[Update: A Google spokesperson reached out to say. "We have not asked Code Club or its board to refrain from criticisng us." Code Club also published a blog post stating, "We are not under any obligation to endorse any of the products or services of our corporate funders."]
One of the founding members of Code Club, a volunteer-led organization that teaches programming to kids in the UK, has resigned after being told by its board not to criticize Google or any of the group’s sponsors.
In a blog post, Linda Sandvik writes, “On Monday the 25th of August the Code Club board gave me an ultimatum, either I have to stop saying negative things about Code Club sponsors, or resign as a director. After careful consideration, I have handed in my resignation.”
In February, Google invested £120,000 (or nearly $200,000 US) to help Code Club train 20,000 primary school teachers in programming. Apparently that cash also buys Google a board of directors that will never call the company out for its practices and policies. And despite Google’s innocent “what, me evil?” attitude, there’s plenty to take the company to task over, whether it’s Google’s complicity in mass NSA surveillance, its ties to government military contractors, or its support of think tanks backed by oil and gas magnates Charles and David Koch that have taken stances against women’s and gay’s rights, among other distasteful political positions.
Shortly after Sandvik revealed her resignation, designer and social entrepreneur Aral Balkan said on Twitter that he had resigned from Code Club’s board for the same reason.
“This is institutional corruption,” he said. “This is the danger posed by the monopoly of companies like Google. And it is affecting every aspect of society, including education.” Balkan has written extensively on the corporate surveillance Google and Facebook conduct on its users, going so far as to call it “Spyware 2.0.”
Of course it’d be silly to demand that Google, just because it does some controversial things, should stop donating money to causes like education, or that philanthropic or civic organizations should refuse this money on the grounds that Google isn’t always a saint. Sandvik herself admits she’s a pragmatist when it comes to corporations — none of them are 100 percent good, and Google does “some good things,” she says.
But if Google had attached strings to the cash, like a rule banning the board from expressing negative opinions (that, for what it’s worth, are also shared by many Americans), then it’s perfectly reasonable to question the company’s motives here. What other strings have they attached to the program? Will every teacher and student have to sign up for the programming training through Google Plus? Would Google make an intellectual property claim on all the lines of code written by these kids? How about inserting a nice Cold War era-style “You and the NSA” propaganda video into the syllabus, to help children learn early on that privacy is a joke?
How companies like Google and Facebook choose to spend their money has come under increased scrutiny of late. Facebook, despite claims that it supports diversity, donated $10,000 to an anti-gay rights politician last May, simply because he also supported open Internet initiatives. That came a year after Facebook came under fire for bankrolling two anti-environmental television ads to help win Republican support for immigration reform. And both Google and Facebook are members of the Technology Task Force belonging to ALEC, an organization that has produced some truly insidious mock legislation involving Voter ID laws that disenfranchise certain segments of the voting population, and Stand Your Ground laws like the one that kept George Zimmerman out of jail.
Google also raised some eyebrows after transferring $1 million to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (which itself recently partnered with a group of rightwing extremists looking to dismantle basically every social safety net the US has). It wasn’t so much the “donation” that attracted attention, but the way it was done, through a strange loop-hole that allows non-profit “member supported” organizations like the EFF to collect big corporate contributions.
The long-term goals of tech firms like Google and Facebook extend beyond simply serving customers. There are government contracts to win, legislation to shape, and, in the service of reaching those goals, political sacrifices to be made that may go against the core beliefs of the tech community that builds and uses these services. That’s why it’s crucial to keep an eye on where this money goes and what interest it may serve to the corporation. Because while $200,000 may not be much to Google, it’s a lot to Code Club — potentially enough to scare its board into capitulating to Google’s every whim.