Issue of the week: The firing of a Google critic
There’s apparently a steep price for upsetting Google, said Kenneth Vogel in The New York Times. The New America Foundation, an influential center-left think tank in Washington, D.C., recently pushed out one of its most high-profile scholars shortly after he critiqued the technology giant, which is one of the foundation’s biggest donors. Barry Lynn was the leader of New America’s Open Markets initiative, and for years he “has led a growing chorus of liberal criticism” of the monopolistic practices of tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. In late June, Google chairman Eric Schmidt reached out to the foundation’s head to say he was displeased that Lynn had publicly lauded European antitrust regulators for fining Google a record $2.7 billion. A few days later, New America, which has received some $21 million from Google and Schmidt since 1999, told Lynn that it would be cutting ties with the Open Markets team. It has since fervently denied that pressure from Google had anything to do with the decision.
This episode is “a rare glimpse at how Google wields its power behind the scenes,” said Nitasha Tiku in Wired.com. The company works hard to influence the conversation in Washington: In the second quarter of this year alone, it spent $5.4 million lobbying the federal government—more than twice what Apple spent. In fact, Google now spends more on lobbying than any other corporation. Google also funds “a lengthy roster of think tanks, academics, and nonprofits” working on issues important to its businesses—including privacy, net neutrality, and of course, antitrust law. Google denies that it directly pressured New America, but let’s be honest, all those millions in donations means that it doesn’t have to “muzzle critics with ultimatums.” The “soft power of Google’s displeasure” is enough to do the trick. If Google “were Monsanto or General Motors or Pfizer, most people probably wouldn’t even feign surprise,” said Alexis Madrigal in TheAtlantic.com. But because Google was supposed to be special—the harbinger of the future—it’s always had something of a “special halo.” Turns out its money is “green, too, and it exerts the same power as anyone else’s.”
I’m not surprised Google would use its power to crush an unfavorable story—because it happened to me, said Kashmir Hill in Gizmodo.com. In 2011, I wrote for Forbes.com about how Google was pushing publishers down in search results for not adding Google Plus buttons to their pages. “Google promptly flipped out” and pressured my bosses to take down the story, strongly implying that it would hurt Forbes’ search traffic if they didn’t. We unpublished the post, and soon even cached versions of it disappeared. I can’t prove that Google scrubbed my story from the web, but “this episode has haunted me for years.” Google might want to start treading carefully, lest it find itself increasingly friendless in Washington, said Timothy Lee in ArsTechnica.com. The search giant has alienated conservatives over free speech and diversity issues, and liberals are beginning to fret about how monopolies distort the economy. “The combination of Bernie Sanders–style populism on the Left and Donald Trump–style populism on the Right could lead to a future where Google faces hostility from policymakers across parties.” ■