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Google employees worry software tweak threatens to silence dissent

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The brand logo of Alphabet Inc's Google is seen outside its office in Beijing, China on Aug. 8, 2018. -
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Thomas Peter Reuters
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Google employees are raising alarms on internal discussion boards about what they worry is a new effort by the company to stifle their efforts to organize — a change that Google says is just a tweak to its employee calendar system.

The conflict is the latest example of rising tensions at Google between management and employees, who like other workers at tech companies are trying to exercise more say in the direction of their company. Google employees have become more vocal about a range of issues including payouts to executives accused of sexual misconduct and U.S. military contracts.

Bloomberg News reported Wednesday that Google employees were circulating an internal memo criticizing the change to the company's calendar system and calling it a surveillance tool that might quash dissent. Some mocked the change with a Harry Potter-themed meme about "dark arts."

The software tool, a Chrome browser extension for employees, will automatically report when they create a calendar event with more than 10 rooms or 100 participants, Bloomberg reported, citing an internal memo written by a Google employee.

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A source familiar with the situation confirmed to NBC News that Google employees had raised concerns about the calendar change.

Almost a year ago thousands of employees staged a walkout to protest Google's handling of accusations of sexual misconduct by executives, and employees have criticized management about plans for a censored search engine in China and a Pentagon contract that could aid drone strikes.

Tensions continued to rise after two Google employees who helped organize last year's walkout said this year that the company had retaliated against them. On Monday, dozens of Google employees in Zurich met to discuss unionization despite a company effort to cancel the meeting.

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Google denied that the new tool is anything other than an effort to fight spam. "These claims about the operation and purpose of this extension are categorically false. This is a pop-up reminder that asks people to be mindful before auto-adding a meeting to the calendars of large numbers of employees," the company said in a response posted to Twitter.

Google said the change amounts to a speed bump to creating calendar events that might be spam. The company also said the tool does not collect personally identifiable information and that it went through the company's standard privacy, security and legal reviews process after months of development.

The Tech Workers Coalition responded to the company in a tweet: "If that's the case, will you make the tool opt-in for workers and open up the design docs so folks can review?"

Google didn't immediately respond.

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