For the second time in three months, the shadowy Campaign for Accountability has attacked Google. First, at the end of April, the group launched “The Google Transparency Project” with a report on the revolving door between Google and the federal government. On Tuesday, Campaign for Accountability put out a new report suggesting Google-funded academics were influencing federal policymaking on the sly.
SiliconBeat called up Campaign for Accountability with regard to both reports, and both times asked who funded their organization — certainly a reasonable question of a group purportedly dedicated to accountability. The answer was essentially the same Tuesday as it was in April.
“This is something that we have not disclosed in the past and we do not disclose it,” deputy director Daniel Stevens said Tuesday. Donors wouldn’t donate without anonymity, he suggested. Stevens declined to answer when asked whether any funding comes from companies competing with Google.
Secrecy, for this group, goes deeper than its funding. It markets itself online as a “project that uses research, litigation and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life.” Nowhere does it reveal that it’s part of an extremely deep-pocketed public-interest group, New Venture Fund, that took in $178 million in donations in 2014, the most recent year for which data was available. (Full disclosure: To find out who was behind the Campaign for Accountability, SiliconBeat became a donor to it; for our $1 gift, we received a tax-deduction receipt from New Venture Fund.)
New Venture Fund is heavily supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Between 2014 and the present, the Gates Foundation has given the group $94 million and the Hewlett Foundation has given it $17 million. The Ford Foundation has given NVF $12 million since the start of last year.
The funding from the Gates and Hewlett charities went to types of projects — education and global development, in particular — that fall within the usual range of their philanthropy. And those types of projects had also been the focus for New Venture Fund — the creation of the Campaign for Accountability last year appears to be a departure from its existing model.
In February, NVF posted a job listing seeking researchers for “a new project . . . that aims to bring transparency to organizations and entities that are playing an outsized role in the making of public policy.”
It appears the NVF found its researchers. The report released Tuesday, based on a study of three conferences, concluded that “Google-funded academics are playing an outsized role in the debate over the U.S. government’s policy on internet privacy.”
There’s nothing to suggest either the Gates or Hewlett foundations had any knowledge that their beneficiary was attacking Google. Because the links between NVF and the Campaign for Accountability’s Google Transparency Project have been concealed, foundation officials may not be aware of the connection. A call requesting comment from the NVF was not immediately returned.
A Gates Foundation spokeswoman did not provide an answer as to whether the foundation was aware of NVF’s work on the Google Transparency Project, but said past grants to the NVF have covered areas including college readiness, nutrition and global development.
A spokeswoman for the Hewlett Foundation said none of its donations contributed to Campaign for Accountability or the Google Transparency Project.
Google declined to comment.
NVF is tightly linked to Arabella Advisors, a “philanthropic investment” consultancy with offices in Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago and San Francisco. In 2014, NVF paid more than $8 million to Arabella for consulting services, according to an NVF tax filing. David Kessler, founder and a senior managing director of Arabella, is president of NVF. Another Arabella senior managing director, Bruce Boyd, is an advisor to NVF.
According to a number of expired job postings, one apparently from March, Arabella’s clients include the Gates Foundation and Microsoft. SiliconBeat contacted Arabella late in the day Tuesday, and did not receive an immediate response; comment from the firm may be added in an update.
On Wednesday, the Campaign for Accountability’s Stevens emailed SiliconBeat to say, “Campaign for Accountability is incorrectly identified as a project of New Venture Fund.” Arabella, which provides administrative support to the Campaign for Accountability, had mistakenly sent an NVF tax receipt for SiliconBeat’s donation, Stevens said. “We are a project of Hopewell Fund, a different non-profit organization,” Stevens said.
However, NVF president Lee Bodner said Wednesday that his organization had created Hopewell Fund last year, and although it was an “independent” organization, its staff were still NVF employees and paid by NVF until Hopewell got up to speed.
Bodner said it was up to officials from each Hopewell project to decide whether to disclose funding sources. Hopewell runs its own projects with different donors from those who give to NVF, and the Gates and Hewlett foundations are not Hopewell donors, Bodner said.
Bodner is one of three Hopewell directors. Another is Arabella CEO Sampriti Ganguli. The third is Michael Slaby.
It’s unclear whether Hopewell’s Slaby is the same Michael Slaby who served as chief technology officer in the first campaign of President Barack Obama and oversaw all technology for the second Obama campaign as chief integration and innovation officer. That Michael Slaby, seen as one of the world’s leading digital strategists, is founder of social-impact-technology firm Timshel, whose organizational platform The Groundwork is being used by the Hillary Clinton campaign. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, is the main investor in The Groundwork, according to a Quartz report.
The Michael Slaby from Timshel and The Groundwork is connected to Arabella, having been a presenter in an Arabella webinar in July 2015.
SiliconBeat attempted to reach that Michael Slaby via Timshel, but did not receive an immediate response. Bodner said he would pass along a request for comment to the Michael Slaby on the board of Hopewell.
When the Campaign for Accountability first went after Google, with the April report, Fortune magazine speculated about who might be funding the group, and noted that Fortune had reported earlier that month that Microsoft and Google had pledged to “play nice” with each other, and to “no longer issue regulatory complaints against each other both in the U.S. and abroad.”
Photo: A man walks past a building on the Google campus in Mountain View. (AP/Jeff Chiu)