Students at elite universities — backed by fired AI ethicist Timnit Gebru — are trying to choke Google’s recruitment pipeline

  • Students at elite institutions in the UK have launched the #RecruitMeNot to boycott Google.
  • The campaign has won the support of Timnit Gebru, the AI ethicist fired by the firm in December.
  • Organizers told Insider it was important for Google to know ’employees are demanding better.’
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A grassroots student movement is working to choke Google’s recruitment pipeline, with graduates pledging not to work for the company until it addresses what they describe as a “complete disregard for workers.” 

No Tech For Tyrants is a UK-based movement bringing together students from some of the country’s most elite academic institutions, including the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, and Edinburgh.

The group was founded by a small group of students at Oxford and Cambridge in 2020, after it emerged that tech billionaire Peter Thiel-founded data startup Palantir had been working with the National Health Service, and politicians faced questions over whether it would retain patients’ information, and how it would be used.

The group launched its latest campaign — #RecruitMeNot — in the wake of Google’s controversial firing of AI ethicist Timnit Gebru in the US.

Founding member Mallika Balakrishnan, a Latin American studies masters student at Cambridge, told Insider: “We’re very concerned about the Big Tech recruitment pipeline and, specifically, the way universities play into the reproduction of a lot of really worrying patterns in the relationship between these corporations and marginalized communities.”

In December, Google’s internal disputes with some of its employees spilled over into public view after Gebru said she was fired. In February, Google fired Gebru’s co-lead on the ethical AI team Margaret Mitchell, following an extended investigation that kept her locked out of her corporate account for weeks.

Both exits contributed to a flurry of public criticism of Google internally and externally, amid concerns that the company’s management wasn’t interested in the ethical concerns raised by enhanced AI technology. 

In a petition posted on Change.org, NTFT describes Gebru’s firing as “unjust and indicative of structural racism against Black women at Google and in the tech industry.” It adds: “We will not be recruited by a company that harbors a workplace environment of racism and censorship in the name of ‘ethics.'” 

The campaign calls on Google leadership to meet with Gebru to explain why her paper was rejected internally, demands greater transparency from the company going forward, and for its leaders to make a new pledge to academic freedom.

Gebru herself has backed the campaign, writing: “It’s past time for tech companies to be accountable to the public.” 

Choking the Google recruiting Google pipeline

Though modest in size, NTFT mirrors the small but highly active group of workers inside Google, and more broadly in tech, who push their employers on social justice issues and often have an outsize impact.

NTFT is volunteer-driven, with activists organizing panels and petitions in their spare time without any external funding. 

The group has signed up around 20 students to recruit supporters across six universities, having added branches at Goldsmiths and the University of Arts, London, with students across a broad range of subjects, including computer science, politics, and law.

Balakrishnan said the movement had been partly inspired by the work of Hispanic political group Mijente and the No Tech For ICE campaigns, which demanded Amazon cut ties with the US immigration agencies, and which the group maintains ties with. 

How much is any of this likely to hurt Google?

According to research from consultancy SHL Global, graduates from Oxford and Cambridge are the most likely to go on to work for Big Tech companies like Google, making up around 6% of the UK workforce. These are closely followed by other elite “Russell Group” universities such as the London School of Economics, Imperial College London, and the University of Edinburgh. 

The emergence of such grassroots groups also indicates that the days where major tech firms can bill themselves to student recruits as the more world-changing alternative to banking may be coming to an end.

“Recruitment matters a lot to these companies,” said Balakrishnan. “We think that threatening the pipeline of labor that fuels their work, and showing that their potential employees are demanding better standards, is a powerful way of showing solidarity.”

She added: “The technology, even if it technically worked without any flaws, would still be a technology of politics. We are very interested in the futures we can build that don’t rely on tech that harms by virtue of its design.” 

Insider approached Google for comment. 

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Martin Coulter