Officially, the online search giant Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” According to two new reports—one from The Wall Street Journal and one from the nonprofit, nonpartisan Campaign for Accountability’s Google Transparency Project, the company doesn’t just organize. When Google wishes it had information that’d maybe help further its policy and regulatory goals, it just pays academics under the table to gin it up.
The assertions in both—the Journal reporters had access to an early draft of the Google Transparency Project’s report and did even more reporting—are astounding. The Journal article contends that Google financed hundreds of papers at anywhere from $5,000 to $400,000 a pop, even at times participating in the editing process. And the researchers the company worked with often didn’t disclose the relationship.
Guys. Guys. Do computer science departments not mention the thing about not subverting academic freedom with bribes in an attempt to influence legal and regulatory frameworks?
Oh, but you’re all like, “come on, don’t be so uptight! Google funds research! It’s practically an R&D institution. Machine-learning cars that search their own balloon-powered books database at gmail dot com!”
Google has a tremendous amount of power and wealth, and they really try to leverage that to get what they want from policymakers.
The Google Transparency Project says no. The papers Google funded expressly supported the business, covering “a wide range of policy and legal issues of critical importance to Google’s bottom line, including antitrust, privacy, net neutrality, search neutrality, patents and copyright.”
When European and US regulators started looking hard at Google for potential antitrust violations between 2011 and 2013, the number of Google-funded papers with titles like “Google? A Monopoly? Don’t Make Me, a Credentialed Academic, Laugh” spiked. The same thing happened again in 2015. In 2013, when regulators and media companies wanted to know if Google could be held responsible for linking to pirated materials, it was all papers like “Just Because You Found Something Copyrighted on Google, That’s Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man.” OK, I made those specific titles up, but still.
Then those articles and papers themselves got linked or referenced elsewhere, further muddying the trail of money, and those entire networks of pseudo-knowledge became fodder to lobby regulators and elected officials.
“Google is a company with a tremendous amount of power and wealth,” says Dan Stevens, executive director of the Campaign for Accountability. “They really try to leverage that to get what they want from policymakers.” At one point, his organization’s report says, Google CEO Eric Schmidt even cited to Congress a paper saying his company wasn’t a monopoly—without disclosing that Google had paid for the paper.
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.
You might remember this tactic from such betrayals of the public trust as Big Tobacco covering up the link between cigarettes and cancer, or oil companies obfuscating the link between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. And, to be fair, Google gave up on the injunction “don’t be evil” a couple years ago.
The Google website posted a response to the Campaign for Accountability report. The company took issue with the idea that any amount of funding at any time represented an ongoing influence on a person or organization. “Our support for the principles underlying an open internet is shared by many academics and institutions who have a long history of undertaking research on these topics—across important areas like copyright, patents, and free expression. We provide support to help them undertake further research, and to raise awareness of their ideas,” the statement says. Furthermore, the company says the researchers it funds have complete editorial and intellectual independence, and they’re supposed to disclose their own financial relationships to journals, conferences, and whoever else is reading their work.
That’s tricksy. First of all, while Google both funded people who already supported the company’s positions and solicited favorable research, people who take money or gifts—of almost any size—almost always end up showing favoritism to the giver’s positions. (Physicians who take gifts from pharmaceutical companies are a great example. Members of presidents’ families who meet with Russian government lawyers might be, too.)
But the second thing—the part about disclosing financial relationships—is even sketchier. In the world of banking and finance, forcing people to admit if they’re being paid to make certain claims, or getting money from the people whom those claims support, applies a coat of teflon to a transaction. Everyone having information about everyone’s priors removes some friction from the transaction.
Outside that world, in let’s say science or public policy, it’s less clear what good a disclosure does. “In an ideal world, you’d have a lot of academics studying this stuff, being funded by a university,” Stevens says. “You want untainted research. But if that’s impossible, at least disclose.” Many academic and trade associations require disclosures of financial connections from their members. Government usually does, too, unless the heads of ethics agencies deployed to watchdog such stuff quit in a fog of mindboggle.
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But even if the researchers and academics who took Google money did disclose, nothing about that disclosure guarantees fair work, ethically conducted. If a disclosure is supposed to make a reader regard work with more skepticism, how much more? And however high a disclosure of a financial interest makes you raise an eyebrow, does it stay that high for a subsequent paper that cites the first one?
It’s hard to get academic research funded. Google has a lot of money, and funds a lot of good research. It’s a company with a lot of goodwill in the world—but imagine how this would look if, as my colleague Megan Molteni suggests, this same story global-replaced “Google” with “Monsanto.”
Google owns massive amounts of data on you and all of its other users that it does not share. And if capitalism’s answer to potential corporate malfeasance is that customers are free to take their business elsewhere, well, it’s hard to find a viable option to the world’s biggest internet search engine. If The Wall Street Journal and the Google Transparency Project are right, the company’s doing everything it can to make sure things stay that way.
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