Senate Dems push for Google racial equity audit

Sen. Cory Booker leads the push to get Google and its parent firm to probe how their products perpetuate racial bias.

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Democrats in the Senate are calling on search engine giant Google to conduct an internal racial equity audit.

The effort is being led by New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who is asking Google and its parent firm, Alphabet, to investigate how the company and its products may perpetuate racial bias. 

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker is leading the effort to get Google and its parent company, Alphabet, to investigate how the company and its products may perpetuate racial bias. (Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images)

Senate Democrats crafted a letter to the companies prompted by the firings of two women from Google’s Ethical Artificial Intelligence research team tasked with resolving how those products carry human biases inherent in their programming. A reliance on data that under-represents minorities was reportedly a concern of Dr. Timnit Gebru and Dr. Margaret Mitchell; now, it also has these lawmakers asking questions. 

As an example, Vice noted recently that a new dermatology app designed by Google doesn’t recognize people with darker skin tones. According to the report, researchers used a training dataset of 64,837 images of more than 12,000 patients, but only 3.5% of those were of people with brown, dark brown or what was described as “black” skin. More than 90% were of people with fair, darker white or light brown skin. 

According to Politico, the letter from the Senate Democrats — signed by Booker and senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Mark Warner of Virginia and Ron Wyden of Oregon — addressed the firings of the two researchers. “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,” it read.  

Minorities are under-represented as employees in Big Tech companies, but calls for them to address how their products may actually harm communities of color are relatively new. 

In 2020, Facebook was tasked with completing a civil rights audit of its platform after white supremacist speech was elevated on the social media site during the 2020 presidential election cycle. The audit found that Facebook had not applied voter suppression and misinformation policies evenly. Former ACLU Director Laura Murphy, who was a part of the audit, told Politico at the time that Facebook is “moving in the right direction, but the results are not adequate.”

The letter to Google from Democrats was preceded by a letter from Color of Change that urged the company to better identify strengths and weaknesses related to “racial equity, civil rights and anti-discrimination.” 

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