Google faces blowback after think tank fires critic

Google faces blowback after think tank fires critic
© Getty Images

Google is facing blowback after one of its most prominent critics was fired from a think tank funded by the tech giant.

The incident is raising new questions about Google’s influence over think tanks and academic research.

The controversy has caught the attention of lawmakers, with Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenOvernight Finance: Lawmakers grill Equifax chief over hack | Wells Fargo CEO defends bank's progress | Trump jokes Puerto Rico threw budget 'out of whack' | Mortgage tax fight tests industry clout Michelle Obama is exactly who the Democrats need to win big in 2020 Wells Fargo chief defends bank's progress in tense Senate hearing MORE (D-Mass.) calling the firing “troubling” and warning academic institutions not to compromise their work for financial backers.

ADVERTISEMENT

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) also tweeted his support for the researchers pushed out of the think tank.

Barry Lynn and his Open Markets team researched economic competition issues as part of the New America think tank. New America has received significant funding from Google and from the family of Google executive chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt.

Lynn has long urged regulators to get tougher on Silicon Valley’s giants, calling them new monopolies, and in a post praised European regulators for leveling a record fine on Google.

Lynn and his group were fired soon after that post by New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter.

“Google kicked us out of because we said that they’re a monopoly,” says Matt Stoller, a fellow on Lynn’s Open Markets team.

Lynn and his colleagues allege Google threatened to cut donations to the think tank over their post.

“I get on the phone with Anne-Marie and she says, ‘Google is incredibly upset about [the post]. Eric Schmidt says he wants his name off the board. They’re cutting off all funding and this is a terrible thing,’ and then she hung up,” Lynn recounted.

The New York Times first reported that Schmidt complained to Slaughter about the Open Markets post. A source with knowledge of that conversation confirmed to The Hill that the Google executive shared his displeasure with Slaughter.

But Google denies they played a role in the eventual firing.

A Google spokesperson told The Hill that it “in no way ousted the Open Markets initiative.”

“We continue to fund [New America],” the spokesperson noted.

On Friday, Slaughter said she would review the think tank’s policies for dealing with donors but also defended their independence, The New York Times reported.

But the controversy shows no signs of fading.

Other tech companies that have clashed with Google in the past seized on the incident.

“I've been working on Google antitrust for 6 years. This is both the most shocking & least surprising thing I've read,” Luther Lowe, Yelp’s VP of public policy, tweeted on Wednesday

And many researchers are using the incident to voice their own concerns.

Many told The Hill that New America and Google’s actions highlight the difficulty in building a wall between independent researchers and their corporate backers.

Google says it asks think tanks they fund only to try and show balance and to give some type of notice if they are going to push work critical of the company. But they stress that they want groups they fund to operate independently and freely.

In a June 22, 2016 email from Slaughter to Lynn obtained by The Hill, the think tank chief worried she had not given Google enough notice of an Open Markets event where Sen. Warren spoke critically of the company.

Lynn said Google is creating an unworkable standard.

“If Google is saying they expect a heads up, then they do not understand the idea of autonomy and independence,” Lynn said.

Google insists they fund think tanks independent of their corporate interests.

“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 an emailed statement to The Hill.

“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.”

Google is not alone in the tech industry or in American business. Corporations pump large amounts of money into various research groups across different fields. Like Google, they say the research is conducted without undue influence.

Critics remain skeptical.

“Google spends a lot but says it’s not to influence research, which makes you think they waste a lot of money funding groups,” says Stoller.

Asked why it continues to fund think tanks and outside research groups, Google said only that its decisions on funding depend on what is happening in Congress and politically in a given year.
Stoller characterized Open Markets’ dismissal as an overt example of corporate pull, but he said companies have always had subtle ways of influencing think tanks.

“The influence operates on a self censorship level,” says Matt Bruenig a former researcher at the liberal think tank Demos, and founder at the People’s Policy Project, a crowdfunded think tank.

“If you’re an employee you understand the contours of what you should be writing, what you shouldn't be writing based on what the donors are doing.”

Marshall Berman, a researcher at the Roosevelt Institute, said he’s never felt pressure to self-censure, but said corporate funding would also limit the freedom of think tanks.

“We don’t get money to do things that donors don’t get care about,” Berman said.