By any measure, Google is a colossus of the tech industry, with a market capitalization of nearly $1.5 trillion, a massive army of lobbyists, and elite academics at its disposal. But lately, its reputation has been hurt by a highly publicized feud with well-respected ethical AI researchers, and revelations about its toxic workplace, previously hidden under NDAs, are roiling the tech giant’s PR-spun Disneyland-like facade.
Now, it’s facing a multitude of challenges including talent attrition, resistance from an increasingly influential union, and increased public scrutiny. Privacy-centered competitors are nipping at its ankles, antitrust regulations loom on the horizon, and user interest in de-Googling their online activities is mounting. These headwinds are threatening the tech giant’s seemingly unassailable industry dominance and may bring us closer to a “de-Googled” world, where Google is no longer the default.
At war with its workers
In December 2020, the tech giant dismissed eminent scholar Timnit Gebru over a research paper that analyzed the bias inherent in large AI models that analyze human language—a type of AI that undergirds Google Search. Google’s whiplash-inducing reversal on ethics and diversity as soon as its core business was threatened was not entirely surprising. However, its decision to cover this up with a bizarre story claiming that Gebru resigned sparked widespread incredulity. Since Gebru’s ouster, Google has since fired her colleague Margaret Mitchell and restructured its “responsible AI” division under the leadership of another Black woman, now known to have deep links to surveillance technologies.
These events sent shock waves through the research community beholden to Google for funding and triggered much-needed introspection about the insidious influence of Big Tech in this space. Last week, the organizers of the Black in AI, Queer in AI, and Widening NLP groups announced their decision to end their sponsorship relationship with Google in response.
While the prestige and lucrative compensation that comes from working at Google is still a huge draw for many who don’t consider these issues a dealbreaker, some, such as Black in AI cofounder and scholar Rediet Abebe, were always wary. As Abebe explained in a tweet, her decision to back out of an internship at the tech giant was triggered by Google’s mistreatment of BIPOC, involvement with military warfare technologies, and ouster of Meredith Whittaker, another well-known AI researcher who played a lead role in the Google Walkout in 2018.
Abebe is not the only one who has decided to walk away from Google. In response to this latest AI ethics debacle, leading researcher Luke Stark turned down a significant monetary award, other talented engineers resigned, and Gebru’s much-respected manager Samy Bengio also left the company. A few years back this level of pushback would be unimaginable given Google’s formidable clout, but the tech giant seems to have met its match in Gebru and other workers who refuse to back down. Even with its formidable PR machinery spinning out an announcement touting an expanded AI ethics team, the damage has been done, and Google’s misguided actions will hurt its ability to attract credible talent for the foreseeable future.
More ex-employees are also coming out with details of their horrifying experiences, adding fuel to the rising calls for better employee protections. These disclosures have renewed support for tech workers as hundreds of Google employees unionized after many years of activism, despite union-busting efforts by their employer.
Even so, Google remains a desired employer for many, but these recent developments have emboldened even those who are not in a position of power to speak up. With help from the Alphabet Workers Union, Google interns were able to persuade the company to give them a stipend to cover housing and other needs. Additionally, Google childcare workers who are being forced to come back to work in person are asking for a commuting stipend; they’ve called out the injustice of passing on costs to low-wage essential workers who are expected to take care of the children of highly-paid employees. These incidents suggest a rare but dramatic power shift in favor of workers and a further weakening of Google’s bargaining position.
The pandemic has been good for Google as businesses pour money into the online targeting of consumers who are spending more time online. But as with everything else, there is a dark side to Google’s core search-advertising business. Randy Fishkin, author and cofounder of market research tool Spark Toro, shared his experience on Twitter when his urging business marketers to end their reliance on Google and Facebook was canceled by the organizer because his slides called out the predatory nature of this duopoly. He points out the two monopolistic tech giants face no accountability for spreading misinformation and have zero qualms about competing with their own customers or driving them out of business.
This has not gone unnoticed by regulators, as Google has been under antitrust scrutiny for a while, but it has managed to evade any significant repercussions so far. Even on the rare occasion when Google was found guilty of violations, the penalties were too insignificant to make a dent in its multi-billion-dollar revenue stream, and the settlements allowed it to continue to profit from its misdeeds. In October 2020, the Department of Justice filed a suit against Google and kicked off what The Verge has called “one of the largest antitrust cases in US history.” Later that same year, a group of state attorneys general took civil action against Google under antitrust laws and deceptive trade practices, one of which was updated recently with more charges, including Google’s plans to phase out third-party tracking cookies.
There is a growing coalition of privacy advocates and privacy-centered startups who are also fighting Google’s vision of an omnipresent surveillance state. One of Google’s third-party cookie replacement proposals, Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), drew the ire of privacy and consumer protection groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). In 2019, EFF had issued a warning against Google’s Privacy Sandbox, which is part of the tracking giant’s vision to “build a more private web,” and described FLoC as “perhaps the most ambitious—and potentially the most harmful” of all. FLoC was also unequivocally rejected by the builders of competing privacy-centric tools such as Vivaldi, Brave, and DuckDuckGo, who are proactively blocking this invasive tracking, which is antithetical to their privacy-first business models. These efforts further strengthen the case for why more competition and stronger anti-monopolistic measures are essential for a healthy market economy and to protect consumers.
In April 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reminded the tech industry that it would hold them responsible for any unethical and discriminatory outcomes from their tech solutions. FTC commissioner Rohit Chopra followed up with a strong statement to Congress, specifically calling out the urgent need to hold large companies such as Google accountable. He pointed out the obvious: that it’s naïve to believe that a powerful tech behemoth would change its business practices when it is more cost-effective to pay off minor fines and settlements, so the consequences need to be meaningful enough to stop repeat offenders. For now, it remains unclear whether the regulators believe a well-behaved search giant is a reasonable end goal or if antitrust action will lead to its breakup into multiple smaller entities. Either approach would reduce Google’s influence in the tech industry and reduce its stranglehold over our digital lives.
De-Googling our lives
Imagining a world without Google seems less unnerving today than it did in 2019, when reporter Kashmir Hill spent 6 weeks trying to live without using any of the services of the major Big Tech companies. She concluded that it wasn’t easy to get away from Google, because of its pervasiveness across the internet and user preference for privacy-invasive convenient tools. But of late, a small number of users have joined the “de-Google” movement and are actively weaning themselves off their Big Tech addiction by switching to more ethical and privacy-centric alternatives. They are laying the pathway to a world outside the pernicious control of Google, which may signal a tipping point for a gradual decline in the tech giant’s market share.
The mounting internal and external forces of large-scale intentional opt-outs, labor organizing, meaningful consequences, active resistance, and regulatory action pose a serious transformative threat to Google, even if these challenges are not existential. It’s clear so far that Google is determined to fight rather than change to meet the moment.
Mia Shah-Dand is the CEO of Lighthouse3, a technology advisory firm, and founder of Women in AI Ethics™, a global initiative to increase representation and recognition of women in this space.