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Google is once again stuck in a Catch-22.
If it bends to pressure from more than 1,200 employees who signed a petition calling on the company to remove the leader of a conservative think tank from its new ethics advisory board, it risks intensifying allegations from President Trump and Republicans that it is biased against conservatives. But if it keeps Heritage Foundation President Kay Coles James on the board, it could alienate employees and potential recruits who think her positions on LGBTQ and gender issues are at odds with the company's diversity commitments.
The company is between a “rock and a hard place,” said Garrett Johnson, the co-founder of the Lincoln Network, a nationwide network of right-leaning technology workers.
“It’s going to look very negative in the press if they bend to this pressure to cut Coles James,” he told me. “It’s going to feed a narrative of anti-conservative bias.”
The groundswell of Googlers' support for the petition since it published yesterday highlights how tech employees are increasingly embracing activist strategies to steer policy decisions by leadership at their companies. But the backlash driven largely by liberal employees is contributing to the image that the tech companies are politically motivated — which could add to their headaches in Washington.
Many Republicans are arguing that liberal employees in Silicon Valley built algorithms that are systematically biased against conservatives — and resulted in the suppression of their voices on social media or unfair search results. While there's been no evidence to back up such claims, it's a topic that keeps coming up as Republicans float possible regulations of the tech industry. Google chief executive Sundar Pichai was just in Washington last week meeting with Trump, who tweeted that the issue of “political fairness” came up in their meeting.
James's inclusion on the advisory board was a potential sign that the search giant is hearing this growing criticism from Republicans. But Johnson says the backlash raises many more questions.
“If tech companies claim that they want to build platforms that encourage thoughtful debate and empathy, but they cannot achieve that within own workforces, what does it say about their ability to build these forums?” Johnson told me.
The controversy began last week as Google unveiled its Advanced Technology External Advisory Council, which convened artificial intelligence experts from around the world. The company’s inclusion of James drew immediate scrutiny on social media, particularly because of the political positions they said James took on gender issues and immigration. Over the weekend, another member of the committee, Alessandro Acquisti, dropped out — vaguely saying he no longer thought it was the right forum for him to influence ethical discussions.
From Acquisiti, a leading behavior economist:
I'd like to share that I've declined the invitation to the ATEAC council. While I'm devoted to research grappling with key ethical issues of fairness, rights & inclusion in AI, I don't believe this is the right forum for me to engage in this important work. I thank (1/2)— alessandro acquisti (@ssnstudy) March 30, 2019
A petition was published yesterday and quickly gained signatures from employees and other influential technologists outside the company. In the petition, the employees cited previous tweets from James, including one where she spoke out against legislation banning LGBTQ discrimination, called the Equality Act. In her tweet, she criticized the legislation for opening every female bathroom to biological males.
“Not only are James’ views counter to Google’s stated values, but they are directly counter to the project of ensuring that the development and application of AI prioritizes justice over profit,” the employees wrote. “Google cannot claim to support trans people and its trans employees — a population that faces real and material threats — and simultaneously appoint someone committed to trans erasure to a key AI advisory position.” James did not respond to a request for an interview through the Heritage Foundation.
In its announcement of the council, Google described James as a “public policy expert” with extensive experience at the city, state and local levels of government. She was tapped to lead the pro-Trump think tank in 2017, becoming the first African American woman to lead the organization known for influencing top conservatives. James previously served as the director of the Office of Personnel Management during George W. Bush's administration. She also served as Secretary of Health and Human Services under former Virginia governor George Allen and she worked in several positions in George H.W. Bush's administration. The company touted James's focus on limited government, individual freedom and national defense.
Google also did not respond to requests for comment. But Johnson said the company would have faced criticism if it didn't include a conservative representative on the council and said James's political views are not “outside the mainstream” of conservative thought.
Now the spotlight is on Google — which has sided with its employees before and faced the consequences in Washington. Last year, Google pulled out of Project Maven, a high-profile contract with the Pentagon to build drone artificial intelligence, following backlash from employees who raised ethical concerns about building technology that could be weaponized for war.
Lawmakers criticized Google for withdrawing from the contract, saying the move was not patriotic, especially as the company was considering a search product in China.
BITS: Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg yesterday floated a “news tab to surface more high-quality news” and said he might pay publishers to feature their content there, according to Recode's Peter Kafka.
Zuckerberg's comments came in a conversation with Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner, which Facebook posted here.
“We talked about the role quality journalism plays in building informed communities and the principles Facebook should use for building a news tab to surface more high-quality news, including the business model and ecosystem to support it,” Zuckerberg wrote in an introduction to the vido.
Zuckerberg is traveling in Germany this week as part of the company's broader efforts to engage with lawmakers and regulators around the world.
NIBBLES: Facebook says it took down hundreds of pages and accounts that were coordinating to spreading misinformation ahead of India's elections, which begin on April 11, the Wall Street Journal's Newley Purnell reports.
Some of the accounts the company took down had ties to employees of the Pakistani military's public-relations wing and others linked to the opposition Indian National Congress party. The company said it removed 103 pages, groups and accounts from its platform and Instagram associated with the Pakistani military public-relations wing employees. The accounts had 2.8 million followers and spent $1,100 in advertising.
"In one example Facebook provided, an account called 'PakistaN Army - the BEST' posted an image of a smoldering jet with the text “Indian airforce has become a consistent failure which is evident from current embarrassment for India," Purnell wrote.
BYTES: A new biography about Apple chief executive Tim Cook offers a first-hand view from staff about the company's battle with the Federal Bureau of Investigation over its encryption practices following the San Bernardino terrorist attacks, TechCrunch's Zach Whittaker reports.
Tim Cook said the FBI's order to turn over the contents of the encrypted phone would have been “too dangerous” to comply with, according to Leander Kahney's “Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level.” Brian Sewell, the company's former general counsel, says in the book that Cook “bet the company” on its decision to fight the order.
“There was a sense at the FBI that this was the perfect storm,” Sewell says in the new book. “We now have a tragic situation. We have a phone. We have a dead assailant. This is the time that we’re going to push it. And that’s when the FBI decided to file [the order].”
The Justice Department eventually paid hackers to break the phone, just a day before the case was set to go to trial. The legality of the order remains unsettled today. Cook was reportedly “disappointed” the case didn't come to trial because he thought Apple could win.