Google announced the formation of a global council on technology ethics this week to some deserved trepidation. Sure, the company had amassed some highly qualified individuals to fill seats on this board—but Google’s track record of following its own internal ethics codes is less than spotless.
What provoked the most outrage, however, was the appointment of Kay Coles James to the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council, a former lackey in the George W. Bush administration and the current president of the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. She’s come under fire, in the press, and now by Googlers themselves, for views widely deemed to be transphobic.
“In selecting James, Google is making clear that its version of ‘ethics’ values proximity to power over the wellbeing of trans people, other LGBTQ people, and immigrants,” Googlers and academics wrote in an open letter on Monday. “Such a position directly contravenes Google’s stated values [...] By appointing James to the ATEAC, Google elevates and endorses her views, implying that hers is a valid perspective worthy of inclusion in its decision making. This is unacceptable.” The letter’s undersigned demand her immediate removal from the board.
Kent Walker, Google’s SVP of Global Affairs, announced the formation of ATEAC during the EmTech Digital conference last week. He’s previously spoken at the Heritage Foundation about increasing cross-border surveillance.
One of the other eight members of ATEAC, Carnegie Mellon Information Technology and Public Policy professor Alessandro Acquisti, has already announced his resignation from the board via Twitter. It’s unclear if his decision was influenced by the backlash against James.
Google’s recent forays into a Pentagon drone AI programme and a censored Chinese search engine make this latest misstep all the more predictable: Google has grown to such a size that its only options for continued expansion seem to include the undermining of its foundational values. Flirtations with entrenched political and military power have, in most recent instances, been met with similar backlash from the company’s own workers, often in the forms of similar open letters.
Google was not immediately available to comment on its decision to appoint James.
The letter is reproduced below in full:
Google must remove Kay Cole James from its Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC).
On 27 March, four days before Trans Day of Visibility, Google announced the members of its Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), which is tasked with informing the company’s decisions around AI and other technologies. Among those appointed to ATEAC is Kay Coles James, the President of the Heritage Foundation, who is vocally anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigrant.
In selecting James, Google is making clear that its version of “ethics” values proximity to power over the wellbeing of trans people, other LGBTQ people, and immigrants. Such a position directly contravenes Google’s stated values. Many have emphasized this publicly, and a professor appointed to ATEAC has already resigned in the wake of the controversy.
Following the announcement, the person who took credit for appointing James stood by the decision, saying that James was on the council to ensure “diversity of thought.” This is a weaponization of the language of diversity. By appointing James to the ATEAC, Google elevates and endorses her views, implying that hers is a valid perspective worthy of inclusion in its decision making. This is unacceptable.
Appointing James to ATEAC also significantly undermines Google’s position on AI ethics and fairness. The potential harms of AI are not evenly distributed, and follow historical patterns of discrimination and exclusion. From AI that doesn’t recognize trans people, doesn’t “hear” more feminine voices, and doesn’t “see” women of color, to AI used to enhance police surveillance, profile immigrants, and automate weapons — those who are most marginalized are most at risk. 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. Such a project should instead place representatives from vulnerable communities at the center of decision-making.
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. Given this, we call on Google to remove Kay Coles James from ATEAC.
Academic and Civil Society Supporters:
Joy Buolamwini, Algorithmic Justice League Founder
Dan Chiasson, Professor of English, Wellesley College
Catia Cecilia Confortini, Associate Professor Peace & Justice Studies Program, Wellesley College
Sasha Costanza-Chock, Associate Professor of Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Molly Crabapple, Author and Artist
Kate Crawford, Co-founder and Co-director, AI Now Institute at NYU
Stephanie DeGooyer, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard Univeristy
Cory Doctorow, Author and Activist
Lisa Duggan, Professor Dept of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University
Liz Fong-Jones, Co-founder of Trans@Google, and former Googler, Board Member of the National Center for Transgender Equality
Anna Geiduschek, Software Engineer, Dropbox
Emerson Goldstein, Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice
Evan Greer, Fight for the Future
Mar Hicks, Associate Professor, Illinois Institute of Technology
Raymond Horton, Frank Lautenberg Professor of Ethics and Corporate Governance at Columbia Business School
Leah Hunt-Hendrix, Co-Founder, Way to Win
Os Keyes, University of Washington
Naomi Klein, Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair of Media, Culture and Feminist Studies, Rutgers University
Lida Maxwell, Associate Professor of Political Science & Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Boston University
Judith A. Miller, Associate Professor, Dept. of History, Emory University
Ciamac Moallemi, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Business, Columbia University
Eni Mustafaraj, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, Wellesley College
Safiya Umoja Noble, Associate Professor in the Departments of Information Studies and African American Studies, UCLA
Liz O’Sullivan, Formerly Clarifai, Conscientious Objector
Jack Poulson, Founder of Tech Inquiry
Aziz Rana, Professor of Law, Cornell Law School
Cory Robin, Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center
Andrew Ross, New York University
Niloufar Salehi, Assistant Professor, School of Information, UC Berkeley
Rafael Shimunov, Immigration Activist
Danielle Skysdottir, Amazonian, software engineer, and board member of the glamazon and Amazon Women in Engineering affinity groups
Rebecca Solnit, Writer
Astra Taylor, Writer and Debt-Collective Co-Founder
Elena R. Vera, Executive Director, Trans Lifeline
McKenzie Wark, Professor of Media and Culture, The New School
Moira Weigel, Harvard University
Liz Wendell, Rural Advancement International — USA
Meredith Whittaker, Co-founder and Co-director, AI Now Institute at NYU
Featured image: Chip Somodevilla (Getty)