Google Accused of Using Power of the Purse to Silence Critic

Alphabet's executive chairman Eric Schmidt pressured a prominent think tank into firing researchers that had praised the antitrust fine the European Union levied on Google, according to a New York Times report.

Aphabet Pressure

Google's carefully cultivated image as a force for broader good on the Internet has taken another beating in recent weeks.

First it was data regulators in the European Union fining the company a record $2.7 billion for anti-competitive practices. Then it was the firing of an engineer who penned an internal memo about Google being an "ideological echo chamber" that sparked on national debate about Google's corporate culture and handling of diversity issues.

This week it was a report about Google parent Alphabet's executive chairman Eric Schmidt apparently pressuring a prominent think tank into firing a critic of the company that has prompted questions about whether Google has become a corporate bully.

The report by the New York Times is based on its interviews with Barry Lynn the former director of Open Markets a project of New America, which is a Washington D.C based organization that bills itself as a non-partisan think tank.

The New America Foundation employs some 200 writers, researchers and scholars. It has also received than $21 million in funding since 1999 from Google, Schmidt and Schmidt's family foundation, according to the Times report.

Lynn claimed in the Time article that New America president Anne-Marie Slaughter fired him and disbanded the entire Open Markets group as the result of direct pressure from Google and Schmidt.

According to Lynn, Slaughter fired him after Schmidt had communicated his displeasure over an article that Lynn had written in which he had lauded the EU's decision to fine Google for its monopolistic behavior. An email, that Slaughter allegedly sent to Lynn and which the Times quoted, assured Lynn he wasn't being terminated because of the content of his work while also accusing him of imperiling New America as a whole.

A New America representative told the Times, that the organization's decision had nothing to do with pressure from Google and that the move to spin out the Open Market's group was a mutual decision. Slaughter said that she had fired Lynn because of his repeated refusal to comply with the think tank's standards of "collegiality" and "openness."

In a statement to eWEEK, a Google spokeswoman said that the company is still funding the New America Foundation and nothing about its funding plans have changed. "We support hundreds of organizations that promote a free and open Internet, greater access to information, and increased opportunity," the statement noted.

"We don't agree with every group 100 per cent of the time, and while we sometimes respectfully disagree, we respect each group’s independence, personnel decisions, and policy perspectives," Google said.

But in his comments to the Times, Lynn, who has played an influential role in raising concerns about the growing power wielded by technology companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, insisted that New America had placed donor interests over intellectual integrity.

“Google is very aggressive in throwing its money around Washington and Brussels, and then pulling the strings,” the Times quoted Lynn as saying. “People are so afraid of Google now."

Lynn's comments were echoed by a handful of others.

Zephyr Teachout an associate professor of law at Fordham University and a fellow at the Open Markets team claimed that Google representatives had called New America's bosses to express displeasure shortly after Lynn's article on the EU ruling went live.

In a Washington Post column Teachout claimed that plans to hire two people to the Open Markets team were suddenly canceled. She said that a mere three days after the article was published Lynn received a letter from New America's leadership asking he disband the team. "Google did not always operate this way in relation to think tanks, even those it funded," she noted. But that appears to have changed to the point where it no longer tolerates dissent, Teachout alleged.

In another report, Gizmodo journalist Kashmir Hill claimed that an article she had written for Forbes several years ago about Google's apparent efforts to muscle publishers into promoting its Plus social network, was taken down under pressure from Google.

Apparently the details that Hill had reported in the story were covered under a non-disclosure agreement, which Google used as a pretext to get the story unpublished, Hill claimed. Google itself has claimed—and reiterated to Gizmodo this week—that the only reason it asked Forbes to remove the article was because the meeting involved reporting on a meeting held under NDA.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.