It would be easy to discount Monday’s firing of Google software engineer James Damore as a reasonable response to his authoring and circulating a 10-page critique — “Google’s ideological Echo Chamber” — of the company’s corporate culture and diversity programs.
In a nutshell, Damore argued that, thanks to biology and other factors, men and women are different, and those differences might have more to do with the lack of gender diversity in the software industry than gender discrimination.
He also offered some thoughtful ideas about how the multibillion-dollar company could more naturally encourage diversity — including diversity of thought — given the millions it has spent on diversity training and community outreach programs with less-than-impressive results.
While not without flaws, Damore’s analysis was clinical, well-sourced and fact-laden — something one might expect from a nerdy and slightly tone-deaf programmer.
But according to Google’s chief executive, the memo violated company policy, and termination is a reasonable expectation of at-will employment.
Damore’s defenders quickly anointed him a martyr of the free-speech movement, perhaps prematurely.
As UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh explained, employers are not bound by the First Amendment. “Speech on private property can generally be controlled by the private property owner,” he wrote.
So the issue of Damore’s termination isn’t so much a question of if his firing was allowable, but what it says about a company that literally has control over how millions — maybe billions — of people around the world access information and news and share ideas.
And that thought should give people pause every time they type “google” into their browser.
We know that Google and other tech companies collect data on our searches — why else would that banner ad for our favorite retailer keep popping up on the computer every time we open our email or search for a story?
And we have trusted that the algorithms Google uses don’t restrict access to certain perspectives or even nudge us in the direction of others.
Google’s response to Damore’s memo confirms the company’s internal aversion to viewpoints that differ with its own corporate groupthink.
But what about the viewpoints and perspectives of its users?
Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, employment attorney Daniel A. Schwartz distilled this conundrum into one perfect question for companies like Google: “Are you going to discipline employees for speaking their minds when you’ve created a platform that encourages it?”
The answer, it would seem, is a resounding yes.
Danielle Brown, the company’s new vice president of diversity, integrity and governance, not only denounced the memo in an email to employees but refused to link to it or refute its assertions other than to declare that “it’s not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes or encourages,” as if engaging Damore on his content would somehow validate it.
And if the company is unwilling to engage heterodox viewpoints — even reasonable and well-intended ones from employees — it’s a safe assumption that some of its corporate penchants and biases are infused into its users’ experiences.
Think about that the next time you get some surprising results to the search terms you enter.
Even more worrying is the possibility that Google might intentionally regulate content.
“Google could decide that its mission is not to provide us with access to information but to police our views to make sure they are politically correct,” warned Federalist writer Robert Tracinski.
This isn’t as hyperbolic as it sounds.
Indeed, for all Google’s talk about “building an open, inclusive environment” and “fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions,” Google has exhibited a repeated intolerance for, you guessed it, alternative views.
And for all Google’s talk about diversity and anti-discrimination, one wonders whether a potential employee’s ideological views might blacklist him or her from Google employment in the first place.
The Federalist’s editor, Ben Domenech, opines that even Pope Francis wouldn’t pass muster in Google’s HR department because the otherwise progressive leader of the Roman Catholic Church still holds orthodox views about marriage and sex.
Is it possible for Google to shield its users and reserve its intolerance of varied perspectives for employees only? Maybe.
Is it likely? No.
It may be time to find a more tolerant search engine.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.