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Protesting 'Project Nimbus': What Rights Do Google Employees Have?

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Protesters holding signs.
Demonstrators gather outside Google offices in downtown San Francisco on Dec. 14, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

At a protest outside Google offices in San Francisco last month, protesters called for Google to cancel a seven-year, $1.2 billion contract with Amazon and the Israeli government and military called “Project Nimbus.”

At the time, a Google spokesperson stated the Nimbus contract is “not directed at highly sensitive or classified military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services.” When asked in November about it in an interview with Bloomberg, CEO Sundar Pichai said, “Project Nimbus was an RFP [request for proposal] from Israel’s Ministry of Finance,” although the Israeli agency itself describes the project as “led by the Accountant General of the Ministry of Finance through the Government Procurement Administration together with the Israel National Digital Agency, the Israel National Cyber Directorate, the Ministry of Defense, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and other partners in the government.”


“I view us as a partner to like-minded governments that share democratic values around the world,” Pichai said. “Be it skilling and educating their workforce, be it bringing more access to knowledge and information, and helping them build out their digital infrastructure, including AI. I think that’s the role. We don’t see it in a geopolitical context.”

Google also told KQED that the people organizing to kill Project Nimbus “largely don’t work at Google.” Most of the protesters that evening in December were not Google employees, but a few were, like software engineer Valerie Kuan.

“These are not projects that I’ve personally worked on, but this is an issue that affects all Google workers. Because Google is looking to exploit all of their workers’ labor to profit off of war and profit off of Israeli genocide against the Palestinian people,” Kuan said.

She’s not alone. The campaign No Tech For Apartheid, which organized the December protest, boasts on its website that more than 1,100 Google and Amazon workers have signed its petition demanding both companies stop doing business with Israel.

In an email to KQED Wednesday, a spokesperson for Amazon said “We respect our employees’ rights to express themselves without fear of retaliation, intimidation, or harassment.”

Are Googlers speaking out on record against their employer at risk of losing their jobs? “It’s especially complicated in California because there is a wide range of laws that might apply,” said Catherine Fisk, a professor of labor and employment law at UC Berkeley.

Fisk added most companies read the California Labor Code as giving employees the right to be free from retaliation for their political activities and affiliations. “Saying, ‘American tech companies should not be contracting with the Israeli government.’ That is almost certainly protected by statute in California for private sector employees and by statute, and by the Constitution, for government employees. Because they’re not speaking as employees. They’re speaking as citizens. They’re speaking on a matter of public concern,” Fisk said.

That said, she noted there are not a lot of legal decisions parsing the language, and “the decisions are somewhat mixed.”


“If the boss is taking a strong political position, that may not constitute the kind of targeted harassment that would be actionable,” Fisk said, even if the political position is deeply offensive — and employees who feel offended are afraid to voice their disagreement or distress, lest they be fired or demoted.

In a similar vein, “You don’t have a right, unless you’ve negotiated a contract to give you that right, to go to work for Google and then decide that you won’t do certain kinds of work,” Fisk said. “Google might decide, for the sake of attracting top talent, that they will allow workers to refuse to work on projects that are inconsistent with their values, but that’s a contractual arrangement. That’s company policy. It’s not mandated by law.”

What about criticizing a company’s line of business? 

A Google spokesperson wrote KQED, “We prohibit retaliation in the workplace and publicly share our very clear policy.” Since Project Nimbus was announced two years ago, at least one Google marketing manager quit, claiming she was retaliated against, a claim denied by Google and federal labor regulators. Fisk said U.S. law gives a wide berth to private employers.

As part of Google’s community guidelines, the company counsels employees, “While sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build community, disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story does not. Our primary responsibility is to do the work we’ve each been hired to do, not to spend working time on debates about non-work topics.”

Fisk adds that many people who find themselves at odds with their bosses’ political opinions, or contracts, are likely to be counseled to look for another job if they feel morally uncomfortable.

She added, “Google might be able to say, ‘Criticizing the company, accusing us of being immoral while you are on the payroll: not protected. You can take a political stance — drones are bad, the war in the Middle East is unjust, call for a cease-fire — but what you can’t do is accuse us of immoral conduct.’”

That said, Fisk notes that, despite recent restructurings and layoffs that have roiled Silicon Valley of late, software engineers arguably have more labor market power than most U.S. employees.

Valerie Kuan said as much at that protest back in December. “In 2018, there was Project Maven, which was a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to provide them with advanced AI capabilities that would increase how deadly U.S. drone strikes would be. But thankfully, back then, Google workers also organized around this and managed to get it canceled,” Kuan said.

That’s true for Project Maven and, before that, Project Dragonfly, which was to be a Chinese government-friendly version of Google Search. Although, as CEO Sundar Pichai noted, Google continues to work with the U.S. government and others around the world. Will Googlers prevail against Project Nimbus? That remains to be seen.


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