Alphabet shareholder Trillium Asset Management is pushing Google to adopt better whistleblower protections in light of the firing of prominent AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru. The $3.5 billion sustainable investment firm has filed a shareholder resolution asking the board of directors for a third-party review of current policies.
“Reporting suggests that many Google employees who have resigned or been fired … publicly report retaliation after voicing human rights implications of company practices, including systemic workplace racism and sexism,” the resolution reads. “These red flags suggest the potential for culture, ethics, and/or human rights problems internally.”
Trillium owns 63,078 Alphabet shares— a stake currently worth roughly $140 million.
Gebru was fired late last year while working on a paper about the dangers of large 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 she violated its security policies.
Open MIC, a nonprofit that works with shareholders to advocate for greater corporate accountability and is helping to organize the proposal, says Mitchell’s firing may have been retaliatory. “The justification they use is ‘this person violated our data security work,’” says associate director Hannah Lucal. “It’s important to lift that up because they use trade secrets and data policy as an excuse for retaliating against worker organizers.”
The sentiment is echoed by the Alphabet Workers Union, which 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 coworkers who know about it can tell us,” says Andrew Gainer-Dewar, a Google software engineer and union member. “That’s why the safety of whistleblowing 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,” says Jonas Kron, chief advocacy officer at Trillium. “You naturally expect management not to be supportive of whistleblower protections because it’s not in their narrow personal interest. Whistleblowers are always an embarrassment to management and always a way for investors to protect the long term value of the company.”
While Trillium and Open MIC are hoping to get more Google shareholders on board with the proposal, their larger goal is making company leaders aware of the problem. “The threshold for success is open to discussion,” says Michael Connor, executive director of Open MIC. “Directors of a company are aware of every issue on the ballot. If you get 20 percent of the vote the company is aware of the issues and oftentimes the biggest shareholders will call them up and talk to them about it.”
Trillium and Open MIC organized a similar proposal in 2020 but were shot down. At the time, the board said it believed Google’s current policies were adequate.
“Our argument this year is basically the proof is in the pudding,” says Kron. “A year ago you said everything was hunky dory and in the meantime we‘ve seen what happened with Dr. Gebru and ongoing protests by Google employees, which suggests that things aren’t working well, that there are these red flags that indicate something needs to change.”