If Google Is Biased, So Are Its Algorithms

Jan 10, 2018, 02:44 PM

James Damore and David Gudeman's remarkable discrimination lawsuit against their former employer, Google, raises an important issue, though perhaps not quite the one the plaintiffs intended. It has more to do with Google's oversized role in delivering information to the world than with its work culture and internal rules.

Damore -- the author of a famous memo against Google's diversity policies that got him fired last year -- and Gudeman, an engineer who says he was also dismissed for his conservative views, claim in the lawsuit that Google routinely discriminates against Caucasian males and conservatives. They cite internal emails and posts from the corporate social network to demonstrate what they say is widely tolerated and encouraged harassment of people like them. They also describe Google's hiring and firing practices that they believe are in violation of California law. As they lay out the examples, they often appear to conflate whiteness, maleness and conservative views, as if they're equally undesirable parts of a package that Google treats as toxic.

Whatever the legal merits of the case, the conflation doesn't quite work on a common sense level. Even if Google is actively trying to recruit more people of color and more women, it seems absurd to allege that it discriminates against white guys. Google's workforce is 69 percent male and 56 percent white; another 35 percent of Googlers are Asian, another race Damore and Gudeman allege is not favored by the company's diversity practices. Only 2 percent of Google employees are black. Someone like Damore, a white guy with a Harvard degree (and mild autism, which people tend to see as social awkwardness), fits the Googler profile perfectly. To feel discriminated against on a race and gender basis while being surrounded by people of the same race and gender requires a peculiar sense of dislocation -- one born of being politically marginalized.

The real complaint, of course, is about that. Google's prevailing culture appears to be hostile to right-wing political views. As one manager wrote on an internal bulletin board (the screenshot is used in the lawsuit), "If you express a dunderheaded opinion about religion, about politics, or about 'social justice', it turns out I am allowed to think you're a halfwit" and refuse to work with such a person on a project.

"As evidenced by the fact that the blacklisting posts remain live on Google's internal corporate network, it is clear that Google took no action to prevent blacklisting," Damore and Gudeman wrote in the lawsuit. "Google seems to ignore most cases, and occasionally 'coach' the worst offenders. However, Google will not openly come out against the practice; instead, it relies on crowdsourced harassment and “pecking” to enforce social norms (including politics) that it feels it cannot write directly into its policies."

Gudeman, an open Trump supporter, claims that directly contributed to his being blacklisted and fired.

There's a reason, however, that Damore and Gudeman need to bring the race and gender into their accusations. Companies are not legally obliged to maintain a diversity of views among their employees. Opinions, unlike race, gender or sexual orientation, can be treated as a lifestyle choice, and these work better with some corporate cultures than with others. For example, Nike might prefer a workout fanatic to a smoker, while a tobacco company would be comfortable making the opposite choice. It can be argued that, because of the talent pool from which it draws -- smart millennials who tend to value tolerance over the freedom of expression -- Google builds a more cohesive working environment by hiring, to quote from the lawsuit, "an employee who sexually identifies as 'a yellow-scaled wingless dragonkin' and 'an expansive ornate building'" than a #MAGA cap wearer.

That, however, is exactly the problem. Google is not just a company, it's the owner of the world's biggest conduit to information, with a 69 pe...