Google pressed to conduct racial equity audit

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Civil rights organization Color of Change is urging Google to conduct a racial equity audit, spurred both by the Silicon Valley giant’s business model and its treatment of employees. 

The petition launched Tuesday calls for Google to take action in line with the public statements the company has put out after the nationwide racial justice protests last year sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“Google has made public statements about racial equity, about Black lives, and given us commercials and other online content to make us believe that they’re sort of working towards a better world — all while their product, and their practices have incentivized a lot of harm to our community,” Color of Change President Rashad Robinson told The Hill on Wednesday. 

The petition is part of a mounting effort to hold the tech giant more accountable for its practices. 

The concerns over Google are twofold; Google’s products and its practices toward employees are under fire in the petition for the racial equity audit. 

Robinson said the algorithmic bias that can lead to radicalization on a platform such as Google-owned YouTube is “so essential” to its business model that when it is called out by an employee, “they are then punished.”

“A lot of treatment of staff that we’ve seen is directly related to Google protecting its business model and profit over the lives and safety of its Black users,” Robinson added.

Google spokesperson José Catañeda on Thursday said the company welcomes feedback from Color of Change, but did not indicate whether the company would conduct a racial equity audit.

“Diversity, inclusion, and equity, as well as fundamental civil and human rights, are a key focus of our workplace, our supplier commitments and the way we run our company at Google. There is always more to be done, and as we continue to make steady progress on our racial equity commitments, we welcome feedback from Color of Change,” Castañeda, said in a statement.

Google has faced fierce pushback after the dismissal of top researchers on its artificial intelligence (AI) ethics team.

In December, former Google AI ethics researcher Timing Gebru said she was fired from Google after she was asked to retract a paper co-written by fellow researcher Margaret Mitchell and others that detailed ethical considerations of an AI technology used in Google’s search engine.

Thousands of Google employees rallied behind Gebru in December, along with academy, industry and civil society supporters, who signed a petition protesting her dismissal and called for Google to be transparent about her departure. 

Mitchell was fired from her position after she expressed concerns over Gebru’s dismissal. 

Google has pushed back on Gebru’s claims, calling her dismissal an acceptance of her resignation. Google has said Mitchell was fired over breaking multiple company policies. 

Google’s AI chief Jeff Dean later apologized for the handling of Gebru’s exit and announced some new diversity policies.

Color of Change’s push for Google to conduct a racial equity audit comes after successful demands for such audits at Facebook and Airbnb. 

The audits are important to help hold the companies accountable and to give the public clarity about the problems inside them. It is especially critical as Congress calls tech executives to testify at hearings, Robinson said. 

“That is the challenge as these companies go before Congress and try to claim that they’re working on the problem. We have no reason to believe it. If they actually want to be inside of a good faith conversation about working towards solutions, they’ll be more transparent about the issue at hand,” he said. 

Most recently, YouTube’s director of government affairs and public policy for the Americas Alexandra Veitch testified about the company’s policies at a Senate hearing Tuesday about social media algorithms and amplifications.

Monika Bickert, Facebook’s vice president of content policy, and Lauren Culbertson, Twitter’s head of U.S. public policy, also testified at the hearing. 

All three companies are also facing proposals, put forward by shareholder Arjuna Capital, to nominate a human rights or civil rights expert to their boards. 

The proposal for Google’s parent company Alphabet calls out similar issues raised by Color of Change, noting criticism Alphabet has faced for “failing to address hate speech that targets communities of color and marginalized groups.” 

In its proxy statement filed with the Securities and Exchange commission (SEC) last week, Alphabet recommends shareholders vote against the proposal. Alphabet states that it believes members of its board of directors are “qualified and equipped to provide risk oversight of civil and human rights issues.” 

“The fact is that these social media platforms have an enormous impact on millions of people every day. In fact, billions of people every day. And what this proposal is suggesting is that these companies need to look at it from a perspective that they have not been looking at in the past,” said Michael Connor, executive director at Open MIC, a group that works with shareholders to file proposals. 

Another Alphabet shareholder, Trillium Asset Management, put forward a proposal urging Alphabet to oversee a third-party review analyzing the effectiveness of its whistleblower policies in protecting human rights. 

Alphabet is recommending shareholders also vote against that proposal, arguing that the existing policies and practices “adequately address the concerns” raised in the proposal. 

Hannah Lucal, associate director at Open MIC, said the coverage of recent high profile Google dismissals, is just “the tip of the iceberg” and suggests there’s “more institutional harm happening” that the public is unaware of. 

“The proposal is saying, ‘can we have a third party, an independent party come in, and uncover the whole iceberg and understand and assess what is Google hiding? What is actually going on?’ Shareholders want to know, the public needs to know,” Lucal said. 

Alphabet stockholders will vote on proposals at a virtual meeting June 2.

Updated on Thursday at 4:19 p.m.

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