The Corner

Politics & Policy

Think-Tank Group Axed after Criticizing Google

Kenneth P. Vogel has the story at the New York Times. It’s worth quoting at length (or better yet reading in full if you have the time):

The New America Foundation has received more than $21 million from Google; its parent company’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt; and his family’s foundation since the think tank’s founding in 1999. That money helped to establish New America as an elite voice in policy debates on the American left.

But not long after one of New America’s scholars posted a statement on the think tank’s website praising the European Union’s penalty against Google, Mr. Schmidt, who had chaired New America until 2016, communicated his displeasure with the statement to the group’s president, Anne-Marie Slaughter, according to the scholar. . . . 

Ms. Slaughter summoned the scholar who wrote the critical statement, Barry Lynn, to her office. . . . Ms. Slaughter 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. The email suggested that the entire Open Markets team — nearly 10 full-time employees and unpaid fellows — would be exiled from New America.

While she asserted in the email, which was reviewed by The New York Times, 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.”

 . . . 

Google rejected any suggestion that it played a role in New America’s split with Open Markets. Riva Sciuto, a Google spokeswoman, pointed out that the company supports a wide range of think tanks and other nonprofits focused on information access and internet regulation. . . . 

New America’s executive vice president, Tyra Mariani, said it was “a mutual decision for Barry to spin out his Open Markets program,” and that the move was not in any way influenced by Google or Mr. Schmidt.

Vogel also notes a previous incident in which Slaughter pressured Lynn to include more Google-friendly voices at a conference: “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.”

Of course, the usual disclaimers apply here. Google is a private company and may fund whomever it pleases; New America is a private organization and may sever ties with any employees who undermine its mission. And of course, if you previously thought that companies funded policy studies out of the goodness of their hearts, you were delusional.

But two points are worth making. First, think tanks — even those organized around an ideology or philosophy — typically like to envision themselves as respecters of academic freedom. This isn’t the first time one of these organizations has publicly caved to some type of pressure, but it is the most brazen sop to a major funder that I can remember. Then again, these things no doubt happen behind the scenes with some regularity, and maybe it’s good for the public to know what’s going on. At any rate, there’s no denying this is a black eye for New America.

Second, this news drops at a time when a lot of people are concerned about concentration in the tech industry. A handful of sites, especially Google and Facebook, now control an astounding proportion of the information that flows online and are branching out into new areas as well. Some worry that these companies could censor views from national political debates. Others worry they could use their dominance in one area to conquer others as well (e.g. if Google prioritized its own products in search results).

And undeniably, these companies make a killing, and money buys influence. What’s the first think tank that comes into your mind, anywhere on the political spectrum? Whatever it is, if you click here and search its name (Control-F) to see if Google has funded it, I think the odds are quite good it will show up — and it’s not even an exhaustive list. If you’re on Twitter, please vote in my poll as to whether it did:

Conservatives should resist government encroachment on private businesses, but at some point market concentration becomes a problem, especially when a company crosses the line into monopoly territory. I’m not prepared to say we’ve reached that point yet, and even if we have, I worry that the government could make a bad situation worse. (See Travis Kavulla on that point.)

But I’ll note two possibilities: Jeremy Carl has suggested regulating tech giants like utilities, requiring them to provide their services to all comers and to allow all speech that is protected by the First Amendment. And in the post that apparently cost him his job, Barry Lynn wrote that, to keep Google from using its monopoly in one product to benefit its other offerings, “U.S. enforcers should apply the traditional American approach to network monopoly, which is to cleanly separate ownership of the network from ownership of the products and services sold on that network, as they did in the original Microsoft case of the late 1990s.” Though, regarding that example, it’s worth noting that the original order to break up Microsoft didn’t stand, and no one’s too afraid of Microsoft these days.

Update: New America has now put out an official statement responding to the Times story.

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