Alphabet is a pioneer of tech sector transparency. But it has made a number of business decisions that raise serious red flags about its human rights commitments. In addition, its internal processes for risk mitigation appear to be deeply flawed, as it faces multiple lawsuits and public scrutiny over its corporate practices. Ahead of the 2023 Annual Meeting of Shareholders on June 2, Alphabet shareholders are advancing proposals to address the human rights impact of its products and services, and increase the company’s transparency and accountability.
Like Meta, Alphabet has received many shareholder proposals this year aimed at addressing human rights issues, demonstrating that it has failed to resolve shareholder concerns regarding the human rights impacts of its products and services. Some of the issues Alphabet shareholders have raised clearly indicate that the company has not earned shareholders’ trust in its overall governance and practices related to human rights. Below we discuss two proposals that we believe all Alphabet shareholders should support to increase transparency and build trust.
PROPOSAL 10: REQUIRE THAT ALPHABET GET A HUMAN RIGHTS ASSESSMENT OF ITS PLANS FOR SITING GOOGLE CLOUD CENTERS
When we learned about Google’s plans to establish a data center in Saudi Arabia, we joined our civil society partners to raise the alarm regarding the grave human rights implications. This plan is just one example of why Alphabet shareholders have grown increasingly worried that the company’s actions do not match their words when it comes to commitment to human rights.
Proposal 10 focuses on Alphabet’s plans to continue expanding its Google Cloud data center operations in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and India. Alphabet shareholders make a very reasonable request: the company should commission a human rights impact assessment (HRIA) on the potential risks associated with such plans in these markets, and commit to educating shareholders on how the company plans to mitigate these risks.
Considering the level of media and stakeholder interest these plans have generated, one would imagine company leadership would also find this request reasonable. Yet Alphabet has chosen to ignore shareholder concerns. “Since this proposal on Google Cloud centers was first filed in 2022, Alphabet has refused any and all engagement with the Alphabet shareholders asking how the company plans to mitigate the very obvious human rights risks,” explains Christina O’Connell, shareholder engagement advisor at Ekō, the lead filer of Proposal 10. “Even though the proposal for a human rights assessment of Google Cloud centers received an impressive 48.97% of the independent votes the first year it was filed — a tremendous amount of support — Alphabet still won’t even talk to its shareholders about the concerns they have raised, let alone agree to explain how it mitigates the risks of entering the market in a country like Saudi Arabia, which has an appalling human rights record.”
For a company that proudly declares that “transparency is core to our commitment to respect human rights,” it’s disturbing that Google lacks meaningful transparency on the siting of its data centers. That is why we strongly recommend that all Alphabet shareholders vote FOR Proposal 10.
PROPOSAL 15: REQUIRE THAT ALPHABET GET AN INDEPENDENT ASSESSMENT OF ITS EFFICACY IN MANAGING RISK
The Alphabet Board’s Audit and Compliance Committee is tasked with reviewing and discussing the “management Alphabet’s major risk exposures, including financial, operational, data privacy and security, competition, legal, regulatory, compliance, civil and human rights, sustainability, and reputational risks, and the steps Alphabet takes to prevent, detect, monitor, and actively manage such exposures.”
Just like at Meta, a committee tasked to manage risk appears to be failing. For example:
- Google tracked people’s location data even after they turned off the location-tracking functionality, so the company was forced to settle a lawsuit with 40 U.S. states for a whopping $391.7 million;
- Google’s advertising business practices have led the U.S. Department of Justice to file antitrust lawsuits; and
- Alphabet’s YouTube platform has drawn scrutiny over its content management issues, including its failure to remove channels disseminating antisemitic and white supremacist content, and its failure to prevent the spread of dangerous disinformation and misinformation in countries around the world, especially when the content is in languages other than English.
It is therefore no wonder that Alphabet shareholders filed Proposal 15, which explicitly calls for an independent assessment of the Audit and Compliance Committee’s capacity to manage risks. “Since Alphabet has gone through the effort to set up a formal committee to manage such fundamental risks for its users and for societies at large, as stakeholders we would expect to see these risks being minimized and mitigated as a result,” says Isedua Oribhabor, Business and Human Rights Lead at Access Now. “What we see instead is that not only do these issues persist and create more problems, but the company is spending millions of dollars on litigation after violating privacy laws and its own policies.”
It is hard to imagine any company letting their teams persist in these kinds of mistakes, and the Audit and Compliance Committee should be no different. Alphabet shareholders should demand more from the Board after such an appalling performance. This is why we strongly encourage all Alphabet shareholders to vote FOR Proposal 15.
WHAT’S NEXT: JOIN THE CONVERSATION AT RIGHTSCON!
We’re encouraged to see the shareholders at Alphabet, Meta, and Amazon push for changes that could positively impact human rights. Stay tuned for an update on how shareholders voted during the 2023 Annual General Meeting season, and learn what’s next for investors seeking to transform Big Tech for the better. We will also be discussing the results of the 2023 Big Tech AGMs at RightsCon on June 7th with some of the lead filers and other investors during our session The 2023 shareholder votes in Big Tech – is this the year we enforce accountability? Follow @rightscon and @laokkonen to find out more!