In a two-act annual meeting Wednesday, Google parent Alphabet ticked off good deeds from a $12 million pledge to further racial equality and 200 new initiatives around COVID-19 — from $800 million in ad grants and loans for small businesses to an expansion of Google Classroom to PSAs on YouTube. Then shareholders took the mic to knock the company’s record on executive pay, diversity and human rights.
Kicking off the marathon 90-minute virtual event, streamed live on YouTube, CEO Sundar Pichai said the pandemic has “torn at the very fabric our community” and that “I want to acknowledge the additional pain caused by the rash of violence against the black community in the U.S.” — most recently the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis that has sparked a week and counting of protests across the nation.
“We stand together with the Black community … and with our Black Googlers,” he said.
The social justice pledge starts with grants of $1 million each to the Center for Policy Equality and the Equal Justice Initiative. Google said it has donated $32 million to racial justice over the past five years. YouTube has separately promised a $1 million donation.
That came as the company was hit by a class action suit in Northern California for allegedly tracking the Internet activity of Chrome users even when they chose ‘Incognito,’ or private mode.
Google alerts users that while user search history is not saved in Incognito, data is still available to websites they visit. The suit, filed by law firm Boies Schiller & Flexner, says Google also tracks users’ browsing data and identifying information through Google Analytics, Google Ad Manager and other application and website plug-ins regardless of how they browse. The suit is seeking a minimum of $5 billion in damages.
Pichai, however, focused on Google’s great opportunity “to redefine the future of work not just for Google but for others.”
“We are trying to use what we learn to help other businesses work remotely … moving seamlessly to the Cloud. Overall, we feel fortunate to be in a position where we can be helpful to others,” he said.
But the very very sweep of big tech’s helping hand is under fire with critics increasingly alarmed by the company’s reach, including a nascent contact tracing app it’s developing with Apple. The event took so long because shareholders presented 10 resolutions – a lot for an annual meeting — asking for, among other things, the creation of a Human Rights Risk Oversight Committee; and reports on takedown requests; on Alphabet’s gender and racial pay gap; and on its whistleblower policies and practices.
Shareholders also asked the company to appoint directors who have civil and human rights experience, and for a single class of stock that has one share-one vote. Many media and tech companies have two classes of stock, one carrying super-voting rights. It’s done to preserve the control of founders when companies go public, in this case Larry Paige and Sergey Brin. It allows a group of Alphabet insiders to control 50% of the vote on company policy without holding a majority economic interest.
Alphabet in fact has added a third class – Class C shares — which come with no votes. Pichai said at the meeting the dual class stock has been in place since 2004 and helps ensure stability, and that no one is forced to buy the zero-vote stock if they don’t want to.