Google critic takes on tech giants

Google critic takes on tech giants
© Greg Nash

Barry Lynn has been pushing the government to crack down on corporate power for 16 years, but his ideas never received as much attention as when they cost him his job at a Google-sponsored think tank.

After parting ways with New America over the summer, Lynn has launched a new independent group to raise awareness about the threats posed by corporate giants.

Lawmakers are increasingly willing to confront tech leaders on a growing list of issues, and Lynn’s transition comes as authorities are investigating whether Russians used Google, Facebook and Twitter to sow division during last year’s election.

“I think people are understanding just how poorly structured these institutions are, how sloppily they were built,” Lynn tells The Hill. “It’s not just a matter of the fact that these people have too much power, it’s also that they are sloppy in the use of their power.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Lynn’s argument found the spotlight in August, when The New York Times reported that he and his Open Markets team had been ousted from New America after clashing with Anne-Marie Slaughter, the think tank’s president. Slaughter was angry about a statement Lynn had issued praising the European Union’s decision to hit Google with a record $2.83 billion fine for antitrust violations.

According to the Times, Google, one of the think tank’s biggest funders, had complained to Slaughter about the statement, leading to her firing Lynn and his team of scholars. Slaughter has disputed the Times story, insisting that the decision to part ways with Open Markets had nothing to do with Google.

“New America chose to part ways with Mr. Lynn because he couldn’t work with his colleagues in respectful, honest and cooperative manner,” a spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill. “New America is a growing, dynamic and diverse organization of over 200 staff and fellows who work on a wide variety of important issues. Just 12 percent of our funding comes from corporate sources, and at no time would any funder be allowed to dictate the intellectual beliefs of our organization.”

Google has also denied trying to get Lynn fired.

Still, the episode has given new momentum to Lynn’s view that the power held by tech giants constitutes a threat to Americans’ political and economic liberty. These companies have effectively taken control of the ways in which people communicate, Lynn argues, without any real checks on their power.

“Perhaps the most pressing thing of all is that Google, Facebook and to certain degrees also Amazon have captured the flow of information and ideas between citizen and citizen,” Lynn said.

“Our ability to communicate freely with one another in this country, which is the primary basis for being able to protect our democracy, is now threatened in very real ways today,” he added. “This is not a theoretical threat; this is a threat that exists today.”

In a shared office space a block away from the White House, Lynn spoke with The Hill about the new independent think tank he’s launched, called the Open Markets Institute, and the group’s mission to change how the country thinks about competition policy.

Lynn and his team of scholars have been arguing that the approach to antitrust enforcement in vogue for decades has led to massive corporate consolidation, which in turn is responsible for corrupting the nation’s politics, increasing wealth inequality and stifling innovation fostered by genuine competition.

Since the 1980s, antitrust policy in the U.S. has largely drawn from what’s known as the Chicago School, which holds that competition regulators should focus on how consumers are impacted by issues like pricing when deciding whether to take action against a company. The new antitrust movement argues that framework is too narrow and that regulators also need to take into account a company’s effects on its competition.

Before antitrust policy became the focus of his career, Lynn covered the rise of globalization as a journalist. In 1984, he began working for wire services covering political crises in Peru and Venezuela. He later edited the magazine Global Business, and it was there that he began studying the effects of corporate consolidation.

The turning point came in 1999, after a devastating earthquake in Taiwan killed 2,400 people. What surprised Lynn was that the earthquake also took a toll on the American economy. The burgeoning tech industry at the time had been relying on Taiwan for imported computer components to the extent that U.S. factories were forced to shut down days after the earthquake hit.

That a single event in a faraway country could have such severe ripple effects domestically made Lynn wonder why the system was set up in a way that exposed it to such risks.

“So I just became fascinated with this event, understanding this event and what it meant and how we got a point of putting all of our eggs in one basket,” he said. “Did people in the White House understand this? Did people in [the Defense Department] understand this? Did people in Treasury understand this?”

The focus on concentration led him to study antitrust policy, and in 2001 he took a fellowship with New America to focus on the issue. In 2010, he began expanding the Open Markets team and taking on the role of an editor, overseeing its efforts to raise awareness about corporate concentration through investigative journalism, historical analysis and research. Lynn says the independent Open Markets team will be run much the same way, spurning the traditional think tank model.

Many Washington think tanks are staffed by policy analysts who are in between government jobs, and Lynn says that they spend much of their time at those institutions learning how to write in a way that helps them sell their ideas to a larger audience.

“When New America was created, the idea was to flip that on its head and bring in really smart young reporters and editors and thinkers and academics — people who already know how to write, know how to tell stories — and get them to see themselves as policy people,” he said. “They have an idea, and they’re not ashamed about pushing an idea out.”

Lynn thinks that building a staff around those principles will be his biggest challenge as he works to get the organization off the ground. He said that he and his team have no use for economists because “anyone who was trained in an economics program has been trained in the wrong way to work with us.”

Open Markets has eight people on staff, counting Lynn. They include Matt Stoller, a researcher and former congressional aide, and Lina Khan, who as a law student at Yale University unsettled the tech world with a paper advocating antitrust action against Amazon earlier this year. Heading up the group’s advocacy efforts is Sarah Miller, a veteran Democratic staffer who’s worked for John Podesta, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE and the Treasury Department.

Lynn and his team have been encouraged by the reception they’ve gotten from lawmakers, even if the Trump administration hasn’t shown much interest in their work. Lynn said that given the “chaos” in the White House, their best hope for their ideas to catch on is to partner with members of Congress, grass roots organizations and state attorneys general.

And though the acrimonious break with New America has undoubtedly boosted his new organization’s profile, Lynn says he’s not interested in rehashing the controversy and said he has nothing but the “greatest respect” for Slaughter.

“This is a huge problem in America,” he said, “and we are just completely overwhelmed by the interest in our work from people on the Hill, from people in academia, from people in Europe, from people in the press. That’s what we’re focusing on. We’re not looking back.”