Google Shareholders Pressure CEO Sundar Pichai Over Saudi Project

Shareholder group Ekō has been among the most vocal opponents of building a Saudi Arabian data center.

A cardboard cutout of Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince.
A cardboard cutout of Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince MBS outside Google’s San Francisco office on June 2. Courtesy of Ekō

Google (GOOGL) CEO Sundar Pichai is under fire over the tech giant’s plan to build a major cloud computing facility in Saudi Arabia, an emerging destination for Western tech companies to establish data centers.

At Google parent company Alphabet (GOOGL)’s annual shareholders meeting on Friday (June 2), a group raised concerns about placing a data center in Saudi Arabia, fearing it could enable the Saudi government to spy on activists, journalists and other political dissidents.

Outside a Google office in San Francisco stood a life-size cardboard cutout of Pichai shaking hands with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS). Signs read “Google no deals with murderers” and “Our data is not safe with MBS.” In a possible reference to the Saudi government’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, MBS is depicted holding Pichai’s hand while carrying a bloodied bone cutter. The demonstration is attributed to an Alphabet shareholder group called Ekō, formerly known as SumOfUs.

At Friday’s shareholder meeting, Ekō presented a resolution calling for Google to publicly assess the human rights risks associated with placing a data center in Saudi Arabia and detail its plan on how to mitigate those risks.

Why do tech companies build data centers in human rights hotspots?

Global tech companies like Google rely on having data centers in different countries to provide cloud services to certain markets. In some countries, a foreign company is required to store user data locally in order to conduct business. For example, Apple opened a data center in Guizhou, China in 2017 to comply with local cybersecurity law despite widespread backlash in the West.

But Google’s Saudi project is a different case. The data center is a joint venture between Google and Saudi Aramco, the country’s state-owned oil company. Saudi Aramco will act as Google’s cloud reseller in Saudi Arabia and be the actual operator of the data center.

When first announcing the project in December 2020, Google said having a cloud region in Saudi Arabia will “enable Google Cloud customers to confidently grow and scale their offerings in this market.” At the time, Google also announced plans to build cloud regions in Chile and Germany.

Google currently operates more than 60 cloud regions globally, which are further divided into zones. Each cloud zone comes with its own set of services and limitations.

Saudi Arabia is a growing market for Big Tech data centers, a sector expected to grow 8 percent annually over the next five years. Beyond Google, a number of Big Tech companies have plans open cloud regions in the country in the upcoming years—including Microsoft, Oracle and Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Huawei.

Google claims it has fully assessed human rights risks but shareholders are not convinced

Alphabet urged shareholders to vote against the resolution, according to the company’s proxy statement filed on June 2. “When making business decisions about where to locate data centers, we consider a number of important factors, including human rights and security, as well as how to optimize our overall data infrastructure so as to provide a high level of performance, reliability, and sustainability,” Alphabet said in the filing. “And we undertake human rights due diligence when expanding data center operations into new locations.”

Ekō took issue with the fact that Google hasn’t released its assessment. “Google claims to have done a human rights impact assessment for this decision, but refuses to provide transparency into its findings and mitigation efforts,” said Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi dissident who delivered Ekō’s resolution, at Friday’s meeting, according to a recording obtained by Observer. “Absent of that, hundreds if not thousands of activists in the region are now at risk of Saudi’s brutal abuses.”

“It puts activists and journalists at risk, and will fundamentally change how users in the region engage with Google products and other apps that use Google cloud services,” said Rewan Al-Haddad, a campaign director with Ekō, in an email. “We want Google to keep our data safe, not hand it over on a silver platter to oligarchs that butcher dissidents.”

Eko has launched a petition urging Google CEO Pichai and other executives and investors to cancel the Saudi plans and stop building data centers in other countries with human rights abuses. The petition has received more than 124,000 signatures to date.

Google Shareholders Pressure CEO Sundar Pichai Over Saudi Project