Google conducting civil rights audit, caving to years of pressure


Google has quietly tapped an outside law firm to review how its services and policies impact civil rights and racial equity, following years of pressure from advocates and Democratic lawmakers to conduct such an assessment, according to two people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private deliberations.

The civil rights audit, which has not been previously reported, has been months in the making and set to examine how the company’s diversity and inclusion policies and approach to content moderation may affect marginalized communities, including at its subsidiary YouTube, the people said. The move follows rivals such as Facebook and Airbnb, which conducted audits in 2020 and 2016, respectively, and Apple, which last year pledged to do a racial equity audit after facing pressure from its shareholders.

The tech giant has hired WilmerHale, a prominent law firm that has represented a number of industry heavyweights, to carry out the assessment, the people said.

Democratic lawmakers and civil rights leaders in 2021 called on Google to hire an independent auditor to vet its products and policies for potential racial biases and discriminatory practices, citing concerns that the company could be exacerbating inequities.

“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,” a group of Democratic lawmakers led by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) wrote to the company’s leadership in 2021.

Google had previously declined to publicly commit to a review or audit, drawing blowback from lawmakers and civil rights groups, who questioned its commitment to protecting the people of color who use its products.

“Racial equity is a top priority for us, and we absolutely consult and seek input widely, and are transparent about our work,” Google spokesperson José Castañeda said in a statement at the time.

WilmerHale has advised at least two tech companies during their sales to Google, according to its website. It represented cloud computing company Orbitera during its 2016 sale to Google, and before that helped another cloud software firm, Stackdriver, when Google acquired it in 2014.

The law firm is currently representing Twitter in a case before the Supreme Court over whether social networks including YouTube can be held liable for terrorist content on their platforms.

Google and WilmerHale did not immediately return requests for comment.

Civil rights advocates say independent audits are a crucial mechanism for holding companies accountable for the way their products can adversely affect people of color within their user bases and workforces, and to ensure they are factoring questions about equity into their products.

While it’s unclear when Google first launched its review, the revelation arrives two years after Facebook made its own audit public and months after Apple committed to its own.

In 2020, auditors hired by Facebook to scrutinize its civil rights record found the company’s decisions to prioritize free speech above other considerations amounted to a “tremendous setback” in protecting users from abuse.

A 2021 report from tech site the Markup found Google blocked advertisers from using terms including “Black Lives Matter” to designate which YouTube videos to place their ads on, while allowing them to use the terms “all lives matter” and “White lives matter.”

Civil rights groups have also criticized the company for how its YouTube video-recommendation algorithms may encourage people to watch more racist and sexist content. And human rights groups have investigated how the company complies with censorship requests from authoritarian governments.

In 2020, Amnesty International accused Google along with Facebook of being too deferential to the Vietnamese government in taking down accounts and content posted by opposition figures.

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