President Obama announced Monday that he had nominated George Mason University professor Joshua Wright for the U.S. Federal and Trade Commission. Wright has been selected to replace a Republican on the committee, and as such, it will come as no surprise that Wright has a long track record of advocating against anti-trust enforcement and the heavy hand of government.
But what seems to be overlooked in much of the coverage of his selection is that Wright has a history of receiving funding for his work from groups supported by Google. And of course, as we know, Google has had some ongoing tussles with the FTC, and will likely have more down the road.
I first came across Wright’s name earlier this year as part of research for a column I wrote examining the various ways Google and Microsoft sought to engage third parties such as lawyers, pundits, academics, and communications firms, to influence public opinion and policy. There is little requirement to disclose the money that goes toward wielding this soft influence.
In the main story, I quote Geoffrey Manne, executive director of the International Center for Law and Economics. He’s what I wrote about Manne:
“Manne has co-authored such papers as “Google and the Limits of Antitrust: The Case Against the Antitrust Case Against Google.” He has blogged in Google’s defense on numerous conservative blogs, written pro-Google articles in Foreign Affairs, and testified in its favor before Congress.
Like many Google supporters, Manne argues that the company isn’t a monopoly, that competing search engines are just one click away, and that the Internet industry is constantly being disrupted so that no incumbent is truly secure.
But you have to squint just a bit harder to see an important disclosure Manne makes: Google is among his sources of funding.
Manne founded the International Center for Law and Economics to serve as a matchmaking service for companies looking for scholars whose views would be potentially sympathetic to their policy positions. He got the idea from his previous employer: Microsoft. Manne was working as a legal scholar when he was recruited by the company to oversee a program handing out grants to researchers who were likely to be in sync with the company’s policy views. Manne, a staunch critic of antitrust enforcement, said he left when it became clear that Microsoft wanted to use antitrust investigations to hobble Google.
About his current work, “You’re absolutely right to say it is a gray area,” Manne said. “It’s not from our point of view. But it’s gray from the way it’s perceived by other people.”
Indeed. That paper mentioned above was co-authored with Wright. In addition, the pair co-authored another paper in April 2011, “If Search Neutrality is the Answer, What’s the Question?.” In the disclosure, the latter paper notes:
“We would also like to thank the International Center for Law and
Economics for an unrestricted grant supporting this and other work. ICLE has received financial support from several companies and individuals, including Google. The ideas expressed here are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the views of ICLE, its advisors, affiliates or supporters.”
Wright also blogs at the Technology Liberation Front. See: Search Bias and Antitrust; The DOJ’s Problematic Attack on Property Rights Through Merger Review; What’s An Internet Monopolist? A Reply to Professor Wu.
Along with Manne, Wright’s work at TechFreedom and the Technology Liberation Front and ICLE intersects frequently with two other prominent anti-trust critics. Here’s what I said about them previously:
- Ryan Radia, associate director of technology studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Google supports the CEI. And Radia is a frequent collaborator on papers and blog posts with Manne. In addition, Radia contributes to a blog, “The Technology Liberation Front,” which describes itself as a group of “libertarian-minded analysts working in the field of technology policy” who “aim to report on — and hopefully help to reverse — this dangerous trend of overregulation of the Internet, communications, media and high-technology in general.”
- Berin Szoka, co-founder of TechFreedom, a free-market think tank. Szoka previously worked as the director of the Center for Internet Freedom at the free-market leaning Progress and Freedom Foundation, which closed in 2010. He then founded TechFreedom as a kind of successor. Google supported PFF financially and now supports TechFreedom. Szoka emphasized that the groups’ work is about policy first. Like Radia and Manne, he has long espoused the case for limited government and skepticism toward antitrust actions, views that might coincide with Google’s, but not because of funding, he insists.”People often assume that free market types are defenders of corporations or that we think corporations can do no wrong,” Szoka said. “And nothing could be further from the truth. We’re skeptical of regulation by government because it’s so easily captured by corporate interests.”
Again, bottom line here: Wright has been long been a staunch opponent of anti-trust actions. That probably didn’t change when Google stepped into the picture. But that no doubt his nomination has put a smile on the faces of Google’s D.C. policy office.
However, it’s also example of how these investments in soft influence can pay indirect dividends. And why we ought to push for greater disclosure.