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A Debate About Google and Its Critics

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Recent allegations stoke growing ‘antitrust sentiment’ about Google.

Irina Raicu

Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.  Views are her own.

Do Google’s funding choices and dominant role in internet search silence critics in surreptitious ways, whether intentionally or not?

That question and others were raised last week, initially by a New York Times article detailing the efforts of a prominent think tank, the New America Foundation, to distance itself from one of its scholars (Barry Lynn) and the team that he led (“Open Markets”), which had praised the European Commission for levying a $2.7 billion fine on Google for anticompetitive practices.  

According to the New York Times, the foundation had received more than $21 million in funding from Google as well as from its parent company’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Schmidt’s family foundation. After Schmidt “communicated his displeasure with the [Open Markets] statement” to the president of New America, the New York Times reports, the foundation’s president

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. … While she asserted in the email … 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.”

On the day that the New York Times article was published, the Washington Post also ran an op-ed by Zephyr Teachout, associate professor of law at Fordham University, and a fellow at New America. Teachout argued that

Google did not always operate this way in relation to think tanks, even those it funded. … The Open Markets institute has long studied excessive corporate power and argued for the importance of antimonopoly laws. They were not previously punished for their work.

But in recent years, Google has become greedy about owning not just search capacities, video and maps, but also the shape of public discourse.

A day later, journalist Kashmir Hill wrote in Gizmodo, “Yes, Google Uses Its Power to Quash Ideas It Doesn’t Like—I Know Because It Happened to Me.” Hill detailed how Google had spiked a controversial story that she had written six years ago for Forbes; in that case, however, Google had argued that the information Hill was reporting had been presented in a meeting that “had been confidential, and the information discussed there had been subject to a non-disclosure agreement between Google and Forbes.” Eventually, Hill unpublished her story. And then, Hill writes,

Somehow, very quickly, search results stopped showing the original story at all. As I recall it—and although it has been six years, this episode was seared into my memory—a cached version remained shortly after the post was unpublished, but it was soon scrubbed from Google search results. … Deliberately manipulating search results to eliminate references to a story that Google doesn’t like would be an extraordinary, almost dystopian abuse of the company’s power over information on the internet. I don’t have any hard evidence to prove that that’s what Google did in this instance, but it’s part of why this episode has haunted me for years: The story Google didn’t want people to read swiftly became impossible to find through Google.

In a subsequent update, Kash Hill wrote that Google’s VP of global communications, Rob Shilkin, had emailed her “to say definitively what two of his colleagues wouldn’t: ‘We had nothing to do with removing the article from the cache.’” He added, “you have written (more than) a few critical stories about Google+ and many other things Google-related :) To my knowledge, never have we had any issues like this, with even the most critical story.” (Shilkin’s email is included in full at the end of Hill’s updated piece.)

Following the publication of the New York Times article, the president of New America, Anne-Marie Slaughter, issued a response stating that the organization had been in the process of spinning out Open Markets as an independent program for months, and that Lynn had been “terminated” for “his repeated refusal to adhere to New America’s standards of openness and institutional collegiality.” Afterward, 25 current and former New America fellows sent her a letter criticizing the foundation’s initial response and what they saw as insufficient clarity in communications about what had happened; they added, however, that they “had never experienced any efforts by donors or managers at New America to influence [their] work or tailor it to the needs of one donor or another.”

Like this one, prior controversies related to Google’s funding of academics and organizations have proven to be difficult to assess.

Researchers might be able to assess, however, whether articles critical of Google (or other Alphabet companies) are more likely to be scrubbed from caches, or otherwise treated differently than other unpublished articles—i.e. to look more deeply into the issue raised by Kash Hill’s story.

In the meantime, as Ars Technica reports, “[a]ntitrust sentiment grows,” in the U.S. as well as abroad, and “so does skepticism about Google on both the left and the right.”

Disclosure: Google contributes funding to several initiatives of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Photo by Robert Scoble, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

Sep 7, 2017

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