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Why Google employees are donating to Warren and Sanders — presidential candidates who want to break up Google

They say these candidates are good for society, good for tech, and — surprisingly — good for Google.

A picture taken on November 20, 2017 shows logos of technology company Google displayed on computers’ screens.
Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders want to break up Google. That isn’t stopping Googlers from donating to their presidential campaigns.
Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

Google employees have it good.

They make lots of money (the median salary at Google is nearly $250,000), enjoy beautiful offices, extraordinary perks, and an altruistic mission: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

That hasn’t stopped them from giving a big chunk of their 2020 presidential donations to candidates who’ve said they will break up big tech companies like Google and limit their power. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, candidates known for their grassroots support and who are leading the charge to break up Big Tech, received the highest number of donations out of all presidential candidates from Google employees.

But these tech workers don’t hate their jobs. In fact, they think breaking Google up would be good for it.

In interviews with Recode, Google employees (mostly engineers who work on everything from Android to virtual reality) who donated to Sanders and Warren said that breaking up Google could help consumers and spur more tech innovation by allowing for more competition from upstarts. Some even said they thought regulation could force Google itself to return to its startup roots, recreating the bootstrapped work culture that they say enabled the company’s initial success. (Google executives don’t exactly agree.)

Their support for candidates who are critical of Big Tech seems to reflect a broader movement among corporate tech employees who have begun demanding more ethical behavior and policies from their companies. In the past year, many tech employees, particularly at Google, have organized and protested against their own employers over concerns related to sexual harassment policies and controversial defense contracts with the US and foreign governments. In candidates like Warren and Sanders, these employees find an outside voice who similarly views major technology companies’ growing and unprecedented power with a critical lens. And for the first time, companies like Google have become major talking points in the presidential campaign.

Google employees walk off the job to protest the company’s handling of sexual misconduct claims, on November 1, 2018, in Mountain View, California.
Mason Trinca/Getty Images

Employees’ support for regulation also comes at a time when the US Justice Department is launching an antitrust investigation focused on Google and other tech giants, meaning the breakup of these companies isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

Sanders and Warren did not respond to requests for comment.

Googlers donated a total of $87,000 to Warren’s presidential bid so far, according to Recode’s analysis of candidate Federal Election Commission reports for the first two quarters of 2019. That makes her the most-funded candidate by Google employees, followed Pete Buttigieg with $73,300; he has been critical of tech giants consolidating power but has stopped short of calling for a breakup. Warren released a broad plan in March that would make tech companies walk back some of their acquisitions — such as Google’s ownership of navigation software Waze, smart home device company Nest, and ad services behemoth DoubleClick — and stop them from using their own marketplaces to limit competition (such as Google prioritizing its own services and products in search results).

Googlers also donated $58,000 to Sanders, who has said on several occasions that he would “absolutely” consider breaking up big tech but hasn’t shared many specifics. Sanders has had a direct role in shaping big tech policy, though, by successfully pressuring Amazon to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour.

For donations under $200, campaigns aren’t required to report information such as where donors work, so total donations by tech employees could be higher.

On the Republican side, Google employees — who, like much of the tech industry, lean liberal — have given a total of $5,600 to Trump’s reelection campaign so far.

A Google spokesperson told Recode that employees’ personal opinions are not reflective of the company’s position.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO and now Google’s technical adviser, donated to Biden’s presidential campaign. Other key executives haven’t yet given to a presidential candidate but have donated to Google’s political action committee, which in the last election cycle donated its PAC money equally among Democrats and Republicans.

Good for Google

Google employees are putting their support behind Warren and Sanders because they don’t think antitrust action would hurt Google much. A number of them told Recode that Warren’s plan to regulate Google might be better for it in the long run, and would even be in line with Google’s own ethos.

“I’m just not a big believer it’s going to hurt us if they break it up,” a software engineer based in California told Recode. “It will not reduce the value of the company.”

He added, “When Larry and Sergey formed Alphabet, part of the thinking is that the companies would be smaller and more agile. Breaking Google up further would further their plan.”

A Google employee who’s donated to Sanders agreed. “To me, a lot of what Google offers has already been done,” he said, referring to core Google innovations like Google search and maps. He argued that currently the company is, in his opinion, “super inefficient” and that it “wastes tons of time and money” — which could change if its market share across industries like search and advertising were challenged with a breakup.

Warren’s proposal to break off Waze, Nest, and DoubleClick is certainly something Google as a company could handle, employees said.

A billboard with an image of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Spinning off some acquisitions and mandating internal firewalls “would be in keeping with Google’s philosophy of ‘don’t be evil.’ If regulation occurred, instead of being virtuous, we’d be required to do it,” Max Kaehn, a senior software engineer at Google and a Warren donor, told Recode.

“I wouldn’t necessarily expect Google to make a whole lot more money as a result of these changes, but it wouldn’t take a huge hit in profits. It’s a small price to pay for having a better world,” he said.

“Increased prosperity might even lead to more paying customers. We’re always thinking about the next billion users at Google,” he added.

Good for tech

For Google employees who donated to Warren and Sanders, a more robust antitrust policy would be a positive force on the technology industry as a whole, since they believe it would spur innovation and eventually create more jobs in the tech industry.

