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The latest Google controversy shows how corporate funding stifles criticism

The Google offices in Berlin, Germany.
Adam Berry | Getty Images
The Google offices in Berlin, Germany.

Do the right thing. Don't be evil. These are Google's company mottos, designed to embody the company's self-described progressive values.

But then scholar Barry Lynn — a vocal supporter of antitrust regulations against Google — was pushed out last week from the New America Foundation, a think tank which had received major financial support from Google. The move called the tech giant's public-interest ethos into question.

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In his June statement for the New America Foundation, Lynn "congratulated" the European Union's decision to levy a record-breaking, $2.7 billion antitrust fine against Google. EU regulators found that the company had unfairly directed customers toward its own shopping platform, denying them a "genuine choice."

Google CEO Sundar Pichai
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Google CEO Sundar Pichai

"Google's market power," Lynn wrote in his statement for New America, "is one of the most critical challenges for competition policymakers in the world today."

Google was, reportedly, not happy with the statement. According to Lynn, Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt, also chair of New America up until 2016, quickly responded that the company wanted to "sever all ties with the organization."

Lynn was fired, and New America severed ties with Lynn and Open Markets, Lynn's project within the think tank, starting on September 1st. New America denies that the firing was due to pressure from Google, though emails from the think tank's leadership suggest otherwise.

To understand the broader economic and political forces that may have played a role in Lynn's departure, I spoke to media critic Douglas Rushkoff. Rushkoff, a New York–based writer and professor at Queens College, has also been critical of Google's rise to power; his latest title is "Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity." We discussed, among other topics, the consolidation of power in the tech industry and the impact of private interests on free speech.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Hope Reese:

Lynn's departure from New America has been viewed, largely, as illustrating the influence a powerful company like Google can have on scholarly discourse. How do you see the news?

Douglas Rushkoff:

What we know for sure is that people around the world are becoming more conscious of the particular way that technology mega-corporations are working to change the legal and media landscape.

Jeff Bezos buys the Washington Post so that his technology platform monolith has a voice. In Google, we have a situation where the world's largest technology platform is also the world's largest advertising platform. Things start to get messy. Google's also the nation's biggest lobbyist in DC.

Does that mean Google is evil? Not necessarily. But their influence is very big. It wouldn't be surprising to see organizations of all kinds accommodating the needs of one of these companies or another, whether it's a publishing house accommodating Amazon books or New America accommodating Google's lobbying arm.

Reese:

Does this illustrate the kind of power the large tech companies have? Is this a trend that will continue?

Rushkoff:

From the period of chartered monopolies in the 1300s until very recently, the power of a monopoly was maintained by law. You lobbied for certain laws in order to get charters or monopolize a certain industry. You'd fight antitrust laws. Now, monopolies are exercised through code, rather than just law. Through manipulation of the landscape itself.

That's what we started to realize in the late '90s when Microsoft had both the operating system and the browser, and people began to say, "Oh, there's this other way of doing monopolies now." But it also amplifies and accelerates the process for a monopoly to happen. Amazon happened really, really fast. And their platform gives them the ability. As soon as they bought Whole Foods, everybody goes, "Oh my gosh," and the stocks of other grocery stores went down.

These are all digitally-accelerated phenomena. The worry is different. And the main reason is that these companies are, themselves, communications companies and publishers. It's not just a phone company or an electric company or a cement company. They're also the platforms we use to interact. It becomes bigger.

The New America article is not that big of a deal, in itself. The reason it's a story is that it's emblematic of a new kind of monopoly. If anything, these sorts of foundations, and the kinds of publishing they do, were the last safeguard. The last seemingly untouched, unsullied place.

Everything else is owned by one or the other of the same five companies. If there's so little money out there that's not Bezos, Schmidt, Murdoch, Zuckerberg ... if they're the only ones left to keep these organizations alive, the space for genuine, independent work is getting smaller and smaller.

Reese:

For me, it's troubling that scholarly thought is influenced by corporate money, which I had always thought was separate.

Rushkoff:

It's totally not. Look how much effort and manpower major universities spend on development and fundraising. Who are they appealing to for that money, and how does that influence their spending and research agendas? Eighty families own half of the money on the planet right now. Where are you going to go for money? One of those families. This is a side effect of wealth consolidation.

Even look at me. I'm going to have a book coming out. And Anne-Marie Slaughter [president and CEO of New America] knew the title of my previous book, "Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus," and what it was about, and New America sponsored an event for my book. It was about how we got to a place where runaway growth of tech companies impoverishes people and places. So I'm not in a position to say anything bad about New America — why should I bite the hand that feeds me? We're all in a precarious position. We're all dependent on the same five companies to keep us in business. That sometimes means negotiating a harrowingly narrow path between ethics and patronage.

All of the NGOs are beholden to their sponsors, and it's good to understand that.

Reese:

Allegedly, Eric Schmidt immediately contacted New America to say they were unhappy with Lynn's support of the EU antitrust fine against Google. How is that not suppressing scholarly research?

Rushkoff:

This is the core problem with neoliberalism. Whoever's paying for your bread ends up having some say in what happens. It's the reason the economics and business departments in America all still spout Milton Friedman-style free-market capitalism — those people paid for the chairs, and the departments, and the grants.

They went on an anti-socialist, pro-business platform. This is the way it works. Jack Welch, when he was head of GE, would call CNBC's news desk saying, why is a channel we own saying bad things about GE as an investment?

And this is Schmidt's perspective. Why is a place, one that we're paying for — and the reason we're paying is because open markets means open internet, means open for advertising, means open for Google — [challenging us]? He sees what they've written and says, wait, I thought we were all on the same page here!

No, I don't like this.

Reese:

After this, will it be difficult for New America to remain a credible source, in the eyes of the public?

Rushkoff:

Unless Anne-Marie Slaughter comes out with something really good, some counter-something, it not only exposes the reality behind the connection between funding and output at New America, but exposes the way that all of these NGOs and think tanks are beholden to the people who fund them. A think tank has two choices: Either find sponsors who agree with what you want to say, or learn to agree with what your sponsors want to say. It's almost impossible to do anything else.

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This article was originally published on Vox.