Continued repercussions from Google's firing of Dr. Timnit Gebru
"Black people deserve better -- We do not encourage working or interning at Google"
Since our last update on events in the wake of Google's targeted firing of AI scientist Dr. Timnit Gebru, the story has continued to develop, and now includes a robust set of demands from Google's own AI team, more former employees sharing their stories, a Black-owned hiring support firm bluntly recommending against Google, an inquiry by multiple U.S. Congresspersons and Senators, and more. To avoid overwhelming this news update with long quotes from the numerous articles, I'll go lightweight on the extracts, but as always, the links to the full articles are available.
Our thanks need to go out in particular to Dr. Gebru for continuing to keep this issue and its interlocking issues in the news, as well as to everyone who takes a public risk by coming out and sharing your personal story. If you're a current or former Google worker and you do have a story to share, there are many tech accountability reporters who are willing to listen, and who can offer anonymity as required. I do maintain a list of reporters I've spoken to in the past, so if nothing else you can always email me.
Now, on to the news roundup plus some brief analysis:
- Dec. 7, Venture Beat: "Researchers are starting to refuse to review Google AI papers"
Computer scientists in AI are beginning to refuse to review Google AI research until Google changes its stance on former AI ethics co-lead Timnit Gebru... Refusals to review Google AI research by leaders in the machine learning community come at the start of Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS), the largest AI research conference in the world...
- Dec. 8, Bold Prize
On December 8, Dr. Gebru was named co-recipient of this year's Bold Prize, alongside former Pinterest employees Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks, for her bravery and integrity in speaking out against racism. The Bold Prize is a crowdfunded award initiated in 2019 by human rights technologist Sabrina Hersi Issa. From the Bold Prize home page:
The Bold Prize is intended to lift up and honor courageous Black women leaders. Often Black women navigating painful environments like these feel invisible and isolated. This award is a small gesture to say: We see you. We got us.
You can contribute to this year's Bold Prize award at charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/bold-prize
- Dec. 16, Bloomberg: "Google AI Researchers Lay Out Demands, Escalating Internal Fight"
A group of Google artificial intelligence researchers sent a sweeping list of demands to management calling for new policies and leadership changes...
“Google’s short-sighted decision to fire and retaliate against a core member of the Ethical AI team makes it clear that we need swift and structural changes if this work is to continue, and if the legitimacy of the field as a whole is to persevere,” the letter reads.
“This research must be able to contest the company’s short-term interests and immediate revenue agendas, as well as to investigate AI that is deployed by Google’s competitors with similar ethical motives,” the researchers added.
Note the inclusion of the robust demand for the right to "contest the company's revenue agendas". The right to block the corporation from pursuing unethical lines of business is something that prior employee efforts, such as the cancel-Maven and no-border-patrol-contracts initiatives, have implicitly demanded.
- Dec. 17, MIT Technology Review: "Congress wants answers from Google about Timnit Gebru’s firing"
Nine members of the US Congress have sent a letter to Google asking it to clarify the circumstances around its former ethical AI co-lead Timnit Gebru’s forced departure. Led by Representative Yvette Clarke and Senator Ron Wyden, and co-signed by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, the letter sends an important signal about how Congress is scrutinizing tech giants and thinking about forthcoming regulation...
Citing MIT Technology Review’s coverage, the letter raises three issues: the potential for bias in large language models, the growing corporate influence over AI research, and Google’s lack of diversity. It asks Google CEO Sundar Pichai for a concrete plan on how it will address each of these, as well as for its current policy on reviewing research and details on its ongoing investigation into Gebru’s exit...
Representative Yvette Clarke is also the sponsor of the Algorithmic Accountability Act, introduced in 2019, which would create a legislative framework to mandate the evaluation of certain types of large-company algorithms and establish protections for consumers and society. We can view the sending of this well-timed letter as an example of a "dilemma action" -- if Google ignores the letter, it strengthens the rhetorical case for why we need laws like the Algorithmic Accountability Act; if Google responds to the letter, it reinforces the legal reality that corporations are entities subject to, and deserving of, government oversight and restraint.
- Dec. 22, former Google employee April Christina Curley goes public with her story of bias
This story has only gone public in the past 24 hours, so what we have at the moment are articles that summarize April Christina Curley's story as she related it in her Twitter feed, however I can imagine that she's now receiving requests for interviews.
The story from Business Insider:
A Black ex-Googler claimed she was told by a manager that her Baltimore-accented speech was a 'disability' and later fired
... April Christina Curley, a Black woman, started working for Google in 2014 as a diversity recruiter. In a Twitter thread on Monday evening, she spoke of her departure from the company in September this year.
