The right to free speech isn't a license to threaten, harass, or intimidate.
A protest group calling itself Counterforce on Tuesday demonstrated in front of the Berkeley, Calif., home of Google engineer Anthony Levandowski and distributed leaflets to his neighbors to bring attention to "the evil he brings into this world" through involvement in technology projects like Google's self-driving car and investment in a local condominium development (with required low-income units). To fight this evil, the group advocates that people "steal from the techies you babysit for" and vandalize surveillance cameras.
In a post on local news website Indybay, a presumed representative of the group conflates several different issues into one vague, anti-capitalist platform: dissatisfaction with the buses tech companies use to shuttle workers; with real estate development, gentrification, and high tech-industry salaries; with the NSA and surveillance; with the labor conditions in Congo mines that provide the raw materials of electronics; and with the "out-of-touch and extravagant lifestyles" of Google employees.
"Our problem is with Google, its pervasive surveillance capabilities utilized by the NSA, the technologies it is developing, and the gentrification its employees are causing in every city they inhabit," the post states. "But our problem does not stop with Google. All of you other tech companies, all of you other developers, and everyone else building the new surveillance state -- We're coming for you next."
We now present for you a scene from "Monty Python's Life of Brian." Today, the role of the People's Front of Judea will be played by Counterforce (CF) and the role of the Roman Empire will be played by everyone's favorite whipping boy, Google.
CF Leader: Google bled us white, the bastards. Its employees have bought property in our neighborhoods, where they pay taxes, and its buses occasionally cause us inconvenience... And what has Google ever given us in return?
CF Follower One: The search engine?
CF Leader: What?
CF Follower One: Google Search. It's free and it works really well.
CF Leader: Oh, yeah, they did give us that.
CF Follower Two: And Gmail.
CF Lieutenant: Oh, yeah Reg, remember how bad the spam was before Gmail?
CF Leader: Alright. I'll grant you that Search and Gmail are two things Google has done...
CF Follower Three: And YouTube.
CF Leader: Well, obviously there's YouTube. I mean YouTube goes without saying, doesn't it? But apart from Search, Gmail, and YouTube ...
CF Follower Four: Free WiFi in spots around the Bay Area.
CF Follower Five: Google Maps. And Chrome.
CF Follower Six: Android, not to mention other Google open source projects, and hundreds of millions in grants to academic and nonprofit institutions.
CF Lieutenant #2: Oh yeah, that's something we've really misrated that Google has given us.
I could go on. But Counterforce isn't funny. Its arguments may be farcical, but its methods are misdirected and inappropriate. The group has managed to squander the opportunity for legitimate democratic speech by endorsing intimidation, harassment, and theft. The group's pamphlet, handed out to neighbors to convince them that Levandowski is a proxy for all that's wrong with the world, describes how group members surveilled Levandowski's home in preparation for their protest:
"Preparing for the action, we watched Levandowski step out of his front door. He had Google Glasses over his eyes, carried his baby in his arm, and held a tablet with his free hand. As he descended the stairs with his baby, his eyes were on the tablet through the prism of his Google Glasses, not on the life against his chest. He appeared in this moment like the robot he admits that he is."
Stalking people who really have very little to do with any of the things Counterforce objects to is not cool. Bringing people's kids into your anti-capitalist exercise is not cool. Suggesting that Levandowski is somehow less than human because he wasn't staring at his child is just asinine. Such behavior makes legitimate public advocacy more difficult by hardening the public and government officials against those seeking more reasonable ways to address social issues.
Google is not the problem and its employees deserve the same respect as anyone who gets up and goes to work day after day to earn a living.
Thomas Claburn is editor-at-large for InformationWeek. He has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and his mobile game Blocfall Free is available for iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire.
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