- Flickr/New America
A high-profile liberal think tank funded by Google has fired a researcher critical of the company, and the researcher is blaming the search giant.
Barry Lynn, formerly the director of the antitrust-focused Open Markets program at New America, charged Wednesday that Google pressured the think tank to fire him and drop his program after he wrote a statement in June praising European regulators for fining the search giant $2.7 billion for abusing its market power. In that statement, Lynn said Google’s “market power is one of the most most critical challenges for competition policymakers in the world today.”
After Lynn published the statement, Eric Schmidt, chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, contacted New America, and “communicated his displeasure,” Lynn told the New York Times on Wednesday.
“Google is very aggressive in throwing its money around Washington and Brussels, and then pulling the strings,” Lynn told the Times. “People are so afraid of Google now.”
In a note posted Wednesday on New America’s website, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the think tank’s CEO, confirmed the organization had fired Lynn. But she denied his termination had anything to do with Google throwing its weight around. As for New America cutting ties with its Open Markets group, Slaughter said the think tank had been working with Lynn for the past two months to spin it off as an independent program.
“Today’s New York Times story alleges that Google lobbied New America to expel the Open Markets program because of [Lynn’s June statement]. I want to be clear: this claim is absolutely false,” Slaughter wrote.
She continued: “After more than 10 years of doing strong policy work at New America, Open Markets’ position is not news to Google.”
Google likewise denied it played a role in Lynn’s ouster or New America’s separation from the Open Market group.
“We support hundreds of organizations that promote a free and open Internet, greater access to information, and increased opportunity,” Google spokesperson Riva Sciuto said in a statement. “We don’t agree with every group 100% of the time, and while we sometimes respectfully disagree, we respect each group’s independence, personnel decisions, and policy perspectives.”
Still, the incident underscores concerns about the Google’s influence in Washington. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, spends more on lobbying than any other tech company. It also funds academics and think tanks that do research on issues that matter to the company and who often influence policy debates.
— New America (@NewAmerica) March 21, 2017
Eric Schmidt Ideas Lab
Google and Schmidt have contributed more than $21 million to New America, and the main conference room in New America’s Washington office is called the “Eric Schmidt Ideas Lab,” according to the Times report.
Schmidt and Slaughter have more than a passing connection. Schmidt provided a blurb for Slaughter’s book, calling her writing a “powerful vision.” He was also a featured guest at New America’s Future of War conference in March.
— New America (@NewAmerica) September 30, 2015
Despite her public denial that Google had pressured New America about Lynn and the Open Markets program, Slaughter seemed to be saying the opposite in emails sent to Lynn, in which she seemed to be concerned that Google might pull the think tank’s funding. According to the Times, one email from Slaughter to Lynn read: “just THINK about how you are imperiling funding for others.”
Members of Lynn’s team, which had looked into anticompetitive practices from not only Google, but other tech giants such as Amazon, tweeted on Wednesday that Lynn’s firing and New America’s move to drop Open Markets underscored how their research had hit a nerve.
“When we criticized Google for its monopoly practices, our program’s funding was cut,” the team said on the website of their new organization, Citizens Against Monopoly.
They seemed determined to fight on.
“Monopolies wield economic and political power. Google’s power threatens not just our markets but free expression and information,” one former Open Markets fellow tweeted.
The European Union has been closely scrutinizing Google’s market power in recent years. But it’s largely gotten a free pass from US antitrust regulators. The last time search and advertising giant the faced censure in its home country for its market practices was in early 2013, when it reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission.
The idea that Google is using its large checkbook to pressure researchers is not surprising, the company’s critics say. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Google has paid thousands of dollars to academics to finance research papers that it later used to defend its business practices. It even compilied “wish lists” of papers that it wanted to be written – then went looking for scholars and lawyers willing to do the research and write them up.
From the story:
“Google has paid professors whose papers, for instance, declared that the collection of consumer data was a fair exchange for its free services; that the company didn’t use its market dominance to improperly steer users to Google’s commercial sites or its advertisers; and that it hasn’t unfairly quashed competitors. Several papers argued that Google’s search engine should be allowed to link to books and other intellectual property that authors and publishers say should be paid for.”
Google has also been accused of trying to cut funding for researchers that were producing work it didn’t like. In 2009, the company apologized for urging a charity to cease funding a consumer advocacy group that had been critical of the search giant.
The amount of funding Google gives New America Foudnation did not change as a result of the June post, nor did Schmidt ever threaten to cut off funding because of it, Google said.
But even if Google’s money doesn’t come with strings attached, it’s clearly caused some uncomfortable conflicts.