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Google announced changes to how it will handle claims of sexual harassment among employees, including making arbitration optional for individual harassment and sexual assault claims. While additional transparency and protection for workers is a sign of progress, the change is incremental rather than transformative, because Google’s arbitration provision still prohibits collective action. Harassment claims will no longer be forced into private arbitration, but only individuals can now bring their claims before a jury.
It’s unclear whether Google, which has a history of confusing its employees around confidentiality, will make the process of opting out clear or easy. Google has become quicker and more responsive to employee concerns. Nonetheless, a publicized email from CEO Sundar Pichai and an accompanying interview in *The New York Times* still seem like the kind of gauzy public relations efforts that motivated 20,000 employees to join a protest last week to demand transparency and meaningful change. *The Times* reported last month that Google executives were allowed to leave with multimillion-dollar exit packages following credible claims of harassment against them.
Arbitration agreements can be used to obscure harassment allegations and protect serial abusers because employees are required to resolve disputes privately with an arbiter, who is typically paid by the company, rather than in open court. In Silicon Valley, forced arbitration agreements, nondisclosure agreements, and confidentiality clauses are routinely included in employment contracts, just as nondisparagement agreements are tied to severance packages and private settlements.
Organizers of last week’s walkout are disappointed with Google’s response, which they found defensive and dismissive toward their demands for equity. The changes signal the power of collective action, but organizers said they were not consulted ahead of the announcement. They said Google ignored concerns about discrimination and the rights of contract workers, indicating the company wants to continue operating as it has in the past, with transparency stressed in name rather than action. An internal Google website is tracking worker sentiment about whether demands—such as employee representation on the company’s board, which Pichai seemed to brush off—were met.
Google held a company-wide meeting for employees following the announcement. “Overall I felt the town hall was primarily the leadership team centering their own feelings as a performative show of appearing to listen, while substantively ignoring” concerns about gender and racial discrimination, and instead focusing only on harassment, says software engineer Irene Knapp, who participated in the walkout, and also introduced a shareholder proposal to tie executive pay to diversity goals at Google’s last shareholder meeting.
Knapp says it’s unclear whether Google can effectively fulfill the changes it promised. “The leadership team is congratulating itself already, before anything they’ve announced has even been launched—they wouldn’t let any of us get away with that.”
Last week’s walkout was unprecedented in terms of support from Google’s 94,000 employes. Although a wave of worker dissent has been rolling through Silicon Valley’s corporate campuses, it has been difficult to gauge what portion of the workforce shares those concerns.
Pichai’s announcement was delivered in a company-wide email. “We recognize that we have not always gotten everything right in the past and we are sincerely sorry for that. It’s clear we need to make some changes,” he wrote alongside a rough outline of plans, such as providing a transparency report “around sexual harassment investigations and outcomes.”
In the same paragraph outlining the arbitration change, Pichai stressed existing worker protections. “Google has never required confidentiality in the arbitration process and arbitration still may be the best path for a number of reasons (e.g. personal privacy) but, we recognize that choice should be up to you,” he wrote.
But over the past couple of years, both employees and enforcement officials from the Department of Labor have questioned Google’s confidentiality policies, including a lawsuit that alleges the company’s internal process for investigating leaks is illegal. “This change looks like a step in the right direction,” says James Finberg, an attorney with Altshuler Berzon pressing a class-action lawsuit alleging gender bias in pay and promotion.
“Mandatory confidential arbitration can protect repeat sexual harassers, and result in more women becoming the victims of those harassers. Permitting women to file public lawsuits lets people in the company know about the bad behavior. Lawsuits, as opposed to individual arbitration proceedings, also permit women to band together, share resources, and bring about system change,” Finberg wrote in an email to WIRED.
He says the experience of one of the named plaintiffs in his suit, Kelly Ellis, is consistent with the report in The Times. “[Ellis] ended up changing departments, and eventually leaving Google, because a senior manager had been harassing her, and the company’s response was not to move him but to move her. Many women’s careers have been harmed by management not taking such complaints seriously and saying that it was their problem, not the problem of their accuser.”
The change to its arbitration policy brings Google in line with other influential tech companies like Uber and Microsoft, which have altered their binding arbitration policies in the past couple of years in response to disturbing revelations about sexual harassment from women and, in particular, women of color.
At Uber, too, changes came only as a result of internal protest from employees like former engineer Susan Fowler, attempts to sue the company, and public scrutiny over the abhorrent behavior of Uber executives.
More Great WIRED Stories
A coalition of more than 20 child-health, privacy, and consumer groups is asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether YouTube is violating a federal law designed to protect children on the internet.
The groups are expected to file a complaint with the FTC on Monday. The relevant federal law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, requires website operators to obtain parents’ permission when collecting personal data about children younger than 13.
The complaint claims that a significant portion of popular content on YouTube is designed for kids, whose personal information—including IP address, geolocation, and persistent identifiers used to track users across sites—is unlawfully collected by Google and then used to target ads.
