Among its peers, Google is an unparalleled lobbyist. Between April and June of this year, Google spent $5.4 million lobbying the federal government, more than double the lobbying budget for Apple, a comparable global behemoth that also has to fend off regulatory scrutiny. The tech giant has also long funded a lengthy roster of think tanks, academics, and nonprofits that grapple with issues that could seriously impact Google’s bottom line, such as privacy, net neutrality, and tax reform.
So when the New York Times reported Wednesday that the New America Foundation (a Google-funded think tank) severed ties with Open Markets (an antimonopoly group housed within New America) after complaints from a top Google executive (Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company), it seemed like a rare glimpse at how Google wields its power behind the scenes. Emails between New America and Open Markets reviewed by WIRED and others also give greater insight into the way that funding from Google can influence a policy group’s internal dynamics.
The rift dates back to June 27, when Barry Lynn, the director of Open Markets, wrote a 150-word press release celebrating a major antitrust loss for Google in Europe. As part of the ruling, the EU fined Google €2.5 billion for abusing its dominance and ordered Google to stop boosting its own products in search. Lynn, a leading scholar on antitrust reform, encouraged American regulators to follow suit. “Google’s market power is one of the most critical challenges for competition policymakers in the world today,” Lynn wrote. In Lynn’s account of events, shared with the Times, Schmidt “communicated his displeasure,” to New America’s CEO and president Anne-Marie Slaughter hours after the statement was published. Around that time, the post went offline—then reappeared after a few hours, the paper says. A couple days later, Slaughter told Lynn that Open Markets and New America would be parting ways.
Google denies playing any role in New America’s decision or threatening to cut off funding. (Although a spokesperson confirmed to WIRED that Schmidt was displeased.) New America said in a statement that it had nothing to do with Lynn’s work; he was terminated over “repeated refusal to adhere to New America’s standards of openness and institutional collegiality,” a sentiment echoed in emails that Slaughter wrote to Lynn, published on New America’s website “in the name of transparency.”
But Slaughter’s email dump had an unintended consequence: The correspondence shines a light on Google’s preferred lobbying tactic—not muzzling critics with ultimatums, but through the soft power of Google’s displeasure. WIRED has obtained three additional emails from the same conversations, including Lynn’s responses. None of the emails describe overt demands from Google to edit a blog post, disinvite an unfriendly panelist, or kill a policy paper. (For all the concern about silencing thought, the emails don’t mention the content of Lynn’s work.)
Instead, Google’s chief concern, at least on the surface, seems to be getting notified in advance about events and articles—and making sure Google’s perspective was heard at an Open Markets antitrust conference in 2016, where the keynote speaker, US senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), planned to give a talk about monopoly power.
In an email from Slaughter dated June 22, which was not among the ones published by New America, Slaughter appeared distressed about an upcoming meeting with Susan Molinari, the former Republican congresswoman1 turned Google’s top lobbyist. Slaughter insisted that Lynn provide answers so that she could explain why Google wasn’t informed about an upcoming antitrust conference or about Warren’s speech.
In his response, Lynn empathized with Slaughter about the challenges of her role but said that Open Markets had never given advance warning about events and articles in the past, and he did not understand why an employee from Google corporate (Stephanie Valencia, who works on strategic outreach and partnerships for Google) would expect that from him.
In Slaughter’s reply, which was later published on New America’s website, she urged Lynn to consider how his actions might jeopardize funding for his colleagues. “[J]ust THINK about how you are imperiling funding for others,” she wrote. “We are in the process of trying to expand our relationship with Google on some absolutely key points. I also need the current write-up of the event right away. Right now.”
The last email from Lynn is dated July 3, a week after he had been fired. Lynn, who worked at New America for 15 years, recounts the meeting where he was let go. According to the email, Slaughter told Lynn that Google’s response to the press release made it necessary for his team to leave. He shared his disappointment in her rationale but respect for the difficulty of Slaughter’s position.
One major detail that isn’t referenced in the emails is Lynn’s claim that hours after his press release went online, Slaughter called him up and said: “I just got off the phone with Eric Schmidt and he is pulling all of his money,” a story he later told the Wall Street Journal, but not Times.
Slaughter also shared new information piecemeal. In an email to New America members late Thursday night, Slaughter explained that she asks for an advance copy of public statements out of courtesy to colleagues and funders, not censorship, but may debate the tone. “I have never—nor would I ever—censor anything, but I might well ask questions about accuracy or tone. And I wanted to give the funder a heads up that a critical statement was coming, and send it over ourselves. That seems like a defensible minimum courtesy that an institution can offer its funders,” Slaughter wrote. In the internal email, Slaughter denied that Schmidt contacted her before New America took Lynn’s statement offline. She did not elaborate on why the press release was temporarily removed.
The cornerstone of Open Markets’s advocacy work is the idea that consolidation of power erodes political liberties and democratic values. But the dustup shows how easy it would be for Google to manipulate public debate on national issues without leaving much of a fingerprint. A Google spokesperson tells WIRED that its financial support does not interfere with any think tank’s “independence, personnel decisions, or policy perspective.” But in the emails, Slaughter comes across as more of a conduit than a firewall between New America’s donors and intellectual work of its scholars.
Open Markets, which is now raising funds as an independent organization, says the correspondence is a cautionary tale. “The emails clearly show the influence that Google wields over New America’s operations. What Google did in pressuring New America to suppress the work of reporters and researchers who have directly criticized how Google wields its power is common among think tanks in DC. It is why [former Supreme Court justice] Louis Brandeis warned tirelessly of the political dangers posed by concentrations of power,” the group said in a statement on Thursday.
Up until this fiasco, New America was seen as proof that a think tank could take tech money and still maintain intellectual independence and integrity, says Frank Pasquale, a law professor who has been a vocal critic of similar practices by Google and author of The Black Box Society, a book about secretive algorithms. Schmidt has strong financial ties to New America, which has received $21 million in donations from Google, Schmidt’s family, and Schmidt’s family foundation since it was founded in 1999. Schmidt’s willingness to express his displeasure over a press release coincides with Open Markets’s rising influence. Lina Khan, a former Open Markets fellow, says her team is regularly in conversations with staffers from both the House and Senate, including discussions about antitrust concerns around mergers, such as Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods. (Note: WIRED editor in chief Nick Thompson was a New America fellow.)
Typically, Pasquale says, tech money’s influence on academia and policy work manifests itself in subtler ways. The impact can be seen in what is not covered and a focus on more trivial issues, like a tech-backed privacy organization that researches the behavioral economics of a single feature rather than protecting consumer data, Pasquale says. “It’s not like people are silenced, but I think they know there’s a big pool of money out there,” he says.
1UPDATED 8:53pm 9/1/2017: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Molinari’s role in government.