TECH

Google Just Proved That Monopolies Imperil Democracy, Not Just The Economy

Barry Lynn and his team of anti-monopoly researchers were fired by a think tank after criticising the search giant.

31/08/2017 10:39 AM AEST | Updated 01/09/2017 12:46 AM AEST

WASHINGTON ― For the past decade, former business journalist Barry Lynn has used his perch at the New America Foundation to warn politicians and the public that a new era of corporate monopolies threatened not only American workers, but also democracy itself.

Lynn was just proven right: New America has fired him as head of its Open Markets program along with his team of about 10 researchers and journalists, after they called for an antitrust investigation of the think tank’s largest longtime donor, Google.

On June 27, the Open Markets team in a 150-word statement called for the Federal Trade Commission to follow the lead of the European Union, which leveled a $2.7 billion fine on Google for violating antitrust laws. Since New America’s start in 1999, Google has given it $21 million. And Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet, Inc., Google’s parent company, served as New America’s chairman from 2008 through mid-2016.

According to a report on Wednesday in The New York Times, Lynn was called on the carpet by New America head Anne-Marie Slaughter shortly after the Open Markets program praised the E.U.’s decision to find Google in violation of antitrust law for providing preferential placement to its own products and those of its subsidiaries over its rivals in search results. Schmidt, the Times reported, had expressed to Slaughter his “displeasure” with the statement backing the E.U.’s move.

Slaughter, according to an email obtained by the Times, told Lynn that he and his team had to leave New America. The firing was, “in no way based on the content of your work,” she wrote, while also saying Lynn was “imperiling the institution as a whole.”

Two current members of the Open Markets team confirmed this timeline of events to HuffPost. Lynn and his Open Markets colleagues were told to depart New America two days after the statement that supported the E.U. antitrust fine and called upon “U.S. enforcers” to “build upon this important precedentThe team, though, stuck around in an attempt to question New America’s leadership about whether it really wanted to fire the entire group.

“We were trying to be, like, ’Are you sure you want to do this because it sort of seems bad,” Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Program, told HuffPost. “Are you sure you want to prove us right? Are you sure you want to back a monopoly in such an obvious and clumsy way? We were negotiating with them.” (Stoller is an occasional HuffPost contributor.)

Despite those negotiations, Slaughter on Wednesday officially terminated Lynn and his team. 

It’s just classic monopoly muscle. This is the way bullies act. Jonathan Taplin, author of Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy

Slaughter disputed the Times story, saying in a statement that the claim “that Google lobbied New America to expel the Open Markets program” was “false.” Instead, she said that Lynn refused “to adhere to New America’s standards of openness and institutional collegiality.” She offered no explanation for firing the entire Open Markets team.

A Google spokeswoman denied any involvement in Lynn’s firing in an email to HuffPost. She also said that Schmidt did not threaten to cut off funding for the think tank because of the Open Markets statement on Google’s antitrust fine.

“We support hundreds of organizations that promote a free and open Internet, greater access to information, and increased opportunity,” Riva Sciuto, the Google spokesperson, said in the statement. “We don’t agree with every group 100 percent of the time, and while we sometimes respectfully disagree, we respect each group’s independence, personnel decisions, and policy perspectives.”

New America did not immediately respond to a request for comment to HuffPost.

Lynn is now building an independent think tank to continue his anti-monopoly work with his New America team. The group has already launched a campaign aimed at mobilizing public opposition to the power of modern-day monopolies by highlighting Google’s power to quash independent research like that by the Open Markets team.

Its supporters say this case underscores that argument.

Lynn and his colleagues “have long argued that monopolies are a problem for the economy, but they’re also a problem for democracy,” Zephyr Teachout, a fellow at Open Markets and board member of its new campaign ― called Citizens Against Monopolies ― told HuffPost. “This kind of proves the point.”

It’s not as though the Open Markets team needed to get fired to buttress their concerns about monopoly power. Their efforts already have been influential ― more so than work by many other think tanks.

The Democratic Party recently adopted the team’s warnings about monopolies in its “A Better Deal” platform. Politicians ― including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) ― are pushing for enhanced antitrust enforcement and calling out concentrations of economic power more than before.

Open Markets has helped lead the economic debate to a “more populist strain over the past couple of years,” Marshall Steinbaum, a fellow at the progressive economics think tank Roosevelt Institute, told HuffPost.

Firing Lynn and his team “raises a lot of questions,” a Warren aide told HuffPost. Warren, herself, later tweeted her concerns.

A senior aide to a progressive House Democrat, who commented on the condition of anonymity, called the firings “an example of the way that funding think tanks is a way to achieve policy outcomes, in the same way that lobbying and funding campaigns is. It’s a business expense.”

Jonathan Taplin, the author of Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, was more blunt in his assessment of what happened at New America.

“It’s just classic monopoly muscle,” he told HuffPost. “This is the way bullies act.”

The internal workings of New America, though, is not the real issue, Stoller said. The public needs to recognize Google as an autocratic private power that is exerting itself in the economy and in policy to increase its own power over people, he argued.