The complaint follows reports that some YouTube creators are targeting kids with disturbing videos, including some of kids in abusive situations. On Friday, BuzzFeed reported that the company will offer a safer, human-curated option for YouTube Kids, a version of the site for users under 13.
But the complaint to the FTC argues that most children aren’t watching YouTube Kids, which launched in 2015. They’re watching the same YouTube as the rest of us — and the company is aware of that, says Josh Golin, executive director of the Center of a Commercial Free Childhood, a nonprofit behind the complaint. The company could have moved popular children’s content like Peppa Pig or Sesame Street to YouTube Kids, says Golin, rather than leave videos where “kids are going to be exposed to data collection practices and be one click away from really disturbing content for children.” Human curation may be a good first step, “but changes to the YouTube Kids app do not absolve Google of its responsibilities to the millions of children that use the main YouTube site,” Golin says.
A 2017 survey conducted by a market research firm specializing in children and families called YouTube “the most powerful brand in kids’ lives,” with 80 percent of American kids ages 6 to 12 using YouTube daily. A survey from October by Common Sense, another nonprofit group that signed the complaint, found that 71 percent of parents said their children watched YouTube’s website or app, whereas only 24 percent used the YouTube Kids app.
In a statement, a spokesperson for YouTube said, “While we haven’t received the complaint, protecting kids and families has always been a top priority for us. We will read the complaint thoroughly and evaluate if there are things we can do to improve. Because YouTube is not for children, we’ve invested significantly in the creation of the YouTube Kids app to offer an alternative specifically designed for children.”
YouTube’s terms tell kids under 13 years old not to use the service, so Google could argue that kids are watching with their parents and permission is implied. However anyone can watch videos on YouTube without an account. The complaint points out that kids often watch on a mobile device, likely by themselves. In 2015, the company said it launched YouTube Kids as a mobile app “because of this reality – that we’re all familiar with – 75 percent of kids between birth and the age of 8 have access to a mobile device and more than half of kids prefer to watch content videos on a mobile device or a tablet.” COPPA applies to websites that have “actual knowledge” that they are collecting or maintaining kids’ personal information, even if the collection is unintentional.
The complaint claims that YouTube’s advertising practices suggest that executives know children are watching. For example, Google Preferred, a premium service that helps advertisers place their ads in top videos on YouTube’s main site, includes the category “Parenting & Family,” which features channels like ChuChuTV Nursery Rhymes & Kids Song, which has more than 15 million subscribers.
Targeting kids can be lucrative. The complaint points to a popular YouTube channel called Ryan ToysReview, in which a 6 year old reviews toys. The site, which has more than 20 billion views, generated $ 11 million in revenue last year, according to Forbes.
- After criticism about advertising to kids, YouTube Kids launched an ad-free version, available to parents, for a monthly subscription.
- Facebook followed YouTube’s lead, launching an ad-free messaging app for kids as young as 6 years old.
- Most of the experts who vetted Messenger Kids were paid by Facebook
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Web browser developer Mozilla Corp and video-sharing website Vimeo Inc said on Thursday they had refiled legal challenges intended to block the Trump administration’s repeal of landmark net neutrality rules from taking effect.
A coalition of more than 20 state attorneys general led by New York’s Eric Schneiderman separately plans to refile a legal challenge as early as today.
The Federal Communications Commission officially published its order overturning net neutrality rules in the Federal Register on Thursday, a procedural step that allows for the filing of legal challenges.
The Republican-led FCC in December voted 3-2 to overturn rules barring service providers from blocking, slowing access to or charging more for certain content. The White House Office of Management and Budget still must sign off on some aspects of the FCC reversal before it takes legal effect and that could take months.
Congressional aides say the publication will trigger a 60-legislative-day deadline for Congress to vote on whether to overturn the decision. U.S. Senate Democrats have the backing of 50 members of the 100-person chamber for repeal, leaving them just one vote short of a majority.
Even if Democrats could win a majority in the Senate, reinstatement of net neutrality would also require a favorable vote in the House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a larger majority, and would still be subject to a likely veto by President Donald Trump. Democrats need 51 votes to win any proposal in the Republican-controlled Senate because Vice President Mike Pence can break any tie.
On Friday, a coalition of more than 20 state attorneys general and advocacy groups agreed to withdraw a protective petition filed in January that sought to preserve the right to sue.
Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, said last week the office agreed to withdraw ”the original petition and will simply refile it once the final rule is published. Either way, our coalition of AGs is taking the FCC to court to challenge its illegal rollback of net neutrality.”
The repeal was a victory for internet service providers like AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp and Verizon Communications Inc, conferring power over what content consumers can access.
Technology companies including Alphabet Inc and Facebook Inc have thrown their weight behind the congressional bid to reverse the FCC December vote.
Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Steve Orlofsky