Senators ask Google to conduct racial equality audit

Google sign above a glass entrance to a building
(Image credit: Google)

Senate Democrats have written to Alphabet and its subsidiaries Google and YouTube, urging it to audit their racial equality. The companies are falling behind in racial inclusion in their workplaces and in the technologies they develop, lawmakers warned.

Senators Cory Booker, Ron Wyden, Mark Warner, and Edward Markey published the letter this week. Addressing Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, and Google's chief marketing and legal officers, the letter warned that a racial equality audit was "long overdue."

"We are concerned, after hearing reports about your company and its products, about harmful bias at Alphabet," the letter said, warning of ethical issues with its use of AI. "Issues with Google search algorithms returning non-diverse image sets for basic searches and the more recent dermatology diagnosis algorithm that was not trained on dark skin tones are troubling."

In May 2020, Google announced an app that it said could recognize over 200 skin conditions but drew criticism from dermatologists who accused it of a "cavalier attitude" by not issuing a bias and accuracy study. The search giant, which later published an accuracy study in Nature magazine, focused on ethnicity rather than skin color in its training dataset, according to reports. Subjects with brown skin were underrepresented in the dataset, while dark brown skin was absent.

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

The senators also warned that Google's recent policy change on user tracking, called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), could classify people of color into groups based on interests that could make them vulnerable to further discrimination.

Researchers have attempted to highlight concerns around AI bias at Google but have accused the company of marginalization. Former staff research scientist and co-lead of the company's ethical research team Timnit Gebru claimed to have been fired by Google after the company quashed her research questioning the ethics of its AI-based text mining tools. She disputed the company's response that she resigned and received a lukewarm apology from Pichai.

The senators' letter warned that her dismissal undermined the company's commitment to create inclusive workspaces.

The senators called for the companies to work with civil rights groups to audit its racial equality practices, both in the workplace and in their technology development. The request follows a petition launched by online racial justice organization Color Of Change in April that also called for a racial equality audit at Google.

The letter follows a warning from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that companies should build transparency into their use of AI, enabling them to watch for bias.

Danny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury has been a print journalist specialising in technology since 1989 and a freelance writer since 1994. He has written for national publications on both sides of the Atlantic and has won awards for his investigative cybersecurity journalism work and his arts and culture writing. 

Danny writes about many different technology issues for audiences ranging from consumers through to software developers and CIOs. He also ghostwrites articles for many C-suite business executives in the technology sector and has worked as a presenter for multiple webinars and podcasts.