Google fires employees who protested Israel cloud contract

The company says 28 employees crossed the line by occupying offices and disrupting others' work when raising their objections to the contract.

Google sent a strong statement that the government market is valuable and important by firing 28 employees after they protested a contract with the government of Israel.

Dozens of employees conducted a sit-in on Wednesday at the company’s offices in New York and Sunnyvale, California. Some of them occupied the office of Thomas Kurian, CEO of Google's cloud arm.

Those employees did not leave Kurian’s office until they were removed by law enforcement, according to published reports.

An employee group is now calling them the Nimbus 9, because they were protesting Google’s work on Project Nimbus with the Israeli government.

Amazon is the other cloud provider involved in Nimbus, a $1.2 billion contract for the supply of cloud and other related services to Israel that include artificial intelligence.

Nimbus began in 2021 and has been a source of friction for some Google employees concerned that Google is supporting the Israeli military. Google said Nimbus is “not directed at highly sensitive classified or military workloads.”

The firings were first reported by The Verge. See the video below this article for a CNBC interview aired Thursday night with Alex Heath, the reporter who broke the story.

A group of employees have had issues with Nimbus from the beginning and organized against it. In a statement posted on Medium, the employees said that they have argued against Nimbus for three years but have not heard from any executive about their concerns.

They called the firings retaliatory.

For anyone following Google, the firings represent a significant change in direction for the company.

Google in 2018 dropped Project Maven, an artificial intelligence contract with the U.S. Defense Department after employee pressure. That gave an impression that Google wasn’t interested in government work.

But Google has built up its government business ever sent. It stood up the Google Public Sector subsidiary in 2022 and hired CEO Karen Dahut, who previously ran the defense business for Booz Allen Hamilton,.

The company also invested in its cloud infrastructure and can now house sensitive and classified data at the highest levels.

Still, 28 employees is a big number. But in reading Google's statement, it seems that the protesters went too far by disrupting the workplace and refusing to leave.

The protests occurred Wednesday and the employees were fired on Thursday. Google cited violations of its code of conduct and policy on harassment, discrimination, retaliation, standards of conduct, and workplace concerns.

“We are a place of business and every Googler is expected to read our policies and apply them to how they conduct themselves and communicate in our workplace,” the statement says. “If you’re one of the few who are tempted to think we’re going to overlook conduct that violates our policies, think again.”

The statement also implies that there could be more firings or other actions as the company continues to investigate.

This is a watershed moment when you think of the public image of Google and the culture it tries to portray.

Google was founded with the motto, “Don’t be evil.” When the company restructured in 2015 and created Alphabet as Google’s parent, the motto became “Do the right thing.”

While the motto "Don’t be evil" was removed, it still has a mention at the end of the company’s code of conduct:

“And remember... don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right – speak up!”

Speaking up apparently has some limits though. Google probably doesn’t have an issue with employees protesting Project Nimbus, but they’ve clearly drawn a line in the sand and don’t want people to cross it.