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Former Google human rights chief says he was ‘sidelined’ over censored Chinese search engine

A former high-level Google executive says he was pushed out after promoting human rights at the company, as leadership pushed plans for a censored Chinese search engine.

Ross LaJeunesse says company executives were dead set on entering China with some kind of censored search engine, despite comments from Google saying the project was always an experiment. “They are determined to do this,” he says he realized as executives made decisions about the project without him and other colleagues. “They don’t want to hear what I had to say.”

LaJeunesse spent 11 years at Google and served as its head of international relations, making him likely the highest-ranking former executive to dissent from the company. In his role, he oversaw human rights issues during a period of massive growth and controversy, much of it centering on Google’s work on “Project Dragonfly,” a censored Chinese search engine.

While Google stopped offering its search product in China in 2010 amid censorship concerns, LaJeunesse says other executives at the company continued to press to enter the market. In 2017, LaJeunesse writes in a blog post released today, he learned about Project Dragonfly. He says he was immediately alarmed, both by the product and by the company’s failure to keep him involved.

As Google pushed for deals in authoritarian Saudi Arabia and launched the Google Center for Artificial Intelligence in Beijing, LaJeunesse says, he pushed for a company-wide human rights program that would bring new oversight to product launches. But Google rebuffed the idea, and eventually brought in a colleague to oversee policy issues related to Dragonfly.

“Just when Google needed to double down on a commitment to human rights,” LaJeunesse writes in the blog post, “it decided to instead chase bigger profits and an even higher stock price.”

The issues extended to the broader culture within the company as well, according to LaJeunesse. He says, at one point, during an all-hands meeting, his boss at the company suggested Asian employees “don’t like to ask questions.”

During a company “diversity exercise,” he says employees were asked to sort themselves by identity and were asked to write down stereotypes. He says he kept an “internal narrative” about Google’s commitment to diversity and thought the idea was “a little edgy” but that the company would act responsibly.

Instead, he joined a group of “homos” and had stereotypes shouted at him. He stopped the exercise in his room and spoke to other employees who were upset. After he complained to HR, he says he was accidentally copied on a human resources email that chided him for bringing up the issues and suggested HR “do some digging” on him.

“Their response to that was I’m the problem,” he says. “I still kind of can’t believe it myself.”

Eventually, LaJeunesse says he was reassigned and was offered what he saw as a demotion. He says he was “re-orged out of a job” and left the company in April, and he has since launched a campaign for the US Senate representing Maine. “I came back and realized that things have not gotten better since I was a kid,” he says. “It’s actually worse for working families.”

In a statement, a Google spokesperson said the company has an “unwavering commitment” to human rights and that LaJeunesse was reassigned as part of a reorganization that affected many others. “As part of this reorganization, Ross was offered a new position at the exact same level and compensation, which he declined to accept,” the spokesperson said. “We wish Ross all the best with his political ambitions.”

LaJeunesse’s statement follows another year of tumult at Google, where several employees involved in internal advocacy at the company have alleged that they were terminated for their activism. Last month, a total of five Google employees said they were fired for rallying colleagues around issues like protesting Project Dragonfly, and they have filed formal labor charges against the company.

Apart from the firings, Google leadership has shown other signs of weariness over the internal battles. In one notable example, the company said it would scale back its all-hands TGIF meetings to focus directly on business issues. But LaJeunesse’s stance against the company’s policies may raise the stakes even higher.

“I was one of the few old-timers around who remembered what Google used to be,” he says. “The company changed around me.”

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