Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Stephen Shankland / CNET

Google’s parent company Alphabet faced a deluge of withered complaints at its annual meeting on Wednesday, as shareholders criticized the tech giant for its human rights efforts, against disinformation and establishing protections for whistleblowers.

The meeting, which was held virtually, brought together Alphabet’s management with the company’s shareholders for procedural steps such as electing directors and approving share plans. But the rally also presented criticism in the form of shareholder proposals, a common feature of annual big business meetings and something institutional investors use as a platform to address management grievances.

One proposal urged Alphabet to appoint a director of the board with a background in civil and human rights. Another proposal prompted the company to adopt policies that protect whistleblowers who call the company for wrongdoing.

“Google and YouTube have become lightning rods for the spread of racism, sexism, hatred, violence and disinformation,” said Natasha Lamb, managing partner of Arjuna Capital, who sponsored the rights proposal humans, during the meeting. “Today, Alphabet is tackling symptoms, not disease, which is a business model fueled by click bait and user profiling.”

This proposal, along with all the other shareholder proposals presented on Wednesday, was rejected by investors.

Alphabet’s reunion comes as the company faces threats on multiple fronts. The company is the target of three major antitrust lawsuits, including a landmark US Department of Justice case and another complaint from a bipartisan coalition of states.

Google has also been dealing with chaos in its artificial intelligence unit for months. In December, Timnit Gebru, one of the few prominent black women in the field, announced on Twitter that she had been fired on a research paper that called the risks of bias in AI, including in systems used by Google’s search engine. The fallout from this led to Google’s sacking of Margaret Mitchell, who co-led the company’s ethics AI unit with Gebru, after a data security investigation. Samy Bengio, who ran Gebru and Mitchell and expressed his support to them, resigned in April.

The shareholders raised the controversy over the exit of Gebru in the proposal on the protection of whistleblowers. Jeff Dean, chief AI officer at Google, acknowledged in a recent interview with CNET that the blow to Google’s reputation by the turmoil could hamper efforts to recruit new researchers.

Asked about the ethics of AI in a question-and-answer session on Wednesday, Google senior vice president of global affairs Kent Walker defended the company’s track record. “We are of course very familiar with the problems with machine learning models, such as unfair bias,” he said. “And we have been developing these technologies for many years.” But the company made no mention of the evictions of Gebru and Mitchell, who had done high-profile research in the area.


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