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Google's (accidental?) assault on workplace Gmail

One of the principles underlying this newsletter is that email is good. Email is based on an open sta
January 24 · Issue #278 · View online
The Interface
One of the principles underlying this newsletter is that email is good. Email is based on an open standard, letting many interested parties build on top of it. It’s an asynchronous form of communication, letting you ignore messages until you’re ready to deal with them. And if you want to get a bunch of your coworkers together to bring down your employer, their names are already in your Gmail directory!
That last lesson proved particularly important last year to thousands of Googlers, who had grown frustrated with their bosses over defense contracts, expansion into China, sexual harassment, and various other labor issues. When their bosses failed them, Bloomberg reported today, Gmail remained at their side. And the Google Walkout was born:
Google’s employee email system played a pivotal role in the organizing for that protest, he said, with more than a thousand workers joining an email list used to plan it. Given that employees are spread around the globe and don’t have most co-workers’ personal emails, he said, company email is key to facilitating workers’ ability to mobilize. 
Google’s official public position on the Google Walkout is that it was the most beautiful coming together of cherished colleagues in the history of corporate America. “Even in difficult times, we are encouraged by the commitment of our colleagues to create a better workplace,” CEO Sundar Pichai said at the time. “That’s come through very strongly over the past few weeks.”
At the same time, however — in a weird little case that was skillfully unearthed Thursday by Bloomberg reporters Josh Eidelson, Hassan Kanu, and Mark Bergen — the company was working to take away labor protections from anyone who wanted to email 20,000 colleagues about the next walkout.
The details of the case are intricate, and the Bloomberg story is worth reading in full. The gist is that an unnamed Googler received an undisclosed punishment after posting conservative views on Google+. (I have a notes file called “Times Google Accidentally Owned Itself By Building Google+,” to which this story makes a fine addition.)
Afterward he filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. In defending itself against the complaint, Google’s lawyers said various sensible things about wanting to create a diverse and inclusive workplace, and that oh also by the way the board should invalidate an old case known as “the Purple Communications standard,” which protects employees’ right to start petitions and organize themselves via workplace email.
Bloomberg tells us the rest:
Google has denied the NLRB’s allegations of wrongdoing. In a filing responding to the NLRB, it says the employee it disciplined had committed misconduct which “interfered with Google’s lawful interest in maintaining an inclusive workplace for women and minorities that is free of unlawful bias, discrimination, and harassment.” Google also wrote that the NLRB should reverse some of the legal precedents being used against it, including the Purple Communications standard. It is not uncommon for companies to challenge legal precedents being used in cases against them.
The protection established in Purple Communications is “pretty fundamental” given the centrality of email to modern workplace communications, said Wilma Liebman, who chaired the NLRB during Obama’s first term. Given Google’s rhetoric about “the free exchange of ideas, and itself as a purveyor of mechanisms for communications,” she said, “That’s an irony that Google, of all companies, would take such a narrow position.”
At The Verge, Russell Brandom talks to labor activist Yana Calou, who works with organizers at, about the case. “Google is weaponizing this internal harassment to limit workers rights,” Calou says:
Labor groups are worried that Google’s strategy for short-term victory could post a longer-term threat to organizers. Google won the Damore case without overturning any broader precedents, and organizers say it shouldn’t be necessary here either. “The Damore case established that talking about working conditions doesn’t give you the right to question your coworkers for immutable characteristics like race or gender,” Calou says. “They’re separate issues and the fact that Google would use that as a foil is really sad.” 
Of course, when it comes to mounting defenses of their clients, lawyers are not exactly known in their restraint. This is essentially Google’s excuse — as a spokeswoman told Bloomberg, the whole never-email-your-colleagues-to-complain-about-us thing was simply "a legal defense that we included as one of many possible defenses.” Infinite lawyers, typing on infinite typewriters, generating infinite defenses!
It’s unclear to me whether, knowing what they know now, Google lawyers will remove this particular defense from their quiver. Labor relations inside tech companies across the country are changing rapidly, and it can be difficult for associates to stay on top of management’s latest position. To work in harmony, the lawyers must coordinate. They must communicate.
They must email.

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And finally ...
‘The Other Two’ and the Reality of Internet-Famous Relatives
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