How employment at prominent tech firms stymies open communication

Let me first get the disclaimers out of the way:

  • I have worked at Google since March, 2006.
  • I do not speak on behalf of Google in this blog, nor do my views necessarily dovetail with those of other Googlers; I’ve historically held more of a public-facing role than most Googlers, so I have heightened sensitivities.
  • I believe prominent technology firms — certainly including Google — contribute many things to the world that improve communications and societal openness.
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This particular question on Quora got me to thinking:

Do people who work at Google / Yahoo / Microsoft / Facebook resent the fact that they can’t genuinely speak up on the Internet and have to do so anonymously, in most cases?

This really hit home for me, and I decided that I’d outline the many ways in which I (and presumably many others) are forbidden from communicating in some ways and — more commonly — feel uncomfortable expressing ourselves in specific ways or on a variety of topics.
Stuff I am not allowed to discuss…
This is perhaps the most obvious category, the list of what employees like me are typically forbidden from communicating. 
  • Confidential information on products and services my company is working on.
    And this isn’t just due to obvious competitive-market issues, but also for reasons of strategic public communications.  Due to events in the news, something we’re working on (and have been working on for well before these events transpired) might be seen as insensitive or inappropriate… and we know that after things die down a bit, the public will embrace rather than resent this new product or service.  Other considerations:  we might want to release with a bigger splash, we’re required to be silent due to third-party agreements (hardware partners, etc.), we don’t want a ton of public pontificating based upon a very rough alpha, and so on.
  • Issues my company is currently involved with in a legal context or is likely to become involved with in the future
    For Googlers, this means no comments about “search neutrality,” or intellectual property issues with regards to YouTube, and so on.
  • Private user information we’re entrusted with
    Such information is quite stringently controlled at my company (and I’d presume at other companies as well), but aside from the technical and legal (not to mention ethical!) safeguards, I think all of us know that it’d be long-term career suicide to even be perceived as engaging in untoward behavior in this area.  
Topics that I’m allowed to discuss, but could result (or have resulted) in unpleasant situations
  • Competitors’ products and services
    If I suggest a limitation of iPhones, for instance, I may be accused of being brainwashed by my company (which works on the Android operating system)… or, at minimum, I may simply worry that I’ll be perceived in negative ways (catty, manipulative, etc.).  On the flip side, if I profess love for a competitor’s product, it’s a pretty sure bet someone will retort, “See?  Even Googlers avoid [Google’s product in this space]!” which can then, I kidd you not, snowball into headlines like, “Googlers snub [Google productname] in favor of [non-Google productname].”  Aside from the ridiculous assumption that because I am not using and enjoying both products, there’s the equally-stupid one outspoken Googler = all Googlers.
  • Hot button societal issues that my company is associated with.
    Like Privacy. Net neutrality.  Not only are there often legal circumstances surrounding these issues which make talking about them verboten anyway, it’d be just a minefield to jump into online or offline conversations on such heated topics.  I could be mistaken for someone speaking on behalf of the company (especially since I’ve appeared in Google-official videos about Privacy in the past), or simply harangued as a Google shill.
  • Frustration over my own company’s products
    As much as I love a lot of the stuff that comes out of my company, there are also products and services we provide that, well, I don’t really like or I like but am dying to see improved.  But what could I possibly gain by criticizing them in public?
    • If I feel that the only way to see changes I’m hoping for internally is to apply external pressure, then it’s probably time for me to consider changing employers.
    • If I don’t think many people will even notice my criticisms, why am I even bothering to express them?  Even if just one person sees it — someone who works on that product — I’ve at minimum made someone really sad, and probably just burned a bridge.  Who knows?  That person might be a future teammate, and — depending on the fierceness of my criticisms — that relationship could be mighty uncomfortable!
And, as someone who may again in the future speak on behalf of my company to the press or at conferences:
  • Controversial views (e.g., anything on religion, politics, sexuality…)
    By articulating such views, especially if forcefully, I could negatively affect the comfort of interactions with or even treatment from journalists, conference attendees, bloggers, etc.
  • Specific blogs, media outlets, bloggers, journalists, etc.
    Whether it’s highlighting certain outlets’ lack of ethics or professionalism, or schaudenfreudically giggling over sophomoric online slugfests, it’d be all fun and games until I was asked to interview with one of these news networks / blogs / newspapers.
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So what’s the loss here for you and society?
  • You get a less nuanced, less comprehensive view of how and what specific people think.
  • You get less information and fewer (potential useful) opinions from specific people than you otherwise would.  On a related note, more misinformation on the internet remains uncorrected.  In some cases (e.g., minor misconception of a product’s specs), the damage is pretty insignificant.  In other cases, the misinformation is pretty harmful, causing users to do unnecessary work or politicians to make unnecessary or even harmful laws.
  • Causes (political, societal) which could use the open support will often not receive it.
But we can’t blame Corporate Communications policies
At least at Google there’s no required pre-screening of our external communications.  We have a pleasantly enlightened group of Corporate Communications folks; they get social media, and they have never to my knowledge discouraged us from blogging, tweeting, etc.  The vast majority of the speech-limits I’ve described above are self-imposed, and certainly cannot be blamed on company policies.
Sure, I and others could write under nom de plumes, though of course we’d still be forbidden from disclosing company secrets and the like.  But in addition to running the risk of being uncovered, I feel that this’d be a slippery slope emotionally; if I started criticizing or defending Google products as someone other than myself, I’d probably feel sucked in to the ensuing debates, and I’d become more and more uncomfortable “living a lie” so to speak.  So, at least for me, writing under something that’s not my real name or dominant internet nickname (“ThatAdamGuy”) isn’t a good choice.
And on the whole, these big companies are still a net gain for societal communication and openness
Look at the information shared around the world with Twitter, or YouTube or spread through large networks of friends (and often then ultimately the world) via Facebook.  I may feel occasionally muzzled and frustratingly so, but in the grand scheme of things, I remain convinced it’s for the greater good.



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What do you think?