How to Deal With a Corporate Bully
Last week the New York Times reported on how Sonos, an American consumer products company, is being “squeezed” by tech giant Google:
In 2013, Sonos scored a coup when Google agreed to design its music service to work easily with Sonos’s home speakers. For the project, Sonos handed over the effective blueprints to its speakers.
It felt like a harmless move, Sonos executives said. Google was an internet company and didn’t make speakers.
The executives now say they were naïve.
On Tuesday, Sonos sued Google in two federal court systems, seeking financial damages and a ban on the sale of Google’s speakers, smartphones and laptops in the United States. Sonos accused Google of infringing on five of its patents, including technology that lets wireless speakers connect and synchronize with one another.
Is it fair to say that Google — in both its public treatment of intellectual property (not its own) and private treatment of its employees — has become a corporate bully?
Over the last few years, Google’s culture of abusive behavior has become increasingly toxic. With more and more people coming forward to share their stories about how they have been mistreated by the tech behemoth, Americans are beginning to realize that the so-called “Best Company to Work For” may not be so great after all. Google, it would seem, has a culture of abuse.
Just last month, another recent exposé revealed just how dangerous Google’s culture has become.
On December 16, 2019, The Verge released an investigative report examining Google’s approach to content moderation, and its findings were disturbing. Google maintains a veritable army of moderators — employees who are responsible for ensuring that all the content across the company’s platforms is above board. They serve as the business’ enforcement arm, ferreting out and removing videos on the “dark side” of YouTube: the violence, the porn, the child exploitation. But just like many individuals who work in law enforcement, Google’s moderators are underpaid, understaffed, and at risk.
According to the report, content moderators are required to view five hours of grisly content per day, flagging inappropriate videos for removal from the platform. Often, that equates to hours of mandated exposure to disturbing content — terrorist executions, sexual violence, and the like. Undoubtedly, the work takes a massive toll on the moderators’ mental health.
After only half a year, moderators have reported increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, while others have even begun to develop symptoms of PTSD. Worse, these individuals are frequently subject to troubling working conditions. Often, immigrants are hired for their multi-lingual capabilities, and content moderation teams are consistently understaffed. As a result, they are forced to work hours, without breaks, under the looming threat of replacement. What are they compensated for this grueling work? Only about $37,000 per year.
Clearly, this work culture is seriously concerning — potentially bordering on abusive. And, unfortunately for Google, this isn’t the first time that people have spoken out about the company’s poor behavior. In September 2019, 45 employees reported their various experiences of harassment, discrimination, and abuse to Google. But rather than have their grievances addressed, these same individuals purportedly faced retaliation for their decision to come forward. They were removed from projects and alienated from their coworkers, all for having the audacity to challenge what they considered to be workplace abuse.
Google’s questionable behavior also hits those with opposing points of view. As former Google employee James Damore claimed, Google has a nasty habit of punishing those that dare express a modicum of dissension. Damore himself was unceremoniously fired in 2017 after releasing an internal memo that criticized Google’s tactics for hiring women in tech. The former Google engineer has filed a lawsuit against the tech company, seeking recompense for its unjust actions against him. He’s not alone in that fight, either. Numerous other individuals and companies have sued Google for its abusive business practices and its apparent lack of respect for private property.
Even now, the Supreme Court is scheduled to review a massive civil lawsuit against the company—Google v. Oracle. In that case, Google copied a large portion of Oracle’s Java software. Ignoring Oracle’s copyright claim over Java, Google allegedly stole thousands of lines of code from the program. The search engine company knowingly replicated precise versions of Oracle’s software, but only after initial licensing negotiations between the companies broke down. The case is yet another instance of Google’s abusive behavior — only this time it’s copyright abuse.
Soon, the highest court in the land will decide whether Google’s actions did indeed constitute theft — as the lower courts ruled — or merely an expression of fair use. The case carries substantial repercussions; if the Supreme Court rules for Google, it will justify the company’s presumptive misuse of power. But more than that, it will incentive Google to act in a similar abusive fashion with future business partners.
Indeed, Google’s ongoing court cases, their chronic mishandling of dissent, and their toxic working conditions are all massive red flags. The company has shown a consistent disregard for its employees, opposing points of view, and even the intellectual property of others. Together, these instances suggest a troubling trend within Google — a culture of abuse. And the problem is only getting worse. Google must take decisive action to reverse course because much more is at stake here than merely the company’s reputation.
As Sonos’s CEO, Patrick Spence, told the New York Times, “Google has been blatantly and knowingly copying our patented technology. Despite our repeated and extensive efforts over the last few years, Google has not shown any willingness to work with us on a mutually beneficial solution. We’re left with no choice but to litigate.”
As my Dad taught me as a young boy, the only way to stop a bully is to push back. We’ll see what happens next month at the Supreme Court in Google v. Oracle if my father’s sage advise for a boy works with a corporate bully.
Jerry Rogers is the founder of Capitol Allies and the host of “The Jerry Rogers Show” on WBAL NewsRadio. Twitter: @CapitolAllies.