Google in tough spot over conservative pick for AI board

Google is being drawn into a new fight with conservatives — this time by its own workforce.

More than 1,720 Google employees have signed a petition asking the company to remove Kay Cole James, the president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, from a new Google panel.

The petition says that James’s positions on transgender and immigrant rights should disqualify her from sitting on Google’s new artificial intelligence (AI) ethics board, which was announced last week.

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The controversy poses a fresh challenge for Google, which is already facing criticism over a host of issues, including allegations of anti-conservative bias.

So far, the company has been publicly silent about the petition even as pressure builds from workers who want James gone and conservatives demanding Google’s leadership stand their ground.

Lawmakers and industry watchers told The Hill that James’s inclusion on the AI ethics council was likely an attempt to allay conservative concerns over alleged bias by Google and other online platforms.

“I think what Google’s trying to do is diversify the input because in the eyes of most conservatives, Google is biased against conservatives,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy GOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse Johnson opens door to subpoenaing whistleblower, Schiff, Bidens MORE (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told The Hill about the selection of James for the ethics panel.

Graham added that it was “good for Google to understand they’ve got a problem.”

James and Google did not respond to The Hill’s requests for comment.  

Google, though, has also faced criticism from the left, in particular LGBTQ groups which pressured the company to remove an app that critics said promoted conversion therapy, a discredited idea that a person can change their sexual orientation. Google removed the app last month. But critics noted the company only acted after a prominent LGBTQ rights group suspended Google from its corporate rankings.

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James’s comments about transgender people now have Google back under fire.

James’s detractors note that the Heritage Foundation, a D.C. think tank, has hosted panels and published commentary denouncing “the transgender agenda” and defended President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election MORE’s decision to bar transgender people from serving in the military.

James last month called the Equality Act, federal legislation that would enshrine civil rights for LGBTQ people, “anything but equality.”

“This bill would ... open every female bathroom and sports team to biological males,” James wrote.

The petitioners wrote that her inclusion on the ethics panel would indicate Google “values proximity to power over the wellbeing of trans people, other LGBTQ people, and immigrants.”

“By appointing James ... Google elevates and endorses her views, implying that hers is a valid perspective worthy of inclusion in its decision making,” the petition reads. “This is unacceptable.”

“There’s this effort to incorporate all of the opinions of as many stakeholders as possible, but a total ignorance of the fact that a stakeholder group that denies the legitimacy of nonbinary people, for instance, is not a credible, inclusive practice,” Ali Alkhatib, a computer science student at Stanford University and a petition signer, told The Hill. 

For conservatives, the petition is ammunition for their claims that Google is hostile to conservative views, and they have rallied to James’s defense.

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators at White House Senators confirm Erdoğan played 'propaganda' video in White House meeting MORE (R-Texas) called the Google employee protest “consistent with a persistent pattern.”

“We have seen Google and all of big tech behaving with naked partisan and ideological bias,” Cruz told The Hill. “It is more than ironic that leftists at Google, in the name of inclusivity, are pushing to bar one of the most respected African-American women in the country from participating in discussions of policy.”

Google has repeatedly denied claims that its search results are biased against conservatives and has noted that there is little evidence for those allegations. Google CEO Sundar Pichai just last week met with President Trump to discuss “political fairness,” Trump revealed in a tweet.

The Google employees, organizing under the title Googlers Against Transphobia and Hate, say the issue is not that James is a conservative, but that she has lobbied against expanded rights for LGBTQ people.

Google’s new AI ethics committee, which has fewer than 10 members, is tasked with providing an ethical check on AI technology as the company pursues new cloud computing business.

Googlers Against Transphobia and Hate say there are significant civil rights concerns around AI technology, including research showing that it can discriminate against and misrecognize transgender people.

Kate Crawford, co-founder of the AI Now Institute at New York University, said “respecting human rights for all should be a basic pre-requisite for membership of an ethics board.” 

“There’s no greater responsibility for major companies making AI tools that influence the lives of billions of people,” Crawford said in a statement to The Hill. 

The Google protesters wrote that the company should “place representatives from vulnerable communities at the center of decision-making” around AI technology.

Google so far has not responded publicly to any of the concerns raised about James and the AI ethics council.

Google workers have repeatedly pushed the company on different issues. Google last year ended work with the Pentagon on an AI project after criticism from employees about working with the military. And the company also gave up pursuit of a lucrative Pentagon cloud computing contract.

The latest controversy only highlights the difficulties in balancing the concerns of Google’s activist workforce with the company’s bottom line.

“The humanity of Google’s trans employees [and] customers is not an ideological bargaining chip that can be offered up in compromise,” the group of Google employees tweeted this week. “This is truly unacceptable, & we look forward to an on the record response from Google.”