Behind Google Worker Protests of an Israeli Government Cloud Deal

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Ariel Koren, a The Google employee who became a face of the workers’ protests against the company’s contract with the Israeli government announced her resignation yesterday. The Jewish marketing director says she faced retaliation from management and some colleagues for expressing pro-Palestinian views within the company. In October, he joined other Google and Amazon employees in public opposition to Project Nimbus, a $1.2 billion contract for Google and Amazon to provide cloud computing to Israel, including its defense ministry. He says Google then gave him an ultimatum: agree to move to Brazil within 17 days or lose his job.

Training documents leaked to the Intercept show Project Nimbus providing Israel with access to Google’s cloud AI services, such as facial and expression detection, video analytics and sentiment analysis. Koren and others were concerned about technology being weaponized against Palestinians living in the occupied territories and launched a campaign called No Tech for Apartheid. Despite previous worker protests over defense contracts, Google has recently expanded its defense business.

On Wednesday, Koren, along with other current and former Google employees and Palestinian rights activists, spoke outside one of the company’s offices in San Francisco to protest Project Nimbus. Google and Amazon workers plan to protest at the company’s offices in San Francisco, New York and Seattle next month.

Google did not respond to detailed questions, but spokeswoman Shannon Newberry wrote in a statement that the company investigated Koren’s claim and found no retaliation. The US National Labor Relations Board dismissed Koren’s case alleging retaliation. Newberry said Google’s cloud contract with Israel “is not aimed at highly sensitive or classified workloads.”

Koren spoke with WIRED about what it’s like to become an outspoken critic within Google, which has previously fired employees who have condemned the company’s business practices and AI projects. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

WIRED: When did you decide to organize with co-workers to pressure Google management?

Ariel Koren: Summer 2020. The Jewish employee resource group, Jewglers, of which I was a member, received an email from Google formally apologizing for donating to Black Lives Matter. The group’s leadership had complained that this was inherently anti-Semitic because the Movement for Black Lives coalition includes organizations that have expressed alignment with the Palestinian human rights movement.

We were outraged to see the company apologize for donating to the coalition that leads the fight against racism and anti-black violence in the US. We organized a letter from Jewish people in the company asking the leadership to retract its apology. Instead of acknowledging our letter, Google donated to groups that Jewglers’ leadership had chosen. For us, this was a weaponization of false narratives of anti-Semitism. At that point, we knew we had to take a stand.

How did this lead to protests over the Project Nimbus contract with the Israeli government?

Google has not provided any transparency to its shareholders, the general public, or its own workforce about what this contract entails. We found out through the media and talking to each other. The contract was announced in 2021, during [an outbreak of violence between Israel and Palestine]. It would be troubling to see an AI or surveillance contract of this size at any time, with any military. It added insult to injury that Google announced this in the middle of the siege in Gaza.

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