The firing of a high-profile academic has spun a spotlight onto one of the public policy world's best-known dirty secrets: Google's use of donations to stymie criticism of its business.
Barry Lynn has been a persistent critic of the ad giant, particularly its growing monopoly over much of our digital lives. "It's becoming harder and harder to ignore the power that is controlled by Google, Facebook, and Amazon," he said in a recent interview.
At a conference organized by his Open Markets group – an initiative run under the New America Foundation – he gave voice to lawmakers, academics and others who called for greater controls on tech giants. He has written a number of books warning about "the new monopoly capitalism" and the "coming fall of the global corporation."
But it was, according to Lynn and The New York Times, a press release applauding the European Commission's decision to fine Google a record €2.42bn ($2.88bn) for pushing its own products that sealed his fate.
"The Open Markets Team congratulates European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager and the European competition authority for this important decision," a quote attributed to Lynn read. "We call upon US enforcers, including the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, and states attorneys general, to build upon this important precedent, both in respect to Google and to other dominant platform monopolists including Amazon."
According to Lynn, just hours after this statement went live, chairman of Alphabet and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt called New America's president Anne-Marie Slaughter and complained bitterly.
Shortly after, the statement disappeared from the organization's website, before reappearing again several hours later. A few days later, Lynn was called to Slaughter's office and an email sent from her shortly after that meeting informed Lynn that "the time has come for Open Markets and New America to part ways" – with the entire 10-member team ousted from the think-tank.
Why? Because Lynn was "imperiling the institution as a whole," Slaughter noted in the email.
Lynn was clear in an interview with The New York Times what he thought had happened: "Google is very aggressive in throwing its money around Washington and Brussels, and then pulling the strings. People are so afraid of Google now," he said.
Google of course denies any such thing ever happened. And Slaughter has claimed the entire tale is false, even using the dreaded moniker "fake news." Within a few hours of the story emerging, she put up a statement arguing that the split with Open Markets was over Lynn's "repeated refusal to adhere to New America's standards of openness and institutional collegiality."
She also claims that she had attempted to "seek a cooperative solution" but had been unsuccessful. "Today, we made the difficult decision to terminate Barry Lynn," she wrote.
The suggestion that Lynn was fired not for his personal behavior but for poking a stick in the eye of the online giant that is Google struck an immediate chord with public policy wonks across the world, however.
The New America Foundation has received over $21 million from Google in its various forms, including some from Schmidt's personal foundation. Over the past decade, the company has financially supported thousands of non-profits and think-thanks, using its soft money to influence those organizations in a highly sophisticated effort.
While Google has always been savvy enough not to force its hand, its soft influence has been felt everywhere, particularly when it decides not to continue financially supporting an organization for another year.
It is very difficult to find a clear quid pro quo because Google executives never speak externally about their decisions, and make a point of not connecting the withdrawal of funds from content produced by the organization. But many have gotten the message: criticize Google at your own peril.
"I've been working on Google antitrust for six years," tweeted Yelp's VP of public policy Luther Lowe. "This is both the most shocking and least surprising thing I've read."
"This one just happens to be above the radar," noted internet policy expert Maria Farrell. "Anyone working in tech policy knows an increasing number of stories just like it."
Google's determined under-the-cover efforts to sway policy decisions, especially in Washington, DC, have long inspired anger and awe in equal measure.
Back in 2015, The Wall Street Journal revealed that Google executives had met with Obama Administration White House representatives on average once a week for the previous five years: a staggering amount of in-person interaction.
As we noted at the time, that was just the tip of the iceberg: there were numerous crossovers of former Google staffers working at the White House and in key government departments, many continuing to communicate and recommend their former colleagues.
The determined effort also paid off in spades: trade watchdog the FTC inexplicably dropped an antitrust investigation into Google – one that the European Union later found the company guilty of. That later led to an ethics investigation.
On the crucial net neutrality debate, a sudden and significant last-minute change to the rules by broadband watchdog the FCC was sparked entirely by a letter from Google that was eerily specific, given that no one was supposed to know what was in the rules.
The issue was so bad that the Senate even opened an investigation into Google's influence on the White House. And a number of organizations have been set up to dig into the pervasive influence that Google is having – not just in the White House and key government departments, but also in Congress – thanks to its huge lobbying budget.
Until very recently however, Google influence on the third arm of Washington, DC, policymaking – the think-tanks and non-profits – has not gotten much attention.
The company has become expert at using its money and power differently according to the type and style of organization, and at leaving precious few fingerprints behind. Even with the Lynn firing, the counter narrative has already been placed firmly on the record – the head of the think tank herself denies the connection and has personally impugned Lynn's "collegiality."
The fact remains that such organizations are always looking for resources and Google is more than willing to supply – and remove – much-needed money. It is also smart enough to know that this degree of influence only works if it never explicitly acknowledges the quid pro quo.
Or maybe we're all wrong and it's pure coincidence that the ones that continue to receive Google money year after year are not as critical as the ones that do not. Just ignore everything you know about Google and Washington, DC, and that seems all too plausible. ®