The first thing you see when you walk into the offices of the New America Foundation in Washington is the Eric Schmidt Ideas Lab, a space named after the executive chairman of Google’s parent company. Google, Mr. Schmidt and his family’s foundation are the principal funders of that think tank.
On Wednesday, New America’s president, Anne-Marie Slaughter, issued a statement saying that Barry Lynn, a pre-eminent scholar there, had been fired for “his repeated refusal to adhere to New America’s standards of openness and institutional collegiality.”
What horrible, dangerous act had Mr. Lynn committed? He wrote a piece for New America’s website in support of the $2.7 billion fine the European Union levied against Google for antitrust violations in June. That post fit perfectly with the work of the Open Markets initiative he led, which has been one of the strongest voices in Washington calling for more antitrust scrutiny of our economy. It’s the platform Mr. Lynn, Matt Stoller and Lina Khan have used to call for regulatory scrutiny of the tech monopolies like Google, Amazon and Facebook as these companies increasingly come to dominate our economy. But Google’s financial power at New America was apparently such that it could close the group down. Though Ms. Slaughter denies the connection between Google’s funding and her decision, the implication seems clear. A firm whose motto was “Don’t Be Evil” has no interest in being called a monopoly by a think tank it funds.
In his book “Zero to One,” the tech investor Peter Thiel writes that companies like Google lie to protect themselves. “They know that bragging about their great monopoly invites being audited, scrutinized and attacked. Since they very much want their profits to continue unmolested, they tend to do whatever they can to conceal their monopoly — usually by exaggerating the power of their (nonexistent) competition,” he explains. There’s evidence that this kind of exaggeration is carried out by numerous scholars and think tanks funded by Google. According to a 2017 Wall Street Journal investigative report, “Over the past decade, Google has helped finance hundreds of research papers to defend against regulatory challenges of its market dominance, paying $5,000 to $400,000 for the work.”
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But as the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog discovered in February 2009 when it investigated Google’s handling of consumer privacy, the funding from Google comes with strings attached. As the group noted on its website, Google’s director of policy communications, Bob Boorstin, emailed the Rose Foundation (a major funder of Consumer Watchdog) complaining about Consumer Watchdog and asking the charity to consider “whether there might be better groups in which to place your trust and resources.” Mr. Boorstin later apologized for his attempts to cripple a Google critic, but there is no evidence that the use of this kind of tactic has ended.
The Wall Street Journal’s report found that since 2009, Google had directly funded 100 papers written by academics and 100 papers that came through think tanks funded by Google. These papers make their way to the congressional committees and regulatory agencies that are charged with overseeing Google’s business, like the Federal Trade Commission.
Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” suggested that the company valued transparency. But the extent of its influence is anything but transparent. Occasionally this is revealed to the public, such as when the infamous Google Shill List came out during a lawsuit brought by Oracle. Google was forced to disclose that it provided major funding to important organizations like Public Knowledge, Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Computer and Communications Industry Association.
So when these supposedly neutral organizations weigh in on issues that involve Google, you should take their advocacy with a grain of salt. In the coming months, privacy legislation put forward by Representative Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, and modifications to the Safe Harbor provision in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act advocated by Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, will come before Congress. Google does not want either of these laws to pass, and you can be sure that papers from major think tanks will be part of the policy discussion.
Perhaps more important, the discussion that is beginning to take place on both sides of the political aisle on whether companies like Google and Amazon are too big will continue. The role of the think tanks in this debate will be important. What we don’t need are more Google shills.
Jonathan Taplin is director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California and author of “Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy.”