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Google worker says the company is 'silencing our voices' after dozens are fired

Google has a contract with the Israeli government where it provides the country with cloud computing services. Not all Google employees are happy about that.
Alexander Koerner
Getty Images
Google has a contract with the Israeli government where it provides the country with cloud computing services. Not all Google employees are happy about that.

The first time Zelda Montes heard about Google's Project Nimbus was about six months ago, even though she worked at the company since 2022. The project is a $1.2 billion contract to supply Israel with cloud computing services.

As someone who's opposed to the war in Gaza, Montes says she was shocked. This comes at a time when tension over the Israeli conflict is simmering across the country.

"I think that speaks volumes to just how little people at work actually know about this contract," Montes says, who worked as a software engineer at YouTube, which is owned by Google.

Montes immediately joined a Google employee group called No Tech for Apartheid, which had been organizing around Project Nimbus since 2021. Their goal is for Google to drop its contract with the Israeli government. She says the group has raised its concerns with Google's leadership, spoke in company town halls and set up tables in Google's offices with fliers about Project Nimbus.

But, she says, "Google was quite literally silencing our voices in the workplace and not allowing for any kind of worker dissent to be expressed around the project."

So, on Tuesday, the group went one step further.

They staged sit-in protests in Google's offices in Silicon Valley, New York City and Seattle – more than 100 protestors showed up. A day later, Google fired Montes and 27 other employees who are part of the No Tech for Apartheid group.

This is one of the largest mass firings seen in the tech industry and comes as many Silicon Valley companies do work with Israel. Some employees say they aren't comfortable with that.

Workers at Amazon and Facebook parent Meta have also clashed with their employers over speaking out against the war. Last month Google fired another software engineer who protested at an Israel tech event.

A Google spokesperson told NPR in an email when asked about Tuesday's protestors, "physically impeding other employees' work and preventing them from accessing our facilities is a clear violation of our policies, and completely unacceptable behavior. After refusing multiple requests to leave the premises, law enforcement was engaged to remove them to ensure office safety."

Project Nimbus and cloud computing

Google, in partnership with Amazon, started contracting with the Israeli government on Project Nimbus in 2021. Last week, Time magazine obtained an internal company document that showed Israel's Ministry of Defense has contracted with Google as recently as last month.

The Google spokesperson said its cloud services support several governments around the world, including Israel. Project Nimbus is for government ministries, the spokesperson said, and "this work is not directed at highly sensitive, classified, or military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services."

The No Tech for Apartheid group says that without clarity on the project, it's still unclear how the technology is being used in Israel. They say they fear it could be used in the war in Gaza and be weaponized against Palestinian civilians.

"Workers have the right to know how their labor is being used, and to have a say in ensuring the technology they build is not used for harm," the group said in a statement.

Worker arrests and firings

Around noon on the day of the sit-in, Montes says she and other protestors at Google's New York office unfurled a 15-foot banner down an open staircase that read: "No tech for genocide." (Israel rejects claims of genocide, saying it's fighting in self-defense).

They sat around and played the card game Uno until they were approached by Google security. Montes says they were then told to leave or else they'd be arrested, but it wasn't until about eight hours later that the police arrived.

"It was a lot of weird energy because we kept thinking like, 'are they going to call the cops already?'" Montes says, recounting the day.

By the time the police showed up it was nighttime and most everyone was gone from the office. They handcuffed four protesters who refused to leave the building, including Montes, walked them to a freight elevator and down into the garage where a police van was waiting. The group spent about three and a half hours in jail.

In all, nine protestors were arrested in California and New York. It wasn't until the following evening that Google began to fire workers. Montes says she was placed on administrative leave at first, but then got an email saying she was terminated.

The email said she had "violated Google's code of conduct" and "policy on harassment, discrimination and retaliation" during the events on Tuesday.

Several of the Google employees who were fired didn't participate in the protests this week, according to No Tech for Apartheid. Google's spokesperson said the company has been investigating employees on an individual basis.

"We have so far concluded individual investigations that resulted in the termination of employment for 28 employees, and will continue to investigate and take action as needed," the spokesperson said.

Montes says the firings are a fear tactic that won't work. "Workers are agitated and we're organized," she says, and even though she's been fired "we'll keep organizing until this project is dropped."

Editor's note: Google and Amazon are among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.