Google’s anti-trans controversy is the latest case of big tech overcorrecting to the right

Google just smoothed over one spat with the LGBT community, but it’s already well into the next one.

Last week, in an effort to monitor the ethical development of artificial intelligence and presumably to assuage public concern, Google launched an eight-person advisory group dedicated to the task.

Controversially, Google included Heritage Foundation President Kay Cole James among the technologists and domain specialists on its newly minted Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC).

The inclusion of leadership from the Heritage Foundation, a hyper-conservative think tank with vehemently anti-LGBT views and a deep track record of advocating for climate change denialism in the service of the oil and gas industry, would seem to be an odd fit for an AI council if not a downright puzzling one.

While the group’s less scientific views alone would seem to fly in the face of much of Google’s cutting-edge, scientifically grounded work, the inclusion of a figure openly dedicated to fighting against the rights of the transgender community is causing the company’s latest culture conflagration.

A group calling itself Googlers Against Transphobia in a petition denounced the company’s decision to include James:

In selecting James, Google is making clear that its version of “ethics” values proximity to power over the wellbeing of trans people, other LGBTQ people, and immigrants. Such a position directly contravenes Google’s stated values. Many have emphasized this publicly, and a professor appointed to ATEAC has already resigned in the wake of the controversy.

Following the announcement, the person who took credit for appointing James stood by the decision, saying that James was on the council to ensure “diversity of thought.” This is a weaponization of the language of diversity. By appointing James to the ATEAC, Google elevates and endorses her views, implying that hers is a valid perspective worthy of inclusion in its decision making. This is unacceptable.

The group has called on Google to remove James from the council, arguing that trans people are disproportionately vulnerable to technologies like AI, a problem compounded by the perspective of an advisor incapable of seeing trans people as people — one who casually called transgender women “biological males” just a few weeks ago. At the time of writing, 1,437 Googlers had signed the petition. When reached for comment about the Heritage Foundation’s presence on the ATEAC, Google declined to provide insight on the choice.

Beyond James, the ATEAC includes a behavioral economist, a mathematician, a natural language researcher, the CEO of a drone company focused on energy and defense (some have objected to this as well), an AI ethics specialist, a digital ethicist and William Joseph Burns, a former diplomat and current president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a formally nonpartisan though practically left-leaning think tank. The decision to loop in James is presumably an effort to counterbalance Burns, but the man’s bipartisan reputation and observable failure to be as far left as James is right undermines that particular argument.

Google’s choice to honor the Heritage Foundation by seeking its counsel on one of the sector’s most high-stakes issues epitomizes big tech’s ongoing fear of looking out of step with the right. To that end, companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook have often over-corrected to the right and continue to do so.

It took Facebook two years to realize that white nationalism is just an expedient synonym for white supremacist values rather than a harmless form of pride akin to American pride or Basque separatism. Last month, Jack Dorsey appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience, a clearinghouse where fringe conspiracy theorists and far-right hate mongers can launder their views without the threat of critical thinking or a proper interrogator.

Meanwhile, Apple takes an admirable leadership stance on issues of identity, particularly around LGBTQ issues, but its CEO Tim Cook is still happy to take a seat next to President Trump, whose administration has taken aggressive steps to limit the rights of transgender Americans again and again. Surely the fact that Trump invited the company to repatriate the 94 percent of its total cash holdings previously stashed outside the United States at a deep discount had nothing to do with Cook’s ongoing courtship.

Unfortunately, tech’s underlying fear of being “found out” as liberal and its obsession with a misguided notion of ideological balance is enough for many tech companies to court extreme viewpoints that don’t fall anywhere near the middle. More unfortunate yet, disingenuous grifters wait in the wings to devour every scrap of validation that falls their way, ready to clamber up these companies’ own platforms with their outsized soapboxes, shouting until the Overton window inches their way.

It’s increasingly clear that anything goes in Silicon Valley’s craven attempts to placate opportunists on the right — both within Congress and without — so long as that corporate cognitive dissonance keeps the lobbying wheels greased.