Google's targeted firing of Timnit Gebru: news roundup and analysis
|Dec 7, 2020|
Over the past 72 hours, we've seen major developments in the story and publicly-available information about Google's firing of Dr. Timnit Gebru. What began as an incident that Google HR presumably thought would pass under the radar as "just an ordinary departure" has now turned into an incident that has forced yet another look at the ongoing scourge of racism in Big Tech, and is starting to drive a conversation about the dangers of corporate-funded research. Here's a roundup of some of what we've seen since my original post three days ago.
- The email that Dr. Gebru sent to the internal "Brain Women and Allies" allyship list is now available for the public to read, as is the internal response ostensibly by Google manager Jeff Dean, which probably wasn't written by Jeff Dean at all, but by Google's lawyers. External commenters have already called out Dean's internal and external responses as containing lies, deception, and gaslighting.
- The maintainers of the original Google Walkout for Real Change Medium account, which dates back to the 2018 Google walkout, have launched a petition of support which, as of this writing, has over 4000 signatories both internal and external to Google:
"To add your name to the list of academic, civil society, and industry supporters (Googlers, see go/stand-with-timnit):
Email StandWithTimnit@gmail.com from your institutional email address (preferred) with the subject line “support”
Include your name and affiliation, as you’d like it to appear on the list of signatories."
- The story has hit the New York Times:
"Google Researcher Says She Was Fired Over Paper Highlighting Bias in A.I."
- And the Washington Post:
"Google’s star AI ethics researcher, one of a few Black women in the field, says she was fired for a critical email"
- And The Guardian:
"More than 1,200 Google workers condemn firing of AI scientist Timnit Gebru"
- Dr. Gebru granted an interview to Bloomberg Technology on December 3, which resulted in updates to Bloomberg's original article:
"Google’s Co-Head of Ethical AI Says She Was Fired for Email"
"Gebru was a rare voice of public criticism from inside the company. In August, Gebru told Bloomberg News that Black Google employees who speak out are criticized even as the company holds them up as examples of its commitment to diversity. She recounted how co-workers and managers tried to police her tone, make excuses for harassing or racist behavior, or ignore her concerns."
- The 10,000-person strong advocacy organization Data for Black Lives has issued a public statement:
"... We are shocked at Dr. Timnit Gebru’s departure from Google and are concerned about how this event and Google’s response could turn the clock back years on our civil and human rights..."
- Tawana Petty, the National Organizing Director of Data for Black Lives, has noted that the firing follows a well-worn pattern in which women of color who advocate for anti-racism and for accountability get targeted as "the problem" and forced out:
- Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has weighed in noting that the situation is "infuriating" and "a disaster":
Drew Harwell @drewharwellNew from @nitashatiku and me: Google’s star AI ethics researcher @timnitGebru says she was fired after sending a critical email. Highly regarded, and one of few Black women in a senior AI role, she had told coworkers she felt "constantly dehumanized" https://t.co/4dANWGKQj6
- Dr. Gebru's manager Samy Bengio, who was not informed of or consulted on the firing in advance (!), has posted a statement of support:
"... I stand by you, Timnit. I also stand by the rest of my team who, like me, was stunned and is trying to make sense of all this..."
- MIT Technology Review has obtained a copy of the research paper that Google tried to suppress, and has published a summary:
"... Titled 'On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big?' the paper lays out the risks of large language models—AIs trained on staggering amounts of text data..."
- Venture Beat also obtained a copy, and published its own article:
"AI ethics pioneer’s exit from Google involved research into risks and inequality in large language models"
The resulting media coverage represents a set of small victories that will increase public scrutiny of Google and its continued toxic HR behavior, bring more attention to the problem of racism both in Big Tech and within AI algorithms, and force Google to think twice -- or at least be more devious about it -- the next time the company wants to manage out a person of color.
What are some of the factors that gave us this success?
1. Make noise and provide a narrative. Rather than simply go quietly into the night, Dr. Gebru fought back, publicly. She said "I was fired, I didn't resign." She named names and gave a reason: "I was fired by @JeffDean for my email to Brain women and Allies." Naming names helps to frame a narrative and gives us a villain with a name and a face: “white man in position of power claims to support Black people, but he's actually throwing them under the bus. Here's his name.”
