Google’s stealthy innovation: buying academic research to cement market dominance

Across the country, from UC Berkeley and Stanford University in the West to Harvard University in the East, professors and academic researchers have been pocketing cash from Google in exchange for writing papers the tech titan could use to lobby against regulations threatening its dominance.

That’s the claim in a new report providing a purported detailed look into how the company has taken the business of lobbying into the shadows, with voluminous payments to academics whose papers, favorable to Google, often fail to note that Google paid for them.

“Over the past decade, Google has helped finance hundreds of research papers to defend against regulatory challenges of its market dominance, paying stipends of $5,000 to $400,000,” the Wall Street Journal reported July 11.

“Some researchers share their papers before publication and let Google give suggestions,” the WSJ reported, based on the fruits of public-information requests for email correspondence from more than a dozen university professors.

“The professors don’t always reveal Google’s backing in their research, and few disclosed the financial ties in subsequent articles on the same or similar topics.”

Google’s stealthy influence campaign “is an example of how lobbying has escaped the confines of Washington’s regulated environment and is increasingly difficult to spot,” the WSJ asserted.

Some of the academic papers were sent by Google lawyers to the Federal Trade Commission in 2012, when the agency was close to deciding on whether to charge Google with antitrust offenses, according to the WSJ. No charges were laid, after Google agreed to change some of its business practices.

Google did not immediately respond to a request by SiliconBeat for comment on the WSJ report. In a blog post, Google public policy director Leslie Miller said the firm expected funding recipients to disclose the source of the funding. Often, funded researchers and institutions publish research with which Google disagrees, Miller said.

The funding promotes research into important subjects in computer science, technology “and a wide range of public policy and legal issues,” according to Miller.

“Our support for the principles underlying an open internet is shared by many academics and institutions who have a long history of undertaking research on these topics — across important areas like copyright, patents, and free expression,” Miller said in the post.

“We provide support to help them undertake further research, and to raise awareness of their ideas.”

Google has funded about 100 public policy papers since 2009, and another 100 or so were written by people financed by Google-funded think tanks or research centers, the WSJ reported after analyzing data from the Campaign for Accountability, an arch foe of Google that’s funded in part by Oracle. Most of the directly funded papers mentioned the Google funding, while most of the other 100 or so did not, according to the WSJ.

Sometimes, Google put together detailed “wish lists” for academic papers and “then they searched for willing authors,” the WSJ reported, citing a former Google employee and a former Google lobbyist.

That former lobbyist said Google promotes completed papers to government officials, and had paid travel expenses for professors to meet government officials and congressional aides, according to the WSJ.

“Google has paid professors whose papers, for instance, declared that the collection of consumer data was a fair exchange for its free services; that the company didn’t use its market dominance to improperly steer users to Google’s commercial sites or its advertisers; and that it hasn’t unfairly quashed competitors. Several papers argued that Google’s search engine should be allowed to link to books and other intellectual property that authors and publishers say should be paid for,” the WSJ reported.

One of the professors mentioned in CfA’s report was said to have turned down a Google-sponsored research paper opportunity but then allowed the company to read and comment on a paper of his concerning internet search.

“They make no mention of the fact that I also circulated the draft to Microsoft or that I had many other interactions with stakeholders on all sides of the issue before, during, and after the drafting of the paper,” University of Michigan professor Dan Crane wrote on his blog July 12.

“Their one-sided reporting gives the impression that I was sucked into Google’s influence, when I actually was having open interactions with people on all sides of the issue.”

A host of other academics took to Twitter to blast their inclusion in the CfA report, many stating that any connection to a Google-funded entity was used to suggest unrelated work was somehow commissioned by the search giant.

“So I’m on the Google academic payroll because my co-author worked at EFF a decade ago. Cool, cool,” tweeted Case Western Reserve University professor Aaron Perzanowski, referring to the San Francisco-based non-profit digital-rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation.


Photo: Inside a Google data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa (AP Photo/Google, Connie Zhou, File)



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