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Alphabet makes big promises about racial equity. But it lacks accountability

June 18, 2020, 12:33 PM UTC

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Good morning, Data Sheet readers. Tech writer Danielle Abril here filling in for Adam. 

I’ve been watching the growing number of tech companies and CEOs publicly denouncing racial injustice and offering their support for the black community. Most top leaders seem to understand that the time for change is now. And in the tech industry, much change is desperately needed. 

But when all the public outrage has died down, one important question remains: How many companies will actually follow through with their promises of change?

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has sent two emails to his employees expressing his support for racial equity. The first one came a couple of weeks ago after the rise of nationwide protests following the death George Floyd, a black Minneapolis resident who was killed by a white police officer kneeling on his neck. 

In that email, Pichai said that he recognized that the “black community is hurting” and announced a $12 million corporate donation that would go to organizations that address racial inequities. He also said that recent events “reflect deep structural challenges” and promised to develop initiatives and product ideas to support “long-term solutions,” without providing much detail. 

On Wednesday, Pichai sent a second email in which he committed to increasing the number of black and minority senior leaders at Google by 30% within the next five years. He also said the company plans to address diversity issues related to hiring, retention, and promotion at Google and to work on creating a “stronger sense of inclusion and belonging” for black employees. 

He added that Google is working on product features that could help people find black-owned businesses on Google Search and Google Maps, for example.

While these promises are steps in the right direction, critics say it all sounds too familiar. For years, Google, Facebook, Apple, and others have promised more diversity and improving their products to serve all people. And so far, their results are far from impressive.

To their credit, several big tech companies tried to move the needle. They’ve created employee programs, paid closer attention to how they develop products, and hired passionate chief diversity officers to lead the charge. 

But ultimately there’s still no accountability for diversity problems at companies like Google. Unlike missing revenue projections, there is no penalty for failing to hire more minorities or improving the culture at their campuses. 

The good news is that the current movement is rattling executives, who may not have considered making some of these changes otherwise. The bad news is it’s going to take a lot more than money and a few promises to create a company culture that not only welcomes a diverse group of employees but includes, supports, and empowers them.

Danielle Abril

@DanielleDigest

danielle.abril@fortune.com

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.

NEWSWORTHY

Everyone: We'd like to edit our tweets.
Twitter:
Literally everyone: We'd really like to edit our tweets.
Twitter:
Twitter: hey, how about audio tweets?

What we've got here is a failure to communicate. Even free users of Zoom's video conferencing service will have their communications fully encrypted, as long as they verify a phone number, the company announced on Wednesday, reversing an earlier decision to limit the security feature to paying users. "We have identified a path forward that balances the legitimate right of all users to privacy and the safety of users on our platform,” says CEO Eric Yuan.

A seat at the table. Online publisher Medium said former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was joining its board of directors and starting a unit focused on race and civil rights in America called Kaepernick Publishing. Kaepernick said his goal is "creating new opportunities and avenues for Black writers and creators with my new role as a Board member."

Your barn door is showing. Bitcoin has many legitimate uses, but it's also used by drug dealers, which means a lot of cryptocurrency ends up in the virtual hands of agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration. A new report from the DOJ's Inspector general says that's a big risk, as the agency doesn't have proper safeguards in place for handling digital currency. The report comes five years after one agent tried to steal $700,000 of bitcoin from the Silk Road investigation.

Sour candy. We've identified the second top former eBay executive involved in this week's bananas criminal cyber-harassment scandal. "Executive 2," who took former CEO Devin Wenig's complaints about a small news site to the company's head of security for some kind of action ("I want to see ashes...whatever it takes."), was former chief communications officer Steve Wyman. Wyman, who was not charged in the complaint, has not resurfaced since eBay let him go last fall and did not respond to a message from me on LinkedIn.

Look ma, no hands. Self-driving cars are still a ways off, but Ford is adding "hands-free driving" to its Co-Pilot360 software that will be included with its upcoming Mustang Mach-E electric car and some other 2021 models. The software will be able to handle full driving functions on about 100,000 miles of pre-mapped divided highways in the United States and Canada.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

As Apple gears up for its annual developer conference WWDC next week, the company is getting exactly the wrong kind of publicity. Software developer Basecamp says Apple is squeezing them for a share of the subscription revenue from their new premium email service called Hey, even though they don't sell subscriptions on Hey's iPhone app. Apple says it is seeking money from apps it considers a consumer service, though it hasn't gone after Netflix or Amazon's Kindle. Longtime Apple watcher John Gruber says Apple's policy makes no sense.

At some level there’s a clear distinction here — Netflix and Kindle are clearly consumption services. But Dropbox? Dropbox is a lot closer to an email or messaging service like Hey than it is to Netflix or Kindle. The stuff in my Dropbox account is every bit as personal as the stuff in my email account. When you put Dropbox in the same bucket with Netflix and Amazon Kindle, it seems to me like the distinction is not so much between what is and isn’t a “reader” app or what is or isn’t a “business” app, but between companies which are too big for Apple to push around and those they can.

The tragedy here is that Apple, since its inception, exemplified the folly of such distinctions. The Apple II and Macintosh weren’t consumer/toy computers in answer to ostensibly professional/serious computers from suit-and-tie companies like IBM. Apple’s own hardware and software showed that such distinctions were not just unnecessary, but were harmful, holding back the entire industry under artificial signifiers of “seriousness” that were every bit as much bullshit when it came to how computers looked and worked as was how the employees of the companies that made them dressed for work.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

How The Engine’s Katie Rae is addressing racism in VC By Maria Aspan

How Google and Facebook’s 8,000-mile undersea data cable got caught in U.S.-China feud By Naomi Xu Elegant

Fortune survey: 62% of CEOs plan policy changes in response to current calls for racial justice By Lance Lambert

Facebook and Instagram to let users switch off political ads By Danielle Abril

How the first-ever digital ADHD treatment—a video game—got the FDA’s blessing By Sy Mukherjee

Digital healthcare is all the rage in COVID-19 times. But not everyone is invited to the party By Lucinda Shen

Cheaper 5G phones are on the way. Here’s how much they’ll cost By Aaron Pressman

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. There is a 50% discount for our loyal readers if you use this link to sign up. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

BEFORE YOU GO

We're just about a month away from the launch of NASA's next Mars rover mission. The Perseverance is scheduled to leave Earth on July 20 and land on the red planet next February. It's got an entirely new trick up its metal sleeves: a helicopter-like drone that will fly around the Martian skies. NASA this week released some video related to the mission, including simulated footage of the drone flying around Mars (it starts at the 9-minute mark).

Aaron Pressman

@ampressman

aaron.pressman@fortune.com