Google workers and members of the public protested at the company’s UK headquarters on Tuesday, as dissent against the company’s work for the Israeli government grows.
For several years, momentum has been building among Google workers across the US who oppose the militarisation of their work, including the company’s collaboration with Israel. That rebellion is now beginning to spread to the UK.
Tuesday’s demonstration outside the company’s headquarters in King’s Cross, London – spearheaded by Google workers within United Tech and Allied Workers (UTAW), a branch of the Communication Workers Union, as well as by the No Tech for Apartheid Campaign – saw around 50 people gather for around 90 minutes to chant and hear speeches from Google workers and others.
The protest marked an expansion of long-running internal opposition to Project Nimbus, and coincided with a flyering campaign by Google workers inside the building. The flyers set out the reasons for the campaign’s opposition to the project and included an invitation to an internal worker meeting.
The protesters are demanding that Google end Project Nimbus, a $1.22bn (£960m) joint contract with Amazon to provide cloud computing services to the Israeli state. The specifics of the project, such as what kind of data would be stored and how it would be used, were kept vague by the Israeli state and its contractors after it was agreed in April 2021, when Amazon and Google replaced Microsoft and Oracle as Israel’s cloud services providers of choice. However, it was clear from the outset that its data centres would reside on Israeli territory – an unusual move, given that most governments’ cloud services are globally distributed.
This onshoring prompted speculation that the move was intended to insulate Israel from international law and state sanctions. In an interview with The Intercept, tech watchdog director Jack Poulson, who quit Google in protest in 2018, said: “The former head of Security for Google Enterprise – who now heads Oracle’s Israel branch – has publicly argued that one of the goals of Nimbus is preventing the German government from requesting data relating on the Israel Defence Forces for the International Criminal Court” (at the time, Germany was buttering up the ICC to shield Israel during the court’s investigation into potential war crimes in Gaza).
The Intercept also reported that it had discovered training materials showing that Project Nimbus would include advanced AI and machine learning capabilities – among them facial detection, object tracking, automatic image categorisation and sentiment analysis – that would support Israel’s surveillance of Palestinians.
Internal opposition to the project began just a few months after it was agreed. In October 2021, over 500 Amazon and Google workers published an open letter in the Guardian condemning Project Nimbus, saying it “allows for further surveillance of and unlawful data collection on Palestinians, and facilitates expansion of Israel’s illegal settlements on Palestinian land”. The following day, No Tech For Apartheid was launched by a coalition of grassroots groups including the BDS movement and Jewish Voice for Peace in October 2021.
The campaign has simmered in the background in the two years since its launch, slowly building support not only from Google and Amazon employees but also their shareholders, one of whom filed a shareholder resolution questioning the project in 2022. A group of Amazon shareholders and members of Investor Advocates for Social Justice filed a similar resolution shortly afterwards; neither won the majority vote needed to pass.
Like many pro-Palestine campaigns, No Tech For Apartheid has ramped up its activities in light of the Israeli onslaught on Gaza. On 10 October, as Israel began its intensive bombing campaign of Gaza, Google and Amazon workers allied with the campaign published a statement saying that “Amazon and Google are complicit in this devastation” and reiterated their demand to end Project Nimbus.
In December, San Francisco Googlers held a die-in in protest at the company’s continued involvement in the project.
Tuesday’s protest is the first of its kind among UK Google workers.
Zahid, who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals, has worked at Google for almost two years. “Google was my dream job,” they told Novara Media. “I dreamed since I was in Palestine of joining Google. I achieved this dream, but then I realised that my company is involved in oppressing my people. And it makes me feel like I don’t belong within this company.”
Zahid said that the “business reasons” behind Google’s involvement in Project Nimbus (“They wanted to be there because Amazon is there and Amazon is leading the cloud market”) are overriding the company’s stated principles. “Google has a value of not being evil [“Don’t be evil” was the company’s original motto; when it restructured under Alphabet, it became “Do the right thing”]. If Google doesn’t want to be evil, then it shouldn’t [be].”
Emily, a Google software engineer who asked that we use only her first name, echoed much of this. “Many people like myself joined Google because they believed (unlike other tech companies) the company had values and red lines about what the technology we build is used for,” she wrote in a statement to Novara Media.
“We see the organisation quietly moving away from that – but I believe there are still many good people here who care deeply about the genocide happening in Gaza and we can’t be silent about this anymore.
“We want to … oppose the uses of our technology for military and surveillance purposes by unethical regimes, speak out against Project Nimbus and to say not in our name. There is a culture of fear within the company but we have power together. Even against Google.”
That fear is not baseless. In March 2022, Google told its 28-year-old Jewish employee Ariel Koren she could either move to Brazil or leave the company. The ultimatum was seen by many of Koren’s colleagues as punishment for her organising against Project Nimbus (Google and the National Labor Relations Board investigated Koren’s complaint of retaliation, and found insufficient evidence).
There are signs that Google is feeling the heat, however. In December, in response to a vigil held by Google workers outside the company’s New York campus in memory of Mai Ubeid, a Palestinian software engineer and former Google intern killed in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza along with her entire family, a company spokesperson insisted to the Guardian that Project Nimbus provides only “commercial” services for Israeli government ministries, not for “highly sensitive or classified military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services” (a Reuters report, based on an Israeli finance ministry announcement and which said that the project would “provide cloud services for the country’s public sector and military”, directly contradicts this).
Eran Cohen, an organiser for UTAW, said: “Tech workers around the world have tended to be quick to show meaningful solidarity with Palestinians, but not only Palestinians.
“This reflects the diverse make-up of the bulk of the tech workforce, the transnational nature of the companies, and the international reach of the products and services we create. Tech workers know this and it undergirds our approach to unionising.”
Google did not respond to Novara Media’s request for comment.