with Aaron Schaffer

Democratic lawmakers say Google has ignored calls for the tech giant to audit how its products and policies affect racial equity at the company, a tool civil rights advocates and their allies in Washington say is crucial for unearthing hidden biases.

In June, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) sent a letter to executives at Google and YouTube’s parent company, Alphabet, voicing concern that “harmful bias” was seeping into its products. He and four other Senate Democrats urged Google to tap an independent auditor that could issue “recommendations to make the company and its products safer for Black people.” 

Major corporations, including Facebook and Airbnb, are increasingly turning to racial equity audits, which empower an outside expert steeped in debates around technology and racial inequalities to investigate thorny issues including hate speech online, personnel hiring, and processes used to vet products for bias. Critics say these audits can spot and solve problems companies aren’t remedying themselves.

Ten House Democrats joined the call in July in a separate letter led by Reps. Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). Both groups pointed to “repeated instances where Alphabet missed the mark and did not proactively ensure its products and workplaces were safe for Black people,” including research finding that Google’s search engine results and algorithms perpetuate racial stereotypes and the company’s firing of Timnit Gebru, a top artificial-intelligence ethicist and one of the most prominent Black women in her field.

More than two months after lawmakers’ initial letter, Google has yet to reply to the request, according to Booker’s and Clarke’s offices. 

Booker, one of only three Black senators, said the company’s lack of a response speaks volumes.

“Their silence, at best, suggests they do not believe this is a matter of urgency that deserves their immediate attention,” Booker told The Technology 202. 

He added, “We know that lack of workplace diversity is a contributing factor to algorithmic bias. We also know that racial bias gets baked into the development of technology and can perpetuate discriminatory harms. What we do not know is the extent of the problem at Alphabet and Google.”

Google would not say whether it would commit to an audit, but in a statement, Google spokesperson José Castañeda said, “Racial equity is a top priority for us, and we absolutely consult and seek input widely, and are transparent about our work.”

Castañeda pointed to commitments the company has made in recent years to address racial equity concerns, including restricting potentially discriminatory ad targeting for housing, investing in historically Black colleges and universities, expanding policies against hate speech on YouTube and making strides on workforce diversity.

Google is just the latest Silicon Valley behemoth to face congressional pressure to appoint outside experts to probe its approach to issues around fairness, equality, transparency and inclusion in technology. 

After a two-year investigation, auditors tapped by Facebook found that decisions the social media giant made to prioritize free speech above other values constituted a “tremendous setback” for civil rights, and enabled abuse by political leaders. (Facebook committed to perform an audit in May 2018 amid pressure from human and civil rights groups, racial justice groups and officials in Washington.) In 2016, Airbnb released its own audit into discrimination and bias on its service. 

The report served as a withering rebuke of Facebook’s handling of issues related to technology, race and ethnicity, and outside advocates say it helped shed light on the social network’s inner-workings.

Advocates say Facebook’s civil rights audit was key, particularly given the platform’s influence around U.S. elections, when voter suppression efforts targeting minorities surfaced online. But a racial equity audit could broaden the mandate for investigators to also look at a bigger swath of issues, such as a company’s hiring practices and internal inclusion efforts. 

Racial justice advocates are hoping calls by Booker and others for Google to follow Facebook’s lead will illuminate more about how the search giant’s products, policies and practices affect communities of color. 

Color of Change President Rashad Robinson said Google’s responsiveness to concerns from civil rights groups about racial inequity has been woeful, even compared with its rivals.

“Google has responded the way folks respond that don’t care about Black people, that don’t care about racial injustice, and could care less about the harms of their platform,” he said. “Facebook has responded better and engaged more deeply than Google has.”

Robinson, whose group helped lead the charge to pressure Facebook to conduct a civil rights audit and in April called on Google to launch one on racial equity, said it was crucial for any such inquiry to be spearheaded by an outside expert with an extensive background on those issues. 

Castañeda, the Google spokesperson, said Google responded to Color of Change’s letter on the audit and has “had productive conversations with many civil rights leaders in recent months,” including Robinson’s group. 

Critics on and off Capitol Hill don’t appear ready to take Google at its word that it’s doing enough to counter concerns about racial inequities, however.

“The first step to fixing a problem is admitting that one exists,” Booker said.

Our top tabs

Google and YouTube will roll out new protections for users younger than 18. 

YouTube will turn off its “autoplay” feature as a default setting and remove “overly commercial” content from its children’s app, while Google plans to “block ad targeting based on the age, gender or interests of people under 18.” The changes come as Capitol Hill scrutinizes how major technology companies’ targeted advertising and privacy practices affect young users. 

YouTube Kids’ autoplay feature was a bugbear for child safety advocates and some members of Congress who argued that its algorithmic recommendations put children at risk. Lawmakers even proposed banning the feature for young users, and a House Oversight and Reform Committee panel requested documents on YouTube Kids’ features, such as autoplay, in April. 

The Senate couldn’t agree on limits to cryptocurrency tax-reporting in an impending infrastructure bill. 

A bipartisan deal to rein in new cryptocurrency language in the nearly $1 trillion infrastructure deal was stymied after a single senator objected, Jeff Stein reports. Critics argue that the current language in the bill could target miners, developers and the cryptocurrency industry at large. The Biden administration has said it won’t apply the rules to miners and developers. 

The Senate is set to vote on the bill this morning, my colleague Tony Romm reports

Apple defended its plan to scan for child pornography after it was criticized. 

Executives argued that the system better preserves user privacy than other technology companies’ methods, Reuters’s Stephen Nellis and Joseph Menn report. Encryption and privacy advocates say the plans are overly invasive and opaque, and could also be co-opted by governments that could use it to crack down on dissent. 

The company also revealed more information about the plan, including that users’ entire photo libraries will be scanned for child pornography if they’re stored on iCloud.  

Rant and rave

After compromise language on cryptocurrency didnt make it into a bipartisan infrastructure package, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square, tweeted that bitcoin will “unite a deeply divided country (and eventually: world).” Twitter was not impressed. Goodreads Cybil Wallace:

The New York Times’s Ryan Mac:

Our colleague Gene Park:

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  • The Senate Judiciary Committee discusses legislation to boost the power of state attorneys general to choose where antitrust lawsuits are heard on Thursday at 9 a.m.

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