Google faces dual Washington challenge as activist joins FTC

Google faces dual Washington challenge as activist joins FTC

05 November 2021 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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A former Google employee who led staff protests about alleged sexual assaults is to join the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as its artificial intelligence (AI) expert.

Meredith Whittaker (pictured) joins Lina Khan, chair of the FTC, who strongly criticised Google’s market power when she was at Yale Law School.

Khan’s appointment earlier this year was widely seen as a move by President Joe Biden as a warning to big tech companies – not just Google – that the new administration was going to take their market power seriously. That feeling will be reinforced by Whittaker’s recruitment to the FTC.

In her Google years, Whittaker founded Google Open Research and co-founded its M-Lab, a globally distributed network measurement platform that now provides the world’s largest source of open data on internet performance.

But she left in 2019 after leading protests against Andy Rubin, the so-called “father of Android”, who left the company after alleged sexual assaults. Google paid him a US$90 million severance package, the subject of Whittaker’s protests when the sum was revealed.

Whittaker will be leaving the AI Now Institute at New York University (NYU). She is the Minderoo research professor at NYU.

She confirmed long-standing rumours in a tweet: “Thrilled to confirm the rumors: I will be joining @FTC as a senior advisor on AI. I’m humbled and beyond excited to get to work with + learn from @linakhanFTC and her brilliant team.”

According to NYU, “her research and advocacy focus on the social implications of artificial intelligence and the tech industry responsible for it, with a particular emphasis on power and the political economy driving the commercialization of computational technology”.

The university’s biography of her says that Whittaker “was one of the core organisers pushing back against Google’s military contracts, [and] the company’s insufficient response to concerns about AI and its harms”.

Her new boss at the FTC, London-born Khan, is famous for a paper she wrote as a graduate student only five years ago, in which she noted a fundamental problem of identifying and taking measures against consumer harm: when the services are free, it’s hard under current law to prove an unfair wielding of monopoly power.