Google silences and then fires a Black artificial-intelligence expert

When Google hired Timnit Gebru last year, it was seen by many in the artificial-intelligence field as a significant vote in favor of ethical AI research, and a welcome sign of an interest in diversity at the company. Dr. Gebru, who is Black, not only wrote a highly regarded paper on the limitations of facial recognition (which her research showed routinely misidentified people of color) but also co-founded the Black in AI research initiative, and has helped champion diversity throughout the industry. What better person to lead Google’s Ethical AI research team? And lead it she did — up until a week ago, when she says she was effectively fired by the company via email. Her Twitter post to that effect led to a firestorm of criticism aimed at Google: so far, more than 1,200 Google employees have signed a petition calling for her to be reinstated, and more than 1,500 academic researchers have spoken out in protest.

In a Twitter thread on December 2, Gebru said that she was fired by the head of AI research at Google, in part because of an email she sent to an internal mailing list made up of other AI researchers at the company. “I was fired by @JeffDean for my email to Brain women and Allies. My corp account has been cutoff. So I’ve been immediately fired :-)” she wrote. In subsequent tweets, she described how a research paper she submitted — which she wrote with several other researchers at Google — had been rejected as unsatisfactory. When she asked that the company meet a number of conditions in order for her to continue working there, she says her superiors took it as a statement of resignation, and then added that her departure should take effect immediately, because “certain aspects of the email you sent last night… reflect behavior that is inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.”

In the email that Google said was responsible for her immediate termination (which was published first by former Verge writer Casey Newton in his Platformer newsletter) Gebru said that she had not posted to the mailing list for some time because of “all the micro and macro aggressions and harassments I received after posting my stories here.” She also told others on the list to “stop writing your documents [here] because it doesn’t make a difference… they don’t matter. Because there is zero accountability. There is no way more documents or more conversations will achieve anything.” Dr. Gebru also referred to the unusual practice of getting feedback on a research paper through a confidential document to the Human Resources department at Google. “Does that sound like a standard procedure to you or does it just happen to people like me who are constantly dehumanized?” she asked.

From the magazine: The New York Times and the unending blizzard of takes

The head of AI research at Google, Jeff Dean, sent a response to Gebru’s email to Google staff (which Newton also published) in which he noted that she was no longer working there, and that this was “a difficult moment.” According to Dean, the paper that Gebru submitted was sent only a day before the deadline, when the standard is two weeks in advance, and that it was submitted without feedback. When a team reviewed it, Dean said they found it “didn’t meet our bar for publication,” in part because it “ignored too much relevant research.” A number of critics have noted that a significant part of the research in question was aimed directly at the powerful algorithms that underlie Google’s core business, and the criticisms made of them in the paper could have posed a threat to that business. Among the conclusions are that “a methodology that relies on datasets too large to document is inherently risky.”

Gebru’s departure and the furor it has created in the research community have put Google into damage-control mode: Sundar Pichai, the company’s chief executive, promised on Wednesday to look into the circumstances of her leaving. “We need to accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent Black, female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily,” he wrote in an internal email published by Axios. But the apology didn’t seem to land well with Gebru: in a Twitter thread, she said “Don’t paint me as an ‘angry Black woman’ for whom you need ‘de-escalation strategies’.” And she also noted that Pichai’s email didn’t include an apology for what actually happened to her, only for how it turned out for the company: “It does not say ‘I’m sorry for what we did to her and it was wrong.’ What it DOES say is ‘it seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google.’ So I see this as ‘I’m sorry for how it played out but I’m not sorry for what we did to her yet.'”

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Here’s more on Google and ethics:

  • Extra scrutiny: Google’s treatment of Gebru led some to question the company’s entire commitment to ethics in AI. “This shows how some large tech companies only support ethics and fairness and other A.I.-for-social-good-causes as long as their positive PR impact outweighs the extra scrutiny they bring,” said Julien Cornebise, an honorary associate professor at University College London and a former researcher with DeepMind, a prominent AI lab owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company.
  • Unequal treatment: Technology reporter Julia Carrie Wong of The Guardian noted on Twitter: that the company’s treatment of Gebru was dramatically different than the way it treated a former executive who was accused of sexual harassment. “So Google gave Andy Rubin $90m and a hero’s farewell for credible allegations of sexual misconduct, but a prominent AI researcher is unceremoniously fired for a somewhat critical email expressing frustration with problems Google has admitted it has?”
  • PR in overdrive: Amid the scrutiny of her departure, Dr. Gebru pointed out on Wednesday that the company appears to be trying hard to repair its reputation for diversity. “A friend says a filmmaker hired by Google is working on profiles of ‘Black women in tech whose pioneering work is a platform for social change’ to be released in 2021,” she noted on Twitter, adding that “If this is true it would continue a long tradition of gaslighting mentioned in my email that got me ‘resignated’.”
  • Violations: Google’s actions amid workplace organizing efforts, including the high-profile firings of several employees, were illegal violations of the National Labor Relations Act, federal regulators said this week, according to a report from Ars Technica. The regulators filed a formal complaint against the company, saying it had been “interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees” to interfere with workplace organization rights that are protected by law.

