Leakers are implored: “For the love of all that’s Googley, please reconsider!”

Joe Mullin

A Google product manager has filed a lawsuit (PDF) against his employer, saying that the company’s confidentiality requirements violate California labor laws.

The plaintiff has filed his case anonymously, saying he must sue as a “John Doe” because Google Director of Global Investigations Brian Katz “falsely informed approximately 65,000 Googlers that Plaintiff was terminated for ‘leaking’ certain information to the press.” Doe says he didn’t leak and Katz knew he didn’t, but he was used as a “very public scapegoat.”

The complaint, first reported by The Information, is scant on details about what happened between Katz and Doe, while long on criticism of Google’s policies. It says Google’s threats to discharge employees “who exercise their constitutional rights by providing information to the press or otherwise exercising their freedom of speech” violates the labor code as well.

The lawsuit, filed on Monday in San Francisco Superior Court, also alleges that Google’s secrecy policies go too far. The company classifies information into “Need-to-Know,” “Confidential,” and “Public.” Company guidelines state that “even public information is ‘confidential’ at Google,” according to the lawsuit. That includes the identities of other team members within Google, as well as employees’ compensation.

Doe claims that Google’s Employee Communication Policy prohibits an employee from writing “a novel about someone working at a tech company in Silicon Valley” unless Google gives prior approval to both the book proposal and the final draft. Employees are prohibited from speaking to the media or anyone in the “investment community,” which Doe argues could limit conversations with “countless individuals” since Google is a publicly traded company.

The lawsuit also claims that Google requires employees “to refrain from disclosing information about the amount of his or her wages.” If true, that’s a violation of the California Labor Code.

The complaint also indicates that company policy prohibits whistleblowing. It reads:

[A] second training program entitled “You Said What?” specifically states that Googlers must “avoid communications that conclude, or appear to conclude, that Google or Googlers are acting ‘illegally’ or ‘negligently,’ have ‘violated the law,’ should or would be ‘liable’ for anything, or otherwise convey legal meaning.” In other words, Googlers are prohibited from communicating concerns about illegal conduct within Google.

It quotes another training program, which advises “you should treat all information at Google as confidential unless you know that it has been approved for public disclosure,” (emphasis in document).

The suit also criticizes Google’s “Stopleaks” program, essentially an internal investigation team. “The purpose of Google’s ‘Stopleaks’ program is to deter employees from asking questions (even of one another), or disclosing any information about Google in violation of their constitutional and statutory rights.”

“If you’re considering sharing ‘confidential information’ to a reporter—or to anyone externally—for the love of all that’s Googley, please reconsider!” wrote Brian Katz in one e-mail to employees that’s published in the lawsuit. “Not only could it cost you your job, but it also betrays the values that makes us a community.”

The lawsuit also acknowledges that Google’s guidelines state that nothing in them “is intended to limit employees’ rights to discuss with other employees the terms, wages, and working conditions of their employment, or communicate with a government agency regarding violations of the law.” But it characterizes this “savings clause” as ineffective.

The section of the California Labor Code referenced by the lawsuit in regard to press leaks does not specifically grant workers a right to speak to the press—it doesn’t mention the press at all. Doe argues that Google has violated a section of the law protecting “lawful conduct occurring during nonworking hours away from the employer’s premises.” The law also prohibits employers from retaliating against workers engaged in such lawful conduct.

“This suit is baseless,” a Google spokesperson told Ars via e-mail. “We’re very committed to an open internal culture, which means we frequently share with employees details of product launches and confidential business information. Transparency is a huge part of our culture. Our employee confidentiality requirements are designed to protect proprietary business information, while not preventing employees from disclosing information about terms and conditions of employment, or workplace concerns.”