Technology giant Goolge has been accused of spending millions of dollar on favourable academic research that support its business and policy goals. In a newly published report, a US-based watchdog has claimed that Google paid scholars and academician from most prestigious universities in US, UK, EU including Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Oxford (U.K.), Edinburgh University and Berlin School of Economics to produce papers that supported Google’s business goals and helped it influence public policy.
Campaign for Accountability (CfA), a non-profit organisation identified 329 research papers published between 2005 and 2017 on public policy matters of interest to Google that were in some way funded by the company. “Google uses its immense wealth and power to attempt to influence policy makers at every level. At a minimum, regulators should be aware that the allegedly independent legal and academic work on which they rely has been brought to them by Google,” said CfA executive director, Daniel Stevens in a statement.
Academics did not disclose Google funding
CfA claimed that more than half of the papers (54%) that it analysed, academics were directly funded by Google and remainder worked for, or were affiliated with, groups or institutions that were funded by Google but in 65% cases academics did not disclose the Google funding. In fact, the authors failed to disclose funding even when they were directly funded by Google in more than a quarter (26%) of cases.
“What’s good for Google is not necessarily good for the country. Google-funded academics should disclose the source of their funding to ensure their work is evaluated in context and the government makes decisions that benefit all Americans, not just Google employees and stockholders,” said Stevens.
Most of the academic papers examined by CfA are around policy and legal issues of critical importance to Google’s bottom line, including antitrust, privacy, net neutrality, search neutrality, patents and copyright. The report claimed that the number of Google-funded studies tended to spike during moments when its business model came under threat from regulators—or when the company had opportunities to push for regulations on its competitors. Google began to fund a barrage of academic studies on antitrust issues in 2011, a time when U.S. antitrust enforcers began to scrutinise the company’s practices, said report.
Papers tried to influence antitrust investigations by FTC
The largest number of such studies were published in 2012, when the Federal Trade Commission and European regulators started antitrust investigations. The spike in competition-themed papers subsided after the Federal Trade Commission closed its investigation in early 2013. There was a second spike in 2015, when a potential settlement in Europe fell apart and the European Commission filed formal antitrust charges against the company, said report.
Last month Google was slapped with a record fine of 2.42 billion euros (£2.1 billion) for breaching antitrust rules with its online shopping service. The anti-trust watchdog accused Google of abusing its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors. According to reports, Google is considering launching an appeal against the European Commission once it had reviewed the decision.
Report said that the Google-funded studies came from a wide variety of sources, and often blurred the line between academic research and paid advocacy by the company’s consultants. They were authored by academics, think-tanks, law firms, and economic consultants from some of the leading law schools and universities globally.
CfA said that these research paper had broad reach and may have influenced policymakers unaware of its sponsorship. “Google lobbyists and lawyers pushed the Google-funded research to journalists, the White House, Congress, regulators and agencies investigating its conduct, such as the Federal Trade Commission, often without disclosing that they paid for its production,” claimed report.
Google funded paper cited to Congress
Citing an example, report said that Eric Schmidt, then Google’s chief executive, cited a Google-funded author in written answers to Congress to back his contention that his company wasn’t a monopoly. He didn’t mention Google had paid for the paper. More recently, Google-funded academics and speakers have dominated FTC conferences, said report.
To make its papers more authoritative and credible, according to CfA, Google-funded studies routinely cited each other. The 330 Google-funded articles were cited nearly 6,000 times in more than 4,700 unique articles.
Google refutes claims, competitors like Oracle behind the report
In a detailed reply to allegation, Leslie Miller, Google’s Director of Public Policy wrote a blogpost stating that the report is highly misleading and Google is proud to maintain strong relations with academics, universities and research institutes, in its own name. “When we provide financial support, we expect and require grantees to properly disclose our funding. If there are ever omissions or unclear disclosures, we work to tighten our requirements,” wrote Miller.
Refuting the charges, Google said that it offers grants for discrete pieces of research, not to shape academics’ subsequent scholarship. “The researchers and institutions to whom we award research grants will often publish research with which we disagree. In fact, many of the academics listed by the Campaign for Accountability have criticized Google and our policy positions heavily on a variety of topics,” he added.
Accusing CfA of double standard, Miller said that the irony of discussing disclosures and transparency with the “Campaign for Accountability” was that this group consistently refuses to name its corporate funders. “The one funder the world does know about is Oracle, which is running a well-documented lobbying campaign against us. In its own name and through proxies, Oracle has funded many hundreds of articles, research papers, symposia and reports. Oracle is not alone—you can easily find similar activity by companies and organizations funded by our competitors, like AT&T, the MPAA, ICOMP, FairSearch and dozens more; including hundreds of pieces directly targeting Google,” said Miller.
Replying to Google counter allegation Stevens said “Whenever Google’s bad behaviour is exposed, it invariably points the finger at someone else. Instead of deflecting blame, Google should address its record of academic astroturfing, which puts it in the same league as Big Oil and Big Tobacco.”
Defending its report, Stevens added “We think our work speaks for itself. Over the past 18 months, the Google Transparency Project has documented more than 425 White House meetings by Google lobbyists, 250 revolving door hires between Google and government and more than 325 academic papers paid for by the company to help advance its policy interests. All of the underlying data is published on the site, along with more than 40,000 pages of Google emails with US government officials. The data in the report has also been subject to analysis by The Wall Street Journal, which cited the data in its own investigative article.”