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Alphabet shareholder meeting draws protests over antitrust, human rights

Google’s recent scandals take center stage at its parent company’s annual gathering of investors.

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Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. 

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Over the past year, Google has weathered scandals over its work in China and its handling of sexual harassment allegations. And it's endured protests from its own workers, who've grown disillusioned with company management.

Those controversies were in full view Wednesday during parent company Alphabet's annual shareholder meeting, which drew protesters calling for the company to break itself up and included proposals from shareholders seeking to address several issues. The meeting was held in Sunnyvale, California.

One proposal asked Google to provide a report on sexual harassment. The report could include the total amount of money the company pays out for settlements, as well as the number of times people were fired or disciplined for violating sexual harassment policies, according to a proxy statement filed with the SEC.

Another proposal condemned Dragonfly, a project reportedly aimed at the market in China, which Google retreated from in 2010. The project reportedly involves a censored search product for China. Shareholders asked the company to prepare a "human rights impact assessment" that would highlight possible negative outcomes of the project, including the risks of censorship, and the possible endangering of journalists and dissidents.

The proposals, like every other shareholder proposal presented Wednesday, were eventually shot down. Co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who hold a majority of the company's vote, didn't attend the meeting.

Alphabet Board Chairman John Hennessy opened the meeting by reflecting on Google's mission to provide information to the world. "Of course this comes with a deep and growing responsibility to ensure the technology we create benefits society as a whole," he said. "We are committed to supporting our users, our employees and our shareholders by always acting responsibly, inclusively and fairly."

Alphabet's annual meeting comes as Silicon Valley giants draw intense scrutiny for their outsize scale and power. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic 2020 presidential candidate, has made it a key part of her platform to break up the big tech companies, including Google, Facebook and Amazon. Last month, Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder, also called for the breakup of the company he helped create.

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Protesters showed up at Google offices around the world on the day of parent company Alphabet's annual shareholder meeting.

SumOfUs

On Wednesday, a UK-based human rights organization called SumOfUs teamed up with Students for a Free Tibet to propose a breakup of Google, as well as a stop to projects like Dragonfly. The groups also organized a protest outside of 12 Google offices around the world to coincide with the shareholder meeting, including in San Francisco, Stockholm and Mumbai.

Sondhya Gupta, a campaign organizer at SumOfUS, said she wanted Google's leadership to consider how their actions could hurt people around the world.

"I want them to hear from the people that are most impacted really on the sharp end of technological advances that harm human rights," Gupta said in an interview. "I want them to hear what the real life damage is of what they call 'business decisions.'"  

The meeting was attended by several members of Alphabet leadership, including Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Google CFO Ruth Porat, and Google Senior Vice President of Global Affairs Kent Walker.

During the question and answer portion of the meeting, one shareholder asked why Page wasn't in attendance. "It's a glaring omission," he said. "I think that's disgraceful."

Hennessy responded, "Unfortunately, Larry wasn't able to be here" but noted Page has been at every board meeting. The stockholder pushed back, saying the annual meeting is the only opportunity for investors to address him.

The meeting marked the official departure of former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former Google Cloud chief Diane Greene from Alphabet's board. In April, Alphabet said the two executives wouldn't seek re-election.

Another shareholder proposal on Wednesday asked for a nonexecutive employee to be appointed to Alphabet's board. The request was one of the demands that organizers made during a walkout in November that saw 20,000 Googlers leave their offices around the world to protest how the company handled sexual harassment allegations directed at key executives.

Though SumOfUs was mostly focused on human rights on Wednesday, Gupta said it was important to address all of the issues that protesters within Google have raised.

"These are all linked," Gupta said. "Unless we look at what the structural inequalities are, we'll keep repeating them."