“We love a lot of the people at New America,” Stoller said. “We think their work is great. ... This is not an issue of New America. This is an issue about monopoly and Google.”

And Google is undeniably a monopoly. Just ask monopoly proponent and billionaire investor Peter Thiel, who has said the company is able to offer so many wonderful perks to its employees because it doesn’t have to worry too much about competition. It controls 80 percent of the market for online search and 54 percent of the browser market in the U.S.

Google and Facebook, another powerful online platform monopoly, have gobbled up practically every new online advertising dollar (thanks to their past acquisitions of online advertising companies) in recent years while pressuring news organizations, including HuffPost, to publish directly to their platforms. Google’s control of internet search has given it the power to squeeze money away from other websites (see: CelebrityNetWorth.com and Yelp.com). Google’s dominant position as an advertising seller has also given it increasing power over newsrooms (although not as much as Facebook).

The company ― which once went by the motto “Don’t be evil” ― has also sought to replicate its economic power in political and policy spheres.

Google has previously sought to pressure a nonprofit over its criticism of the company. In 2009, Google’s head of public policy reached out to the foundation funding the California-based Consumer Watchdog to warn it about continuing to underwrite the work by the pro-privacy group. That work was critical of many of Google’s privacy policies.

In the past decade, Google also has poured tens of millions of dollars into campaign contributions, lobbying firms, think tanks and policy nonprofits in the past decade.

This political investment soared after 2011 when Google’s antitrust issues first came under the microscope. Its lobbying expenses doubled from $9.6 million in 2011 to $18.2 million in 2012, and have not fallen below $15 million since. In 2011, Google gave grants to 44 different nonprofits and think tanks. That number jumped to 81 in 2012 and now sits at 170.

Goggle executives enjoyed unrivaled access to the White House under President Barack Obama, visiting hundreds of times, according to Secret Service visitor logs. Google has also pumped millions of dollars into research at universities, often to buttress its public policy positions, and is pushing its own agenda for public school education across the country.

Google’s huge increase in political investment post-2011 was in direct reaction to the Federal Trade Commission opening an antitrust investigation into whether it abused its market position in internet searches. The FTC commissioners eventually dropped the investigation in exchange for small concessions by the company, despite a report by the agency’s legal team that labeled Google a “monopoly” and supported a full investigation.

“The ‘A’ word is the one thing that can stop the music,” Luther Lowe, Yelp’s vice president of public policy, said of Google’s interest in antitrust issues. “It’s the one that’s an all-hands-on-deck situation.” 

Daniel Marans contributed reporting.

 

UPDATE: 10:50 p.m. ― The New America Foundation released three emails from executive director Anne-Marie Slaughter to Barry Lynn on Wednesday night. All three emails confirm that Slaughter was angered that events sponsored, and statements made, by Lynn and his Open Markets program could endanger the think tank’s funding relationship with Google. 

The first email is from June 2016 and came on the heels of a public event Lynn hosted at New America with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that featured pointed criticism of platform monopolies including Google. Slaughter was upset with Lynn for not including Google’s point of view in the event. She mentioned her agreement with Meredith Hanley, the director of development at New America, regarding Lynn’s apparent transgression, although what Hanley said is not included in the message. Slaughter wrote, “We worked so hard with you to get you 11th Hour funding; just THINK about how you are imperiling funding for others.” She added: “We are in the process of trying to expand our relationship with Google on some absolutely key points.”

Slaughter’s second email came a year later and four days after Lynn’s June 26 statement in favor of the EU antitrust finding against Google. This is the email quoted in the New York Times where Slaughter states that “the time has come for Open Markets and New America to part ways.” The email appears to note the Google statement when Slaughter writes, “I and other members of the leadership team regard your actions on Tuesday, June 26, as a breach of faith, imperiling the institution as a whole in a way that could have been avoided.” She continued to outline a plan to consciously uncouple Open Markets from New America by Sept. 1, 2017, in a way “that involves no disparagement by us of you or by you of us.”

A source within the Open Markets team with knowledge of the events told HuffPost that after the second email Slaughter met with Lynn in person and told him about Google’s anger about his statement. There is also an email from Lynn to Slaughter that came between the second and third email that is not included in New America’s disclosure.

The third email was sent on July 7, 2017, and acknowledges that Slaughter’s last communication with Google came immediately after the meeting between her and Lynn on June 26. She writes that she spoke with Susan Molinari, a former Republican congresswoman who is currently one of Google’s top lobbyists in Washington. Slaughter claims that Lynn mischaracterized their prior conversation in the email he sent to her, which is not included in this disclosure. She then accuses Lynn of not behaving with “the necessary degree of colleagueship that sets us all up to be successful in our various viewpoints and work.”

What is clear from all of the emails is that Slaughter repeatedly connected Google’s broader funding of New America to the expression of the policy views stated by Lynn and his team. Lynn also appears to stand accused of not being collegial enough with Google.

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