Has the Tech Backlash Gotten So Bad That Googlers Need Private Security?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 16 2014 6:59 PM

Has the Tech Backlash Gotten So Bad That Googlers Need Private Security?

Protesters block a Google bus in San Francisco's Mission District in December.
Protesters block a Google bus in San Francisco's Mission District in December.

Image by cjmartin / Flickr

With a Bay Area tech backlash in full force, Reuters is reporting that Google appears to have resorted to private security guards to protect its employee shuttles from angry protesters and other evildoers."In recent days, men with earpieces have closely monitored passengers boarding Google commuter buses at the site of at least one bus stop in San Francsico's Mission District," the newswire's Alexei Oreskovic and Sarah McBride reported on Thursday.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

The story, an exclusive, is unusual for Reuters in that it appears to be based on the firsthand observations of one reporter, with no confirmation from Google, which declined to comment, or anyone else. Here's how Reuters' Alexei Oreskovic describes what he saw:

On two successive days this week, a pair of young men stood on a San Francisco street waiting for the special "Gbus" that ferries Google staffers to the Internet company's Mountain View headquarters 34 miles to the South. Dressed casually in jeans and wearing black ski hats or hoods, the two men did not stand out from the dozens of other young tech workers waiting for the Google bus. On close inspection, each sported the curly wire of an earpiece, and one occasionally jotted notes down on a yellow stick-it pad. ...
Asked if they were security guards for Google buses, one of the men replied "Can I see your badge?" ...
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A Google spokesperson declined to comment for Reuters' story, and the company has not responded to my request for comment.

If Reuters is right, the optics of this move border on dystopian. And it would seem to be another sign of growing mistrust between Silicon Valley tech companies and resentful locals. In December, protesters surrounded a Google bus at a Mission District bus stop, blocking it in and holding signs like “Public $$$$, Private Gains” and “Warning: Two-Tier System.” The next week, things got violent in Oakland when a Google bus had its window shattered.

The activists’ specific complaint was that Google has been using public bus stops without official permission. (Google has since reached a deal with the city to pay for its use of the stops.) The broader gripe is that rich, entitled young techies are driving up rents, displacing working-class residents, and undermining the city’s public infrastructure through rampant privatization.

As my colleague David Auerbach has observed, the new stereotype of tech employees as “a ruthless band of techno-libertarians” has been somewhat overblown. And as Matt Yglesias points out, plenty of other cities would surely welcome an influx of thriving tech companies if the Bay Area doesn’t want them anymore.

Still, the backlash is real and to some extent understandable, especially when it comes from people who make less money in 10 years of hard work than some Facebook employees gained overnight when the company went public. Nor is it limited to the Bay Area: Reports out of Paris last week had angry taxi drivers slashing the tires and smashing the windows of Uber cars.

No wonder Googlers are feeling threatened, and it’s hard to blame the company for wanting to protect its employees. That said, the demonstrations should be a sign to Google, Apple, and others that they have a larger problem on their hands. Hiring security guards may seem like a short-term fix, but it’s only likely to intensify residents’ sense of being excluded and looked down upon. A better move would be for the tech companies to reach out to city residents and officials and see what they could do to make sure the broader community shares in their good fortune.

The original Reuters story is here.

Previously in Slate:

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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