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Inside the Google employee backlash against the Heritage Foundation

‘They think that some of our colleagues either do not or should not exist’

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

When Google announced an external advisory board for AI projects last week, the company framed the decision as a step forward in accountability. Last year, the company had announced a set of principles for how to build AI tools, and this board, the company suggested, was the next step toward a more transparent Google.

“This group will consider some of Google’s most complex challenges that arise under our AI Principles, like facial recognition and fairness in machine learning, providing diverse perspectives to inform our work,” the company said in an announcement. The board, called the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), included recognized experts in AI research who had worked in the field for years.

But some members of the new board drew immediate scrutiny, especially Kay Coles James, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation. On social media, some characterized the decision as an attempt to cater to conservatives at the expense of true expertise in the field. By Saturday, one AI expert who was invited to the board had dropped out, vaguely noting that it may not be “the right forum” for the work.

Privately, several Google employees were also livid about the decision to include James, according to sources familiar with the discussions. On internal message boards, employees described James as “intolerant” and the Heritage Foundation as “amazingly wrong” in their policies on topics like climate change, immigration, and, particularly, on issues of LGBTQ equality. A person with James’ views, the employees said, “doesn’t deserve a Google-legitimized platform, and certainly doesn’t belong in any conversation about how Google tech should be applied to the world.”

The conversations turned heated and intensely critical, both of James and of Google leadership, according to sources. Employees criticized Google’s inclusion of James as “horribly negligent or outright malicious” and cited a recent tweet from her on how “powerful nations” were pushing “the radical redefining of sex.” Heritage recently hosted a panel of anti-transgender activists, and it has lobbied against LGBTQ discrimination protections proposed by congressional Democrats. The foundation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The employees’ concerns centered on what sort of input the board would have on Google technology. There are already questions about how AI technology could have a disparately negative effect on historically marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ community, and employees worried that the decision could further those problems. “They think that some of our colleagues either do not or should not exist,” one employee wrote.

In its announcement post, the company said the board will hold four meetings, starting this month, and the company will later publish a report on those meetings. It’s not yet clear how much weight executives will give to that report. “We hope this effort will inform both our own work and the broader technology sector,” the announcement read.

The debate at Google wasn’t wholly one-sided. Some employees stepped in to defend the appointment, either as a way to bring more views into the discussion around AI tools or at least as a savvy political maneuver. Those employees have seen James’ appointment as a way to get ahead of the conversation and ease fears about the company, arguing the board was likely “a political creation” and, by necessity, required conservative input. Critics of the board appointment have dismissed the idea as needless pandering.

Notably, just after the controversy over the appointment, President Trump tweeted that he had met with Google CEO Sundar Pichai. The two discussed the company’s work with the United States government. “I just met with Sundar Pichai, President of Google, who is obviously doing quite well,” President Trump tweeted following the meeting, mistaking Pichai’s position. “He stated strongly that he is totally committed to the U.S. Military, not the Chinese Military. [We] also discussed political fairness and various things that Google can do for our Country. Meeting ended very well!”

By Monday, some Google employees had organized against the company’s decision to include James on the AI board. In an open petition, organizers called James “vocally anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigrant.” The decision to place her on the board, the employees wrote, was a violation of Google’s stated values, and they added that the “potential harms of AI are not evenly distributed, and follow historical patterns of discrimination and exclusion.”

By the end of the day on Tuesday, more than 1,600 Google employees had endorsed the petition, organizers said. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

The backlash against James will place Google executives in a bind. Tech companies have faced pressure from both parties in Congress, as lawmakers have struggled with how best to regulate the tech industry. Google, like other companies, has long made overtures to conservative groups: the company was a major sponsor of the conservative CPAC conference last year, provoking internal concerns within Google, but it did not contribute this year. While the decision to bring James on to the board has left some employees furious, backpedaling on the decision might also earn the ire of conservatives who are already critical of the company.

“By appointing James to the ATEAC, Google elevates and endorses her views, implying that hers is a valid perspective worthy of inclusion in its decision making,” the letter from employees reads. “This is unacceptable.”

Update, 5:47PM ET: Includes new figure on number of employees who have signed the petition.