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The center-left think tank New America has reportedly dropped its entire Open Markets program, which had advocated tough antitrust laws, in what some view as an attempt to please its corporate benefactors. Part of the issue is that Google chairman Eric Schmidt is also the chairman of New America’s board, and its conference room is called the “Eric Schmidt Ideas Lab.”
In an email to Open Markets director Barry Lynn, New America President Anne Marie Slaughter wrote, “We are in the process of trying to expand our relationship with Google on some absolutely key points ... just THINK about how you are imperiling funding for others.”
While it’s easy to denounce Slaughter for putting fundraising over impartiality, this type of behavior is not limited to New America or to the left. Having run a conservative think tank and having served in Congress, I’ve seen how often big corporate donors are at odds with the grassroots of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.
According to Google’s disclosures, it’s given money to most of big conservative think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Tax Reform, the American Conservative Union, and the Federalist Society. Coincidentally, you can find articles from these think tanks with titles like “Google Isn't Evil,” “Google: An example of success in a free market,” and “Google Didn’t Kowtow and Neither Should You.”
Because contributions to foundations require few public disclosures, it’s hard to know whether these types of articles are driven by genuine belief, financial motives, or a combination of both. However, the libertarian Law and Economics Center at George Mason University Law School is affiliated with the public school and subject to public records requests. Google gives the center $350,000 a year. And from 2011-12, while the company was under a massive antitrust investigation by the FTC, the Law and Economics Center held three conferences on internet search engine competition sponsored by Google.
A Washington Post investigation found that “in the weeks leading up to the GMU event, Google executives suggested potential speakers and guests, sending the center’s staff a detailed spreadsheet listing members of Congress, [trade] commissioners, and senior officials with the Justice Department and state attorney general’s offices.” This led to overwhelmingly pro-Google speakers lecturing the officials investigating the company under the guise of an academic conference.
Additionally, the Post reported that the center’s professors supplied academic arguments for Google, while the company helped them place favorable op-eds. Among those on the company’s payroll was professor Josh Wright, who would later become a commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission and the head of Trump’s antitrust transition.
Google and other corporations can exert pressure far beyond issues where they have a direct financial stake. Silicon Valley’s left wing bias is well known, and Google in particular has often acted as an appendage of the Democratic Party.
On the other, many of these corporations have also supported the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, because they benefit from that group's advocacy for low taxes and less regulation.
In 2012, liberals began a massive campaign against ALEC, citing its positions on immigration, gun control, and voter ID laws. As the corporations threatened to cut their funding, ALEC folded and explicitly abandoned all non-economic issues. This did not stop Google for withdrawing its support for ALEC over the Keystone Pipeline and coal deregulation, with Eric Schmidt accusing the organization of “making the world a much worse place” and “literally lying” about global warming. After this ordeal, many organizations will think twice before taking controversial stances that could jeopardize their corporate funding.
I have no doubt that the vast majority of scholars and staffers at conservative think tanks are driven by patriotism and principle. However, this does not prevent Google or other mega corporations from possessing some influence over them through funding. Once an organization becomes dependent upon corporate money, there is pressure not to bite the hand that feeds it.
With Silicon Valley at odds with conservatives and the Trump administration, it’s more imperative than ever that organizations on the conservative side of the aisle sacrifice a few donations to preserve their independence.
Tom Tancredo represented Colorado’s 6th congressional district from 1999 to 2009.
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