Alphabet’s shareholder is urging Google to better protect whistleblowers

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Alphabet shareholder Trillium Asset Management is urging Google to implement better whistleblower protection in light of the firing of prominent AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru. The $ 3.5 billion sustainable investment company has filed a shareholders’ resolution ask the board of directors for a third party assessment of the current policy.

“Reports show that many Google employees who have resigned or been fired … publicly report retaliation after expressing the human rights implications of corporate practices, including systematic racism and sexism in the workplace,” the resolution read. “These warning signs suggest the potential for internal culture, ethics and / or human rights problems.”

Trillium owns 63,078 shares of Alphabet, a stake that is currently worth approximately $ 140 million.

Gebru was fired late last year while working on a paper on the dangers of major language models. Two months later, her co-lead Margaret Mitchell was also terminated after using a script to search her emails for evidence of discrimination against Gebru. Google claims it has violated security policy.

Open MIC, a nonprofit that is working with shareholders to advocate for greater corporate accountability and help organize the proposal, says Mitchell’s resignation may have been retaliatory. “The justification they use is ‘this person has violated our work on data security,'” said associate director Hannah Lucal. “It’s important to lift that, because they are using trade secrets and data policies as an excuse to retaliate against worker organizers.”

The sentiment is echoed by the Alphabet Workers Union, launched in January in part to protect employees and contractors from retaliation. “We want to know that if a project goes off the rails, our colleagues who understand it can tell us,” said Andrew Gainer-Dewar, a software engineer at Google and a union member. “That’s why whistleblowing safety is so important. And that’s what we’re trying to build with the union. “

The new proposal is based on the still radical idea that whistleblowers are good for business. “Whistleblowers protect investors, not management,” said Jonas Kron, Trillium’s chief advocacy officer. “You naturally expect management not to support whistleblower protection as it is not in their narrow personal interest. Whistleblowers always embarrass management and are always a way for investors to protect the long-term value of the company. “

While Trillium and Open MIC hope to get more Google shareholders on board with the proposal, their larger goal is to raise awareness of the problem among business leaders. “The threshold for success is negotiable,” said Michael Connor, executive director of Open MIC. “Company directors are aware of every point on the vote. If you get 20 percent of the vote, the company is aware of the issues and often the largest shareholders will call them to discuss them. “

Trillium and Open MIC staged a similar proposal in 2020, but were shot. At the time, the board said it believed Google’s current policies were adequate.

“Our argument this year is basically that the proof is in the pudding,” says Kron. “A year ago you said everything was clever and in the meantime we’ve seen what happened to Dr. Gebru and the ongoing protests from Google employees, suggesting that things aren’t working right, that there are red flags that indicate something. indicate must change. “