 

Other notable stories:

  • The Federal Trade Commission and 46 states filed an antitrust complaint against Facebook on Wednesday, alleging the company has a monopoly on social networking, and has used illegal tactics to maintain that monopoly. Among other things, the claim says the acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp were fundamentally anti-competitive and should be undone. In response to the lawsuit, Facebook said the claims amount to “revisionist history,” and that its purchases were reviewed by regulators at the time and found to be acceptable. “Now, many years later, with seemingly no regard for settled law or the consequences to innovation and investment, the agency is saying it got it wrong and wants a do-over,” the company said.
  • The Trump administration has backed off an earlier threat to file a subpoena demanding that BuzzFeed News reveal the sources it used for stories on Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A statement from an ICE spokesperson said the subpoena was part of an investigation of potential employee misconduct, and that BuzzFeed “subsequently declined to provide details regarding the sources of the unauthorized disclosure of law enforcement sensitive information. At this time, ICE will not enforce the summons and will pursue the investigation through other channels.”
  • According to the latest network TV ratings, Newsmax TV has come out ahead in a ratings battle with Fox News for the first time ever, CNN reports. Fueled by conservative viewers disappointed by the election results, media writer Brian Stelter writes, “Greg Kelly Reports” on Newsmax beat “The Story with Martha MacCallum” on Fox in the key 25- to 54-year-old demographic. The margin was narrow, but it is still a milestone, Stelter says. “Before the election, Newsmax was not regarded as a formidable competitor to Fox; it was mostly dismissed as one of a handful of wannabe challengers. But President Trump’s loss on November 3 changed the cable TV calculus.”
  • YouTube announced that as of Wednesday, the Google-owned video-hosting service will start removing any piece of content that misleads people by alleging that widespread fraud or errors changed the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. It said its prior approach in some cases meant allowing “controversial views on the outcome or process of counting votes,” but that since enough states have now certified their election results, it will remove content that challenges that conclusion. “For example, we will remove videos claiming that a Presidential candidate won the election due to widespread software glitches or counting errors.”
  • Google informed its advertising partners on Wednesday that beginning today, it will lift the post-election political-ad ban that went into effect after polls closed on November 3, according to an email obtained by Sara Fischer of Axios. Once the sensitive event policy is lifted, its systems will again start enabling ads to be purchased across all of its ad-serving platforms (Google Ads, DV360, YouTube, and AdX Authorized Buyer) that fall under the scope of its election ads policy, Fischer says, adding that this could be important considering the two strategically important Senate races that are underway.
  • Most US adults don’t use news aggregators like Google News or Facebook News, and Americans are largely unaware of whether some of these aggregators do their own original news reporting, according to the latest research on news consumption habits from the Pew Research Center. “Even when it comes to more traditional news organizations, there is limited knowledge about where news reporting originates,” the report says. “Americans are largely accurate in self-assessments of their news source literacy: Many express little confidence in their ability to identify original reporting.”
  • The top executives at the owner of the Daily Mail took home a total of more than $32 million in pay, bonuses and incentives this year, according to a report in The Guardian, despite the fact that the Daily Mail & General Trust saw its pre-tax profits drop by 36 percent during the year as a result of the impact that the coronavirus pandemic had on newspaper advertising. “Between them, four executives at Daily Mail & General Trust – including Jonathan Harmsworth (Lord Rothermere), who chairs and controls the company, and the chief executive, Paul Zwillenberg – took home almost double the $17 million in pay, bonuses and incentives they got in 2019.
  • JP Lawrence, a foreign correspondent for Stars and Stripes based in Afghanistan, writes for CJR about how threats to shut the publication down have affected journalists like him and the areas they cover. The Trump administration announced earlier this year that funding for the newspaper would be removed from the federal defense budget and therefore the 159-year-old paper would likely shut down in September. “After a flood of online outrage, the publication’s demise was averted. And, under a new administration, the concerted efforts to destroy it look set to end. But the shutdown came too close to comfort for Stars and Stripes reporters, like me,” he writes.
  • Journalists at the Austin American-Statesman and its six community newspapers announced Wednesday that they are taking steps to unionize at the 150-year-old institution, according to a statement released by the Austin News Guild. The union said that a majority of the papers’ reporters, photographers, and other employees asked Gannett, the paper’s parent company, to voluntarily recognize the union. The statement said that after the cuts implemented by Gannett, “the remaining staff deserves a seat at the table when it comes to decisions that impact the future of the newspaper.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.