A series of damaging leaks have rocked Google, prompting an internal crackdown and threatening the open culture that has long been at the core of the company’s identity.
The town-hall like weekly meetings, in which Google’s top brass take questions from employees, have recently become subject to new restrictions that make it tougher for staffers to participate. And some insiders wonder whether Google could soon do away with the tradition altogether.
“If things are going to continue in this direction there’s probably going to have to be a change,” says one insider, referring to the recent disclosures of discussions at the all-hands meetings, known as TGIF meetings internally.
The issue came to a head on Wednesday, after a one-hour video of a 2016 TGIF meeting that took place after Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential elections, was leaked to the right-wing website Breitbart.
The leaks have not been reserved to conservative activists inside the company. Liberal-minded Googlers opposed to corporate policies such as Google’s ties to the military and its plans to re-enter China have also released company secrets about products and business plans.
The increasingly heated and contentious atmosphere within Google mirrors the highly politicized nature of the country. As on the political stage, behavior within Google that was once considered unthinkable is now occurring with increasing regularity.
For Google’s business, which is largely powered by its self-service advertising machine, the turmoil is unlikely to cause immediate problems. Whether the company’s Silicon Valley ethos, which many credit for fostering Google’s greatest successes, is equally resilient remains to be seen.
‘People who leak are hated’
Google cofounder Sergey Brin was furious after a leaker gave the world an open window into a TGIF meeting in August. As the meeting unfolded, Googlers were treated to the surreal spectacle of seeing the words spoken at the meeting republished on Twitter just seconds later.
Brin, who was on stage alongside Google CEO Sundar Pichai as the comments appeared on Twitter, could not conceal his discomposure.
“Sergey was pretty pissed off,” said the Google insider. “You could tell, he was certainly upset. The words and the tone.”
Many other Google staffers and managers were also outraged. According to sources who spoke with Business Insider, the real-time leaking of the meeting was “perceived as a disloyal act.”
Since then, the issue has become especially heated within Google. “People who leak are hated” internally, one source said. “There’s a reasonably open culture that many feel is being openly destroyed.”
The source said he overheard several colleagues discussing the “live leaking” incident afterwards. Even though some Google employees were sympathetic to the leaker ‘s motive — ostensibly to reveal details about Google’s plans to create a Chinese search app that complies with the country’s censorship rules — there was no sympathy for the leak.
“There’s a perception that if you leak you’re destroying communication,” the source said.
No more streaming on your laptops
As is the case at many Silicon Valley companies in addition to Google, the penalty for leaking product information or other company secrets can be as severe as firing. And Google has done so in the past.
But unlike leaks of the past, which generally involved peeks at gadgets or personnel moves, the current wave of leaks is aimed at core pillars of Google.
The reaction to the August TGIF incident was swift.
Google informed employees in a weekly email update that the TGIF meetings would no longer be available to be streamed on individual laptops. Instead, employees who were not at the main event at a cafe in Google’s Mountain View, Calif. campus, would need to show up at special designated locations within its satellite offices to watch a feed of the proceedings. Anyone working from home or wishing to tune in from their desk while working was now out of luck.
“I’ve been wondering if it’s temporary or permanent,” said the first Google insider. “All they said was just like, ‘Moving forward here’s the deal.'”
According to other insiders, a replay of the meetings will be made available to laptops after the fact. But insiders say that in the past the replays have been edited.
Whether Google abandons the TGIF tradition altogether is another question. But after the leak of the video to Breitbart, some employees wonder whether the old culture is still viable in the current political climate.
After the clip was made public, Trump’s campaign manager alleged that some of the statements made by Google leaders proved they are trying to brainwash their users into adopting the company’s politically liberal values.
The video actually showed nothing like that, but for a news cycle the leak sparked condemnation of Google by far-right pundits. That political operatives attacked Google is one thing. That they obtained ammunition for their attacks from someone who is likely a Google employee is a sign to many that the leaking has gone too far.
Google declined to comment on the situation.
On Thursday, however, a day after the Breitbart incident, Google’s leaders held their customary TGIF meeting. For this week at least, the tradition continues.