The push for expanded whistleblower protections for Google employees continues to gain momentum. Trillium Asset Management, a major shareholder in Alphabet, Google’s parent company, recently filed a shareholder resolution outlining the importance of strong whistleblower protections. The resolution also requests that Alphabet’s Board of Directors oversee a third-party review of its current policies.
“Whistleblower protections are vital to a well-functioning company,” the resolution reads. “Reporting suggests that many Google employees who have resigned or been fired, including executives, publicly report retaliation after voicing human rights implications of company practices, including systemic workplace racism and sexism, and projects enabling censorship, surveillance, and war.”
Trillium is a $3.5 billion sustainable investment firm which owns 63,078 Alphabet shares — a stake currently worth roughly $140 million, according to The Verge.
Trillium’s request follows an open letter by Google employees demanding that state and national legislatures strengthen whistleblower protections for artificial intelligence (AI) researchers and other tech workers. The letter, published in March, states that “the existing legal infrastructure for whistleblowing at corporations developing technologies is wholly insufficient. Researchers and other tech workers need protections which allow them to call out harmful technology when they see it, and whistleblower protection can be a powerful tool for guarding against the worst abuses of the private entities which create these technologies.”
Both Trillium’s request and the open letter from Google employees were partially in response to the highly controversial firings of Dr. Margaret Mitchell and Dr. Timnit Gebru, the co-leads of Google’s Ethical AI team.
Google fired Dr. Mitchell on February 19, 2021. Her termination followed the departure of Dr. Gebru from the company in December 2020. Dr. Gebru claims that “Google fired her after she questioned an order not to publish a study saying AI that mimics language could hurt marginalized populations,” according to Reuters. Dr. Mitchell, who co-authored the study with Dr. Gebru, was openly critical of Google’s dismissal of Dr. Gebru.
Trillium proposed a similar resolution in 2020 but the request was not taken up. At the time, Alphabet’s Board reportedly claimed the company’s whistleblower policies were adequate. Trillium believes recent events suggest otherwise. ““Our argument this year is basically the proof is in the pudding,” Jonas Kron, chief advocacy officer at Trillium, told The Verge. “A year ago you said everything was hunky dory and in the meantime we‘ve seen what happened with Dr. Gebru and ongoing protests by Google employees, which suggests that things aren’t working well, that there are these red flags that indicate something needs to change.”
In addition to protecting employees and providing important safeguards to the general public, Trillium argues that whistleblower protections are good for business and thus good for investors. They therefore are hopeful other shareholders will support the resolution. “Whistleblowers protect investors, not management,” says Kron. “You naturally expect management not to be supportive of whistleblower protections because it’s not in their narrow personal interest. Whistleblowers are always an embarrassment to management and always a way for investors to protect the long term value of the company.”
Trillium’s resolution claims that a “recent report from the $100 trillion Principles for Responsible Investment states that effective whistleblowing mechanisms are a key feature of good governance – and implementation is best assessed through robust transparency and disclosures,” and that “[a] George Washington 2019 report found whistleblowing report volume ‘is associated with fewer and lower amounts of government fines and material lawsuits.’”
Trillium requests that “shareholders of Alphabet, Inc. urge the Board of Directors to oversee a third-party review analyzing the effectiveness of its whistleblower policies in protecting human rights.” It also states that “[a] report on the review, prepared at reasonable cost and omitting confidential or proprietary information, should be publicly disclosed on Alphabet’s website.”