Google Critic Ousted From Think Tank Funded by the Tech Giant
Google Critic Ousted From Think Tank Funded by the Tech Giant
By KENNETH P. VOGEL AUG. 30, 2017
WASHINGTON — In the hours after European antitrust regulators levied a record $2.7 billion fine against Google in late June, an influential Washington think tank learned what can happen when a tech giant that shapes public policy debates with its enormous wealth is criticized.
The New America Foundation has received more than $21 million from Google; its parent company’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt; and his family’s foundation since the think tank’s founding in 1999. That money helped to establish New America as an elite voice in policy debates on the American left.
But not long after one of New America’s scholars posted a statement on the think tank’s website praising the European Union’s penalty against Google, Mr. Schmidt, who had chaired New America until 2016, communicated his displeasure with the statement to the group’s president, Anne-Marie Slaughter, according to the scholar.
The statement disappeared from New America’s website, only to be reposted without explanation a few hours later. But word of Mr. Schmidt’s displeasure rippled through New America, which employs more than 200 people, including dozens of researchers, writers and scholars, most of whom work in sleek Washington offices where the main conference room is called the “Eric Schmidt Ideas Lab.” The episode left some people concerned that Google intended to discontinue funding, while others worried whether the think tank could truly be independent if it had to worry about offending its donors.
Those worries seemed to be substantiated a couple of days later, when Ms. Slaughter summoned the scholar who wrote the critical statement, Barry Lynn, to her office. He ran a New America initiative called Open Markets that has led a growing chorus of liberal criticism of the market dominance of telecom and tech giants, including Google, which is now part of a larger corporate entity known as Alphabet, for which Mr. Schmidt serves as executive chairman.
Ms. Slaughter told Mr. Lynn that “the time has come for Open Markets and New America to part ways,” according to an email from Ms. Slaughter to Mr. Lynn. The email suggested that the entire Open Markets team — nearly 10 full-time employees and unpaid fellows — would be exiled from New America.
While she asserted in the email, which was reviewed by The New York Times, that the decision was “in no way based on the content of your work,” Ms. Slaughter accused Mr. Lynn of “imperiling the institution as a whole.”
Mr. Lynn, in an interview, charged that Ms. Slaughter caved to pressure from Mr. Schmidt and Google, and, in so doing, set the desires of a donor over the think tank’s intellectual integrity.
“Google is very aggressive in throwing its money around Washington and Brussels, and then pulling the strings,” Mr. Lynn said. “People are so afraid of Google now.”
Google rejected any suggestion that it played a role in New America’s split with Open Markets. Riva Sciuto, a Google spokeswoman, pointed out that the company supports a wide range of think tanks and other nonprofits focused on information access and internet regulation. “We don’t agree with every group 100 percent of the time, and while we sometimes respectfully disagree, we respect each group’s independence, personnel decisions and policy perspectives.”
New America’s executive vice president, Tyra Mariani, said it was “a mutual decision for Barry to spin out his Open Markets program,” and that the move was not in any way influenced by Google or Mr. Schmidt.
“New America financial supporters have no influence or control over the research design, methodology, analysis or findings of New America research projects, nor do they have influence or control over the content of educational programs and communications efforts,” Ms. Mariani said. She added that Mr. Lynn’s statement praising the European Union’s sanctions against Google had been temporarily removed from New America’s website because of “an unintentional internal issue” unrelated to Google or Mr. Schmidt.
Ms. Mariani and Ms. Sciuto said Google is continuing to fund New America.
It is difficult to overstate Mr. Lynn’s influence in raising concerns about the market dominance of Google, as well as of other tech companies such as Amazon and Facebook. His Open Markets initiative organized a 2016 conference at which a range of influential figures — including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — warned of damaging effects from market consolidation in tech.
In the run-up to that conference, Ms. Slaughter and New America’s lead fund-raiser in emails to Mr. Lynn indicated that Google was concerned that its positions were not going to be represented, and that it was not given advanced notice of the event.
“We are in the process of trying to expand our relationship with Google on some absolutely key points,” Ms. Slaughter wrote in an email to Mr. Lynn, urging him to “just THINK about how you are imperiling funding for others.”
Mr. Lynn is now in the process of starting a stand-alone nonprofit with the same team to continue Open Markets’s work. The new group, which does not yet have a name, has funding commitments, though clearly is not expecting any money from Google. It has launched a website called Citizens Against Monopoly that accuses Google of “trying to censor journalists and researchers who fight dangerous monopolies.” The website vows, “We are going to make sure Google doesn’t get away with this.”
After initially eschewing Washington public policy debates, which were seen in Silicon Valley as pay-to-play politics, Google has developed an influence operation that is arguably more muscular and sophisticated than that of any other American company. It spent $9.5 million on lobbying through the first half of this year — more than almost any other company. It helped organize conferences at which key regulators overseeing investigations into the company were presented with pro-Google arguments, sometimes without disclosure of Google’s role.
Among the most effective — if little examined — tools in Google’s public policy toolbox has been its funding of nonprofit groups from across the political spectrum. This year, it has donated to 170 such groups, according to Google’s voluntary disclosures on Google’s website. While Google does not indicate how much cash was donated, the number of beneficiaries has grown exponentially since it started disclosing its donations in 2010, when it gave to 45 groups.
Some tech lobbyists, think tank officials and scholars argue that the efforts help explain why Google has mostly avoided damaging regulatory and enforcement decisions in the United States of the sort levied by the European Union in late June.
But Google’s Washington alliances could be tested in the coming months. Google emerged as a flash point in the latest skirmish of the culture wars this month after one of its male engineers posted a critique of the company’s efforts to diversify. And its data collection continues fueling questions about its commitment to privacy.
Then there are the mounting concerns about the market dominance of Google, which handles an overwhelming majority of all internet searches globally and dominates internet advertising. Its alleged tilting of search results to favor its services over those offered by competitors led to the European Union’s $2.7 billion antitrust penalty in June.
The Open Markets’ statement that drew Mr. Schmidt’s ire praised the fine, and called on United States regulators to more aggressively enforce antitrust rules against Google, Amazon and “other dominant platform monopolists.”
Last month, Democratic congressional leaders rolled out a policy platform that included a pledge to dismantle monopolies, including in cable and internet service, which some read as a direct challenge to Google in particular. That sentiment — which appears to have some support from populist elements of President Trump’s base — diverges sharply from the approach that had been taken by most Democrats until recently.
Google’s willingness to spread cash around the think tanks and advocacy groups focused on internet and telecommunications policy has effectively muted, if not silenced, criticism of the company over the past several years, said Marc Rotenberg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. His group, which does not accept any corporate funding, has played a leading role in calling out Google and other tech companies for alleged privacy violations. But Mr. Rotenberg said it is become increasingly difficult to find partners in that effort as more groups have accepted Google funding.
“There are simply fewer groups that are available to speak up about Google’s activities that threaten online privacy,” Mr. Rotenberg said. “The groups that should be speaking up aren’t.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.