Google employees’ newly formed Alphabet Workers Union said it was concerned about Google’s decision to ban lead AI ethics researcher Margaret Mitchell from her account.
Google locked her out after it was found she had downloaded material on Timnit Gebru, another AI ethics researcher who was forced to leave the company last month.
The news was first reported Wednesday by Axios that Google was investigating Mitchell’s recent actions. Mitchell reportedly used automated scripts to check their messages for examples of discriminatory treatment of Gebru.
“The Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) is concerned about the blocking of access to Margaret Mitchell, AWU member and leader of the AI Ethical Team,” the union said in a statement. “This suspension follows Google’s dismissal of former co-lead Timnit Gebru. Together, these are an attack on people trying to make Google’s technology more ethical.”
Google didn’t immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment, but a spokesperson told Axios, “Our security systems will automatically lock an employee’s corporate account if they discover the account is compromised due to credentials issues or if an automated rule violates the handling with sensitive data was triggered. “
The spokesman added, “In this case, our systems detected yesterday that one account was exfiltrating thousands of files and sharing them with multiple external accounts. We explained this to the employee earlier today.”
Gebru, technical co-lead of Google’s Ethical AI team, tweeted on Dec. 3 that Google fired her over a disagreement over a research paper examining bias around artificial intelligence. The researcher, who had spoken openly about the company’s treatment of black employees, claimed the treatment showed a broader pattern on Google. This sparked a surge of support from across the industry, including a petition signed by thousands of Google employees and industry peers.
Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet, emailed staff apologizing for their distrust of the company and the industry when Gebru left. At the same time, the company promised to do a “review” of what had gone wrong.
About a week later, Google’s Ethical AI team sent Google executives a list of requests to “restore confidence” after Gebru was removed from the company.
The research, product, and policy advisory team wrote a six-page letter to Pichai, AI chief Jeff Dean and a technical vice president Megan Kacholia. The letter, titled “The Future of Ethical AI at Google Research,” watched by CNBC lists the demands made by executives, including removing Kacholia from the group’s reporting structure, renouncing retaliation, and reinstating Gebru a higher level.
Who is Margaret Mitchell?
Mitchell founded Google’s Ethical AI team and is one of the co-leads. The AWU described her as a “critical member” of academic and industrial communities in relation to the ethical production of AI. She has been with Google for a little over four years and is based in Seattle, according to LinkedIn.
“Regardless of the outcome of the company’s investigation, the constant focus of executives in this organization calls into question Google’s commitment to ethics – regarding AI and its business practices,” said the AWU. “Many members of the AI ethical team are AWU members, and membership in our union recognizes and stands in solidarity with the critical work they do at this point.”
Regarding Google’s statement to Axios, the AWU said it was a “remarkable departure from Google’s typical practice of refusing to comment on personnel matters.”
The AWU announced its launch on January 4th. Chairman Parul Koul and Vice Chairman Chewy Shaw co-wrote an article in the New York Times entitled “We built Google. This is not the company we want to work for.”
She made her first appearance on January 7th and urged YouTube executives to step up against former President Donald Trump.
The union criticized Google’s YouTube for not banning Trump’s account from the platform following the pro-Trump riot in Washington, which left five people dead and many injured. The group called the company’s decision to reactively remove its videos “lackluster” and said the company should suspend its account.
– Additional coverage from CNBC’s Jennifer Elias.