Forbes: How Google Tries to Buy Government: article by David Pridham

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“Google has helped finance hundreds of research papers to defend against regulatory challenges of its market dominance…”

David Pridham by: David Pridham | July 19, 2017

On July 14, The Wall Street Journal published an extraordinary report on a secret academic influence-peddling effort by Google to shape government policy to suit its business needs. Economists refer to such efforts to subvert the norms of democratic decision-making as “regulatory capture,” but there is little precedent in history for either the scale or scope of Google’s current influence campaign.

“Over the past decade,” wrote reporters Brody Mullins and Jack Nicas, “Google has helped finance hundreds of research papers to defend against regulatory challenges of its market dominance, paying $5,000 to $400,000 for [each] work, The Wall Street Journal found.”

Now, it’s important to note that many companies, including some of Google’s main  competitors, also fund academic research. Corporate funding is often necessary to pursue costly research. But just as in the medical research funded by drug companies, the key is to disclose the funding and let policy makers and other readers judge for themselves the accuracy of the findings.

But let’s not be naive: Google is the second most valuable company on earth, after Apple. So when it’s got an itch to change government policy, politicians are going to be prone to scratch.

Take the vital issue of copyright protection. This is major concern for Google because its search engine links to millions of copyrighted newspapers, books, and periodicals. The company was also for many years the target of a massive lawsuit from authors and publishers, who argued (rightfully) that the company’s Google Books program infringed their copyrights.

What’s more, the tech publication The Register reported last year that Google was also behind the Obama Administration’s firing of Registrar of Copyrights Maria Pallante last October — the first time the Registrar had been dismissed in 119 years — who apparently was resisting Google’s efforts to weaken copyright protections for musicians, authors, and artists.

So how did Google’s secret academic influence effort promote its views on copyright protection? In one example cited by The Wall Street Journal, Google paid University of Illinois law professor Paul Heald $18,830 to write a 2012 research paper supporting Google’s views on copyright. Mr. Heald, however, failed to disclose that Google funded the effort. When asked why by the Journal, Heald replied, “Oh, wow. No I didn’t. That’s really bad … purely oversight.”

How about online privacy? That’s another huge issue for Google, because as the Journal correctly reported, “Google collects information that reaches deep into daily life — recording everything from users’ search history to whom they know to where they are — consumer profiles so rich that not even Google knows their full potential.”

Indeed, the newspaper went on to report that “Google collects in-depth data from more than a billion people, and it uses the information to personalize everything from search results to YouTube recommendations to online ads. The company’s control of consumer data on such a mass scale has raised antitrust questions.”

So it was certainly helpful to Google when University of Florida law professor Daniel Sokol published a paper last year asserting that Google’s use of the data was completely legal.

“There is no cause for concern in this arena,” he wrote. He also claimed that he did not receive any corporate funding for the research. Yet after reviewing emails they obtained, the Journal reported that Mr. Sokol “had extensive ties to Google” and had “also coordinated with Google officials to ensure online symposiums had a pro-Google bent” — for which he submitted a $5,000 invoice to Google (and apparently more than once). When a Google assistant inquired via email about the invoice, Mr. Sokol replied, “$5,000, like last time.”

How about anti-trust issues? These are of enormous concern to Google’s profit hopes. So in 2012, when the FTC was deciding whether to charge Google with antitrust violations for favoring its own shopping services in its search results, the Journal reported that “Google’s law firm, Wilson Sonsini, sent the FTC chairman an 8-page letter in the company’s defense and attached Google-funded research papers supporting its arguments.”

That research had been organized and paid for by former Princeton University researcher Deven Desai, who had been hired by Google two years earlier and given a war chest of more than $2 million to organize conferences and find academics to write research papers supporting the company’s position. Mr. Desai said he paid authors $20,000 to $150,000 per paper.

In the end, the FTC decided — surprise! — not to charge Google with antitrust violations. But over in the European Union, where regulators are less susceptible to Google influence, the giant search monopoly was fined a record $2.7 billion last month for antitrust violations.

Said Commissioner Margrethe Vestager: “Google has abused its dominance as a search engine by giving illegal advantages to another Google product, its shopping comparison service” — among the very same violations the FTC had been investigating.

Finally, we come to patent policy, where Google has spent a minimum of tens of millions of dollars lobbying for federal and state laws that weaken patent protections and thereby lower the cost to Google of infringing other companies’ patents. In this arena, too, The Wall Street Journal found evidence that Google has paid academics to write research papers that, in the Journal’s words, “argued for a looser interpretation of U.S. patent laws.”

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