Investors Vote on Scrutiny Proposal at Alphabet

September 1, 2023

Amid widespread reporting about the risks of artificial general intelligence, Alphabet (formerly Google) shareholders voted on June 2 on a proposal, filed by SHARE on behalf of the Pension Plan of The United Church of Canada, requesting third-party scrutiny of the company’s targeted advertising system.

The proposal calls for the company to undertake a human rights impact assessment and states the growing concerns surrounding Alphabet’s advertising infrastructure’s heavy reliance on technology, including artificial intelligence, which has not been subject to a robust human rights due diligence process. This kind of assessment would identify, address, and prevent the potential adverse human rights impact of targeted advertising technologies.

“Alphabet’s targeted advertising business represents about 80% of the company’s revenue, which means that until a rigorous assessment is done, its shareholders are exposed to a litany of regulatory, legal and reputational risks,” said Sarah Couturier-Tanoh, Associate Director Corporate Engagement and Advocacy at SHARE. “Ultimately, the lack of clear oversight puts investors’ long-term value at risk.”

Proxy advisory firms Glass Lewis and Institutional Shareholder Services, and large U.S.-based pension funds CalPERS, CalSTRS, New York City pension funds, and Norges Bank all agreed with SHARE’s perspective on the matter.

The proposal received 47% support from independent shareholders and 18% overall. The sharp difference between these two figures is explained by the multi-class stock structure conferring 10 votes for 1 share held by Alphabet’s management. SHARE opposes multi-class stock structures as a general principle of good corporate governance.

While our shareholder proposal ultimately did not pass, the nearly 50% support of independent shareholders is a strong signal to Alphabet management that there is great concern about, and now scrutiny of, their targeted advertising system. Often corporate engagement is a process of incremental gains requiring persistence. Persistence is something that the Pension Fund of The United Church of Canada has in abundance when it comes to investing responsibly!

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