shut up. It’s a corporate culture that may work out in the short run, but it threatens to stifle the spirit of daring and creativity that built Google into a great company.

I also wonder whether Google will impose its monoculture on the rest of us. Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., is arguably the world’s most powerful monopoly, a $90 billion-a-year behemoth that is a primary information source for billions of people. Its various services, including Google search and news and the YouTube video service, are governed by software algorithms created by the same people who can’t imagine working alongside someone like James Damore. How long before their personal opinions are reflected in the code they write?

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Last year, YouTube slapped restrictions on videos published by the right-wing organization Prager University, to prevent them from being viewed by children and other sensitive viewers. The videos contained no violence, nudity, or cuss words, just mini-lectures by people like former Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz and former Harvard Kennedy School fellow Ayaan Hirsi Ali, many of which are on touchy issues such as Israel and Islam. But a parent who has set her YouTube account to “restricted mode” to protect her kids from sex and violence will also keep them from seeing these inoffensive but opinionated videos.

Why? A YouTube spokesman told me its algorithms to screen for strong language and content inappropriate for children had flagged the Prager videos. He said political bias had nothing to do with it.

Perhaps not, but how can we be sure? Perhaps a whistle-blower will clue us in, but once Google has finished purging its dissenters, there may not be any left.

In my view, Google had every right to terminate Damore. By doing so, the company sent a message that it cares about the hurt feelings of its workers more than it cares about the free exchange of ideas. Perhaps that’s good news for Googlers, but it’s a bad omen for the rest of us.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.