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Updated at 10:18 p.m. ET
When Google unceremoniously ousted Black researcher Timnit Gebru, she felt targeted.
“My theory is that they had wanted me out for a while because I spoke up a lot about issues related to black people, women, and marginalization,” Gebru said in an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition.
At Google, Gebru was the co-lead of the company’s Ethical Artificial Intelligence team, where she was able to parlay her passion for highlighting the societal effects of AI into academic papers that could shape Google’s largest products, like search.
Gebru co-founded Black in AI, a group formed to encourage people of color to pursue careers in artificial intelligence research.
For Google, bringing on Gebru lent credibility to the tech giant’s efforts in examining how technology can exacerbate systemic bias and discrimination. Yet she says Google’s support for Gebru only went so far.
“They wanted to have my presence, but not me exactly. They wanted to have the idea of me being at Google, but not the reality of me being at Google,” Gebru said.
On Wednesday, several of her former colleagues wrote a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai asking that Gebru be reinstated, saying her departure has “had a demoralizing effect on the whole of our team.” The researchers also asked that they not be subject to retaliation for supporting Gebru.
In 2018, tens of thousands of employees walked off the job to protest how Google handled sexual harassment cases, among other issues. Organizers say the company pushed them out.
More recently, the National Labor Relations Board accused Google of breaking the law by sacking employees who tried to unionize.
“Google built this whole company up on the idea that we’ll give you free food and a free coffee and pay you well and give you comfortable bean bags to work on as long as you toe the company line,” said William Fitzgerald, who spent a decade at Google working on communications.
Google’s official company policy is: “if you see something that you think isn’t right – speak up!”
What the policy does not state, according to Fitzgerald, is that speaking up can also mean being shown the door.
“Anyone who continues to challenge their power will get squashed or pushed out, and this is something that’s been happening at Google for years now and we’re only now hearing about it,” he said.
Inside Google, women of color and other underrepresented groups who looked up to Gebru have been especially shaken, said former Google employee Ifeoma Ozoma.
“There are serious concerns around her identity as a Black woman and the concerns she raised around diversity as being the main driver for both the firing and the way it was done and the speed,” Ozoma said.
Google CEO Pichai wrote to staff that he is aware the episode has “seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google.” He apologized for that. And committed to fix it.
Google declined to be interviewed for this story. It points to emails in which executives say they vigorously support free thinking and independent research.
But now even that is up for debate. Before she left Google, the company abruptly asked Gebru to retract a research paper critical of Google’s technology.
Linguist Emily Bender at the University of Washington, who was one of her co-authors, said she feels for researchers inside Google right now.
“I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t have a chilling effect on people who are working there trying to work on this but now looking over their shoulder wondering, ‘When is something all of a sudden going to be retracted?’ and their work going to be basically taken away from them?” Bender said.
After Google demanded that Gebru retract the paper for not meeting the company’s bar for publication, Gebru asked that the process be explained to her, including a list of everyone who was part of the decision. If Google refused, Gebru said she would talk to her manager about “a last date.”
Google took that to mean Gebru offered to resign, and Google leadership say they accepted, but Gebru herself said no such offer was ever extended, only threatened.
Gebru learned that Google had let her go while she was on a vacation road trip across the country.
Former Googler Leslie Miley said he does not believe Google would have handled it the same way if Gebru were a white man.
“You fired a Black woman over her private email while she was on vacation,” Miley said. “This is now tech treats Black women and other underrepresented people.”
At Google, Gebru’s former team laid out in their letter to Pichai what is needed: “swift and structural changes if this work is to continue, and if the legitimacy of the field as a whole is to persevere.”