2. Release (or have somebody else release) information that builds your narrative. Dr. Gebru's internal email to the allyship list went public, and Platformer.news had the opportunity to publish it. Publication of the email provided sufficient traction to get tier-one media outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post involved. The story was no longer "somebody got fired for sending an unknown email that we don't have", it was now "a Black woman got fired for sending an email that specifically called out Google's treatment of people of color". The public release of the email created a second wave of articles, keeping the story in the news cycle.
3. Get public support. A wide variety of external, and occasionally Google-internal, supporters chimed in with public support for Dr. Gebru. Private support isn't enough - it's public statements that make the difference.
4. Talk to the press. Dr. Gebru spoke with Bloomberg on December 3, the day that the story broke. Telling your story publicly is important, otherwise the only side telling the story, and probably lying about it, will be the corporation.
5. Launch that petition. The owners of the 9500-follower Google Walkout Twitter account, which is almost certainly maintained by former employees, not current employees, launched the petition, which created a third wave of articles and continued to keep the story in the news cycle. A petition also provides external observers with a simple action that they can take in support.
What are some elements that I see missing?
1. Missing: any visible contribution by labor or allyship groups within Google. This triple round of news coverage wasn't driven by labor-style 1-on-1's; the petition is almost certainly organized by ex-employees, not current employees; and there have been no public statements that I'm aware of from any internal Google labor group, women-at-Google group, or people-of-color-at-Google group to express solidarity with Dr. Gebru. I regularly see statements that advocate what I call the "labor-only" approach to organizing, sometimes expressed as "the only way to help workers is through organized worker power!" The Timnit Gebru case suggests that the labor-only theory of organizing is simply wrong. For people seeking alternatives to the labor-only approach, I recommend looking into the Bargaining for the Common Good paradigm, which brings multiple community stakeholders together in alliance with organized labor. And, for a traditional community organizing approach rooted in the work of Saul Alinsky, see groups like the Midwest Academy and their training book, Organizing for Social Change.
2. Missing: any calls for institutions or actors other than Google to do anything. The petition itself contains three demands, all of which are leveled only at Google and are essentially "Google, do better". We've seen this movie before, back in 2018 with the Women's Walkout Demands, which were again a series of "Google, do better" pleas. My own opinion is that demands/requests/pleas to Google to "do better" are, on their own, doomed to failure. A sprawling, profit-focused monopoly like Google with deeply-embedded cultural toxicity simply isn't capable of redeeming itself. Instead, we need strong external forces that change Google's internal risk calculus. We need less pleading, and more threats with real teeth. Here are some examples:
- Google reform supporters could call on institutional investors that hold large stakes in Google to explore the possibility of a shareholder lawsuit, targeting Google management's multi-year failure to dismantle its toxic HR culture. Many of the behaviors we're seeing right now were called out, in public, by a multitude of employee statements two years ago during the Women's Walkout. Google senior management has failed to take substantive action to fix the problem, its failure to act is causing major negative impact to the Google brand on an annual basis, like clockwork, and the results are harmful to all Google shareholders. Sundar Pichai needs to be forced to act, and a lawsuit filed by some major pension funds might be what it takes to force his hand.
Institutional investors have just launched this type of litigation against Pinterest, accusing the firm of "enabling a culture of discrimination" that harms shareholders, so the potential for shareholder lawsuits to force change is quite real.
- Google reform supporters could call on the student placement and engineering departments of U.S. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to begin issuing written warning statements to their students about Google's toxicity to people of color. Students who are job hunting have a right to be fully informed about the history of employers in their treatment of minorities.
- Google reform supporters could call for public statements from Representatives Anna Eshoo and Ro Khanna, who represent the Congressional districts that include Mountain View and Sunnyvale. One of the largest corporations on the planet, one that lives in their backyard, appears to be suppressing research results in a way that harms the public good to favor its own profits, and is applying what strongly appears to be discriminatory treatment to its minority employees. As the petition notes, "This has become a matter of public concern".
Overall, however, this has been one of the rare cases in which Google was unable to quietly manage out an employee who somebody, or multiple somebodies, clearly wanted to eliminate. We need to offer our thanks and deep respect for Dr. Gebru's bravery in standing up to one of the most powerful corporations on the planet, and to the true allies who have publicly expressed their support over the past few days. May we all, when our time comes, be able to show the bravery that she's shown under fire.
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