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Senate Democrats Urge Google To Investigate Racial Bias In Its Tools And The Company

Democratic senators, led by Cory Booker of New Jersey, say they worry about how Google's products and policies may perpetuate bias.
Anna Moneymaker
Getty Images
Democratic senators, led by Cory Booker of New Jersey, say they worry about how Google's products and policies may perpetuate bias.

A group of Democratic senators is urging Google parent company Alphabet to investigate how its products and policies may be harming Black people.

In a letter to the tech giant's CEO, Sundar Pichai, and other executives, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Mark Warner of Virginia, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said they worried about bias and discrimination, both in the products Google makes and the way it's handled workplace diversity.

"We are concerned about repeated instances where Alphabet missed the mark and did not proactively ensure its products and workplaces were safe for Black people," the senators wrote.

They highlighted several examples of Google products that appeared to produce biased results or potential harms for Black people.

"Google Search, its ad algorithm, and YouTube have all been found to perpetuate racist stereotypes and white nationalist viewpoints," they wrote.

They cited recent reporting from Vice showing that a new app to identify skin conditions hadn't been trained using a "sufficiently diverse" dataset and therefore wasn't effective on people with dark skin.

They also pointed to the controversial firing of prominent artificial intelligence ethicist Timnit Gebru, who was the first Black woman to be a research scientist at Google as well as a vocal critic of the company's diversity efforts.

The senators suggested the company has not made good on racial justice pledges Pichai made in a letter to employees and congressional testimony following the murder of George Floyd a year ago.

The first step, the senators said, is a "racial equity audit." They want Google to work with outside civil rights and legal experts to identify the root causes of any discrimination within the company and its tools, and what it can do to address the problems.

Google and other tech giants have long come under criticism for making slow progress in diversifying their largely white workforces. At Google, for example, only 3.7% of U.S. staff is black, according to its 2020 diversity report, compared with 2% in 2013.

The companies have also been slammed for not paying enough attention to the impact of their technologies on people of color and the way their design and development may perpetuate bias.

In their letter to Google, the lawmakers pointed to Facebook and Airbnb, which have done similar audits examining racial bias and discrimination on their platforms and within their companies after outside pressure from activists and lawmakers.

Facebook's audit, completed last year, gave a damning assessment of what the outside auditors called the company's "vexing and heartbreaking decisions" to prioritize free speech over civil rights.

The senators said a similar investigation is long overdue at Google.

"As Congress and the federal government do more to protect communities of color from civil rights violations online, companies need to do their part by examining areas for improvement and ensuring their workplaces are safe for members of these communities," they wrote.

"We can no longer rely on promises and need Alphabet to take affirmative steps to protect Black people and other people of color."

Google did not respond to NPR's request for comment.

Editor's note: Google, Facebook and Airbnb are among NPR's financial supporters.

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Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.