Activists, workers press Google founders to support racial equity audit
A collection of civil society groups and employees at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, sent letters to Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page and former CEO Eric Schmidt Friday urging them to support a racial equity audit at Alphabet.
The letters are pressing the three men to either support or abstain from voting on an investor proposal calling for an independent audit that will be evaluated at Alphabet’s annual stockholder meeting next Wednesday.
Brin, Page and Schmidt collectively control over half of all shareholder votes despite no longer being involved in the day-to-day operations of Google or its parent company because their shares have inflated voting power.
“[Y]our support or abstention has the power to make or break this popular and necessary investor-led advocacy,” read the letters, signed by the digital rights nonprofits Access Now, the industry watchdog Accountable Tech and the civil rights organization Color of Change.
The nonbinding proposal urges Alphabet’s board of directors to commission a third-party group to analyze the company’s adverse impacts on communities and people of color, both internally and externally.
Alphabet’s proxy statement has recommended shareholders vote against the proposal, arguing that the company is already committed to advancing racial equity and that it is already transparent about work it does in that space.
“Given our significant actions to evaluate and improve our DEI and racial equity efforts and our robust transparency around this work, our Board does not believe that the audit requested by this proposal would provide substantial additional information to stockholders as we advance this work,” the statement concludes.
Supporters of the racial equity audit point out that comparable companies, such as Meta and Apple, have committed to undergoing their own external reviews.
“Alphabet is one of the most influential companies on the planet that shapes people’s attitudes about all sorts of things through search, through YouTube,” said Michael Connor, executive director of Open MIC, a corporate responsibility group that also signed the letters. “The proposal … is not an extraordinary request.”
An audit, supporters say, is crucial to addressing research that Alphabet’s products are harmful to communities of color.
Ramah Kudaimi, the deputy campaign director of the Crescendo Project at the Action Center on Race & the Economy, another signer, pointed to the role she says YouTube plays in spreading anti-Muslim sentiment.
“YouTube unfortunately has been found in reports again and again to inspire anti-Muslim bigotry,” she told The Hill, citing New Zealand’s conclusion that the shooter who killed 51 people at Christchurch mosques in 2019 was radicalized by the platform.
“YouTube will continue to say ‘we’re getting better at it’,” Kudaimi continued, referring to promises about reducing the incidences of harmful content on the platform. “But sadly there’s not enough transparency about what is the actionable steps they’re actually taking around these issues.”
The proposal also highlights criticism of Google’s search engine for being amplifying to racial, ethnic and gender biases.
“We are concerned algorithms will rely on data that reinforces negative stereotypes and either exclude people from seeing ads for housing, employment, credit, and education or show only predatory opportunities,” a group of five Democratic Senators wrote in a letter last summer urging Alphabet to conduct an audit.
Supporters of the audit are also hopeful it can shed some light on internal workplace decisions that Alphabet has been criticized for.
“We’ve seen over the past years the impacts of discrimination in the workplace,” said Parul Koul, a software engineer at Google and the executive chair of the Alphabet Workers Union, which now counts over 900 members in its ranks and signed onto the letters.
“An audit like this would help reveal a fuller picture of what’s happening and, in my view, help certify what workers already know to be true: that these aren’t isolated incidents but part of a larger trend that Google must do more to address.”
Koul highlighted the high-profile dismissals of Timnit Gebru, a top Google artificial intelligence ethicist who said she was fired in 2020 after being asked to retract a paper, and April Christina Curley, a former recruiter who said she was let go for raising concerns about bias against historically Black colleges and universities during hiring.
“As current workers who work on the products and the tools that will be audited we want to be able to make clear that an audit is not a hindrance but a necessary step to ensure that Google’s tech and policies are ensuring a safer and more equitable world,” Koul added.
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