Several Google employees Recode interviewed pointed to Microsoft’s 1998 landmark antitrust case as an example of a tech behemoth surviving a breakup — and making the rest of the industry all the better for it. While the ruling against Microsoft was a hit to the company’s business at the time by making it lose its hold on the browser business, it paved the way for other companies, including the then-fledgling Google, to rise up. And in the past decade, Microsoft has moved up the ranks to become the most valuable company in the world.

“If the US hadn’t filed antitrust charges against Microsoft, it’s possible they would have been much more aggressive in trying to stop Google. Antitrust policy could be a reason we’ve seen Google and this next generation of companies succeed,” one employee told Recode.

But it seems like innovation is stifled again.

Critics say so-called “kill zones,” wherein large tech companies either buy out or copy their competitors, have concentrated ideas among a few big companies, resulting in less innovation overall.

“Everyone contacting me is doing something with self-driving cars or cloud computing. Few are doing new things,” Kaehn told Recode. “Mostly they’re trying to get on the bandwagon and get bought and be the next acquisition for one of the big companies. Simply creating the opportunity for small startups to flourish rather than unicorn hunting could be good for the entire space of tech jobs.”

Indeed, most of the people Recode interviewed either thought antitrust action wouldn’t hurt jobs at Google — some said breaking up Google could actually create more jobs, due to fewer economies of scale and the need for people to help parse additional regulation — or would create more jobs elsewhere.

Their attitudes reflected the fact that Google employees, particularly in-demand software engineers, are some of the most employable workers in the US. The unemployment rate for tech workers — around 1.3 percent according to a recent estimate — is at a record low, far below the already low national average of 3.7 percent.

One engineer, who said he didn’t think it likely that Warren’s election would impact his employment, said, “If it happened I’d likely find another job relatively easily. Maybe I’d make a bit less money, but that’s fine too,” he said.

“I think it’s more important to do what’s better for society at large, even if it could be slightly bad for me economically.”

Good for society

Everyone Recode interviewed expressed that candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are what the country needs as it faces a growing economic divide.

“We have two really big problems in this country: One is climate change. The other is pretty much hollowed-out opportunity for people,” Kaehn told Recode. “Usually the joke is, you work your ass off to get into Google, and it all goes to rent and student loans. If it’s that bad for people working at Google, just think of all the people working in the cafes and keeping the lights on and the water on.”

It’s probably no coincidence that the cities where these Warren- and Sanders-supporting Googlers live — the San Francisco Bay area, New York City, and Seattle — are some of the most expensive in the US, where the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is most obvious.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) addresses a crowd during a campaign rally at Chrissy Field in the Presidio on June 6, 2016 in San Francisco.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

For nearly 20 years, Google’s home area of Silicon Valley has led the nation in economic growth. But most of its workers have been excluded from reaping the rewards of this boom. Nine in 10 workers in the region make less than they did in 1997, after adjusting for inflation, according to a report last year by Working Partnerships USA. That figure reveals a pattern of inequality that’s even worse than wage growth nationally.

Back in 2016, Google was more of a “Hilary Clinton-style place,” according to another longtime Google employee. But now, many Googlers are veering further to the left than the more moderate Democratic party line, particularly when it comes to calling for sweeping economic reform.

“It’s either bold change or utter disaster,” Kaehn said. “Elizabeth Warren has a very well-thought-out, bold plan.”

For some, the candidates’ opposition to Big Tech is precisely what would make them good for society.

“I agree with [Warren] that big tech companies have too much power and in most cases focus on profit and ignore the impact on society,” one Google software engineer told Recode. “I think big tech companies have had years to demonstrate whether they could operate responsibly in this regard, but it doesn’t seem to be working out great.”

For years, Google has been accused of prioritizing its own less-pertinent search results over competitors such as Yelp, and for having a monopolistic market share of online search (both are claims the company has repeatedly denied). And recently, the company has been criticized, including by its own rank and file, for allegedly allowing the growth of hateful speech on its platform, contributing to the downfall of local journalism, and taking on controversial projects such as a censored search product in China and a contract to use its AI for the US Department of Defense. (Google dropped both of these projects after internal and public protest.)

Breaking up or regulating Google, these employees argue, might stop Google from consolidating power and provide more checks and balances on company decisions that could have negative societal consequences.

“I have some concerns about the implementation of such a potential breakup, as it’s not a trivial challenge, but I trust [Warren] to choose a team of knowledgeable and competent people to think hard about how it can be done,” the engineer said.

Many people we spoke with believed the candidates’ causes superseded any issues with tech or Google.

“My excitement about her campaign preceded her policy proposal around tech,” Galen Panger, a user experience researcher, told Recode. “When that happened, I did feel some conflict about it.” But that wasn’t enough to deter him from supporting Warren.

“To me, she’s saying, ‘I’m not beholden to anyone. Not even these big tech companies that are friendly with Democrats.’ She’s saying even tech deserves to be scrutinized.”

Even though Sanders hasn’t proposed a full-on plan like Warren’s to regulate tech, Google employees who supported him said they’re generally in support of raising questions about what constitutes anti-competitive behavior.

“I think it’s a good idea to investigate monopolistic companies across all sectors, and I’m willing to look at whatever is proposed,” Nicholas Lunceford, a Google engineer who donated to the Sanders campaign, said.

For most Googlers that means a willingness to look beyond their own or their company’s self interest to what’s better for society at large.

Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.

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