Curley said she was "repeatedly denied promotions, had my compensation cut, placed on performance improvement plans, denied leadership opportunities, yelled at, [and] intentionally excluded from meetings."
She also wrote: "My skip-level manager, a white woman, told me VERBATIM that the way I speak (oftentimes with a heavy Baltimore accent) was a disability that I should disclose when meeting with folks internally."...
- Dec. 23, Moguldom Nation: "HBCU Internship Program Advises Students Not To Intern At Google Because It Disrespects Black People"
HBCU 20×20, the largest job and internship network connecting students and graduates of HBCUs, said it is canceling its long-term partnership with Google after a former employee there claimed the tech giant purposely overlooked students from Historically Black College and Universities as potential staff...
Nicole Tinson, who founded HBCU 20×20 in 2017, said in a tweet, “We refuse to partner with a company that continues to oust/disrespect Black people. Black people deserve better, and it’s clear Google has not find the need to do better. We do not encourage working or interning at Google.”
This announcement from HBCU 20x20 followed soon after April Christina Curley's telling of her story on December 22. Statements from the accounts of HBCU 20x20, and from HBCU 20x20's CEO Nicole Tinson, are available online:
HBCU20x20 statement: twitter.com/HBCU20x20/status/1341428485160460289
CEO Nicole Tinson's statement: twitter.com/Nikki_T/status/1341182893092200448
It can be easy to get lost in the details of the daily news cycle, as the beast which is Racism In Tech becomes more and more visible, but here's some cursory analysis:
1. Telling stories publicly continues to have an impact.
It's never easy, and it's often not safe, but telling your story of discrimination, of mistreatment, or of company ethical violations continues to be, at present, one of the major mechanisms to push for change to Big Tech.
2. If you have the power to support someone, use it.
One of the great developments to observe as Dr. Timnit Gebru's story has unfolded has been the variety of individuals and organizations that have used their power to support her story, to create consequences for Google, and to build momentum for change.
3. Two out of three ideas became reality - will we make it three for three?
In my December 6 news roundup, I brainstormed three actions that could be taken by external entities that would put pressure on Google. One was to have HBCUs start to issue warnings about Google's toxicity to people of color, which has now happened indirectly via the HBCU 20x20 announcement. Another was Congressional pressure, which happened on December 17 with the release of Rep. Yvette Clark's letter. We don't yet have that shareholder lawsuit for "facilitating and ignoring a pervasive culture of systemic racism" that I suggested, but litigation takes a long time in the planning, so time will tell.
4. "Self-accountability" is an oxymoron.
It should be clear at this point that any prospects of "tech holding itself accountable" are nonsense. I can recall Google TGIFs in the past, probably around the time that news broke of the $90M Andy Rubin payout, where Sundar Pichai made straight-faced statements about how "we executives will need to hold each other more accountable." That's not going to happen, it's never going to happen. Self-enforcement is non-enforcement. The Break Up Big Tech movement has known this for a long time. We need strong, robust, publicly-accountable and controllable third-party entities, particularly including our governments, that set enforceable ground rules for how large corporations are allowed to behave.
5. Idea: Establish a third-party "Corporate Anti-Racism Index" in the model of HRC's Equality Index.
If we support the premise that self-accountability means no accountability, it suggests that we need external entities to create sustained, public pressure on Big Tech to scrub the racism from its culture and business practices. One tool of corporate behavior influence that the LGBTQ advocacy movement has used for years is HRC's annual Corporate Equality Index, a 0-to-100 scoring system which HRC bills as a "benchmarking tool on corporate policies, practices and benefits pertinent to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer employees." Companies like Google make very strong efforts to always receive the maximum score of 100 on this index.
In that spirit, I could envision a public "Corporate Anti-Racism Index", developed and scored by a coalition of third-party brand-name organizations such as the NAACP and Color of Change. Ground rules for the scoring, and the scoring process itself, would be maintained entirely within the non-profit coalition, which would put a heavy emphasis on speaking anonymously with current and former employees about their lived experiences at the Big Tech firms, not simply on asking the corporate PR department "do you have a DEI program?" The Corporate Anti-Racism Index would be an external accountability action imposed on Big Tech from the outside, Big Tech wouldn't be able to do anything to stop it, and it doesn't require worker unionization to make it happen. Creating such a rating program might mean that the coalition nonprofits would find some of their corporate donations cut off, but if that happens it's a good thing -- any funding that comes with expectations of docile behavior is money that no nonprofit should want to accept.
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