Google shareholders urge company to break itself up before regulators do

Andrew Buncombe

Shareholder activists have urged Google’s parent Alphabet Inc to break itself up before regulators force it to do so.

SumOfUs, an organisation that seeks to curb the growing power of large corporations, presented the proposal at Alphabet's annual shareholder meeting at an auditorium at the company's offices in California.

Sonamtso, a campaigns director for Students for a Free Tibet who goes by one name, said at the meeting on behalf of SumOfUs Alphabet was too big to manage.

It should sell off some assets now “rather than waiting for antitrust regulators to set a path” and potentially deriving less shareholder value, Sonamtso said.

But the proposal and 13 other shareholder measures opposed by the company were voted down on Wednesday, according to its preliminary tally. Alphabet's top two executives, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, hold 51.3 per cent of shareholder votes.

The move shows a growing focus on the prospect of antitrust action against Alphabet and other big technology firms such as Facebook and Amazon as they face a political and public backlash over privacy issues and the power they now wield over the world's information.

Donald Trump has been a frequent critic of Google, claiming without evidence that its search engine unfairly produces results unfavourable to him.

He has suggested that US regulators should follow Europe's lead and look closely at tech companies' monopolies, but has not suggested any specific remedy.

The US department of justice and the federal trade commission are reportedly preparing to investigate whether Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook misuse their massive market power.

Also on Wednesday, Alphabet employees raised concerns about ensuring the technology they produce is used in ethical ways, according to CNBC.

One Google employee, Tyler Holsclaw, said to represent a “coalition concerned about the impact of government censorship and surveillance on human rights” asked Alphabet to publish a human rights assessment of a Google search product in China.

Google had reportedly been working on a censored search service for China known as Project Dragonfly, although The Intercept said it tabled the project late last year after internal and external push back.

“China already engages in invasive cyber surveillance and uses the data to crush dissent, destroy cultural and religious identities, and torture and imprison its citizens,” the employee said. “Google’s powerful technology could give China data that it wouldn’t otherwise get. We must think about what it means to partner with such a government.”

Additional reporting by Reuters