Google, one of the most powerful companies in the world, is being sued by one of its own employees for a number of "draconian" and allegedly "illegal" confidentiality policies – from stifling whistleblower complaints to running a secretive internal "spying programme."
The legal challenge, with the plaintiff identified only "John Doe", a California-based Google product manager who still works at the firm, slams the internet giant for violating nearly a dozen of California's labour laws. It alleges a number of internal policies are both "wrong and illegal."
Google said it plans to defend the suit "vigorously because it's baseless."
The lawsuit asserts that Google requires its 65,000-strong workforce to comply with "illegal confidentiality agreements, policies, guidelines, and practices." These include, Doe alleged, policies that "restrict Googlers' right to speak, right to work, and right to whistle-blow."
They range from the shocking to the bizarre.
One of the stranger accusations is that Google's communication policy states that any budding novelists working for the firm may have to give up that dream. Employees are reportedly restricted from "writing creative fiction" without permission.
"Google's employee communication policy prohibits employees from writing 'a novel about someone working at a tech company in Silicon Valley' unless Google gives prior approval to both the book idea and the final draft," the court filing, available in full here, reveals.
"In addition to requiring Googlers to keep all information about Google confidential, Google places additional onerous restrictions on Googlers' freedom to speak," it continues.
"Google's 'employee communication policy' states that if a Googler shares 'confidential information' outside the company, they may be terminated, held personally liable, or subject to prosecution."
"The policies prohibit Googlers from telling a potential employer how much money they make, or what work they performed, when searching for a different job," the suit states. "The policies prohibit Googlers from speaking to the government, attorneys, or the press about wrongdoing at Google.
The insider claims that failure to comply with confidentiality policies can lead to "draconian results."
Google is watching you
The suit said Google enforces "unlawful" policies through employee training, internal investigations, self-confessions, written and oral warnings, the threat of termination and litigation and even a secretive "spying program" called StopLeaks.
The filing describes a team called 'Global Investigations' – led by Brian Katz – which allegedly helps to enforce the "illegal confidentiality policies" by running the company-wide operation which aims to "deter employees from asking questions."
"The Stopleaks program is managed through an internal website that includes a Chrome extension to facilitate the reporting of alleged leaks on the internet" the filing revealed. Staffers are required to report all leaks to Stopleaks.
"In addition to leaks Google asks staffers to file "suspicious activity reports," about 'strange things you observe or strange things that happen to you – like someone asking you really detailed questions about your project or job'," it adds.
In response to the claims, a Google spokesperson told IBTimes UK: "We will defend this suit vigorously because it's baseless. We're very committed to an open internal culture, which means we frequently share with employee's details of product launches and confidential business information.
"Transparency is a huge part of our culture. Our employee confidentiality requirements are designed to protect proprietary business information, while not preventing employees from disclosing information about terms and conditions of employment, or workplace concerns."
Silence all whistleblowers
For a company built on the troves of personal information provided by its millions of users, it (unsurprisingly) treasures secrecy. In light of this, the suit alleges that Google engages in a "concerted effort to prevent both internal and external whistleblowing."
"Google restricts what Googlers say internally in order to conceal potentially illegal conduct," the court document reads. "It instructs employees in its training programs to do the following: 'Don't send an e-mail that says 'I think we broke the law' or 'I think we violated this contract.'"
The court document outlines a so-called "training programme" called 'You Said What?' that allegedly demands all Google staff must "avoid communications that conclude, or appear to conclude, that Google or Googlers are acting 'illegally' or 'negligently'".
In other words, it adds, staff are forbidden from speaking out about illegal conduct within the firm.
John Doe argues that both the California and United States constitutions were designed with freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of information in mind. Based on this, the insider said: "Sunlight remains the best disinfectant. Google must let the sun shine in."
"Google's motto is 'don't be evil.' Google's illegal confidentiality agreements, policies, and practices fail this test," the claim adds.