The recent firing of the prominent anti-monopolist Barry Lynn and his Open Markets team from a Google-funded think tank has amplified attention on the tech giant’s readiness to use its power to suppress criticism and sway the cultural dialogue in its favor.
An August 31 New York Times article reported that Lynn and the Open Markets team had been fired from the New America Foundation shortly after he authored a statement praising the European Union’s landmark €2.4 billion penalty against Google for breaching antitrust rules. “The story began June 27, when we released a statement welcoming a European antitrust action against Google’s abuse of its monopoly power,” Lynn said in a press release. “Two days later, we were given two months to leave.”
The New America Foundation has received more than $21 million from Google, its parent company’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt, and Schmidt’s family’s foundation. Schmidt, displeased with Lynn’s statement, reached out to New America’s president, Anne-Marie Slaughter, to discuss it, the Times reported. Days later, Slaughter personally fired Lynn for “imperiling the institution as a whole.”
Lynn has previously collaborated with the Authors Guild in our work advocating for antitrust scrutiny of Amazon and its monopsony power as a buyer of books. Notably, he teamed with Guild council member Douglas Preston and his grassroots group Authors United (which has since merged with the Authors Guild) to draft a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice laying out the antitrust case against the online retailer. While with New America, Lynn also teamed with a number of Guild council members (Preston, along with Scott Turow, Susan Cheever, and John R. MacArthur, and a number of other writers and thinkers) to participate in a symposium, “Amazon’s Book Monopoly: A Threat to Freedom of Expression?” in Washington, D.C.
But the firing from New America led to new opportunities. Lynn announced this week that he and the Open Markets team—which also includes Zephyr Teachout, Phil Longman, Lina Khan, and Matt Stoller—have successfully reorganized as an independent nonprofit organization, the Open Markets Institute. “We are incorporated, with a board of directors and an advisory board of leading thinkers about the dangers of monopoly,” Lynn said in a statement. “This powerful team will help us continue to produce the vanguard anti-monopoly writing and analysis you all have come to expect from us.”
Open Markets has been quick to point to the benefits of severing ties with New America under such conspicuous circumstances. In addition to the Times story, Lynn pointed out, “thoughtful articles and editorials have been published in 300 mainstream media outlets.”
While Google denied playing a role in Open Markets’ split from New America, according to the Times, the incident appears to be the latest in a pattern of suppression of critical voices. The day after the Times published its Open Markets story, Gizmodo’s Kashmir Hill reported on her own experience with Google’s suppressive tendencies. While working at Forbes six years earlier, Hill wrote an article about Google Plus’s “+1” social button and how the company was using its weight as the dominant search engine by tying search ranking to the button in order to pressure websites into promoting the then-new social network. Hill reported that Google representatives reached out to her, telling her to unpublish the story due to a supposed nondisclosure agreement that Hill was unaware of and despite Hill independently verifying her story through Google’s public relations team. After continued pressure from her bosses, Hill took the piece down and found that the story almost immediately disappeared from Google’s search results with the exception of a cached version that disappeared shortly after, something Hill found suspicious and unusual. After writing her piece for Gizmodo, Google responded saying that it had nothing to do with the story’s disappearance. In an interview with NPR’s Ari Shapiro, Hill expressed some skepticism at Google’s response noting that, with tech companies, “we don’t know, we don’t get to see inside their companies, their algorithms.”
Google’s disturbing attempts to influence the flow of information extend beyond suppressing voices critical of the corporation; it’s also been revealed that the company has a practice of funding favorable research. The watchdog group Campaign for Accountability released a report this summer identifying 329 Google-funded research papers, published between 2005 and 2017, on matters of public policy of interest to Google. The report revealed that Google-funded studies appeared to spike whenever the company’s business model was under threat from regulators or whenever opportunities arose to force new regulations onto competitors. Particularly of note, Google-funded antitrust studies spiked in 2012 during the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust probe of the company while Google-funded copyright papers surged as the company fought anti-piracy bills. These revelations are made even more troubling by the fact that the FTC’s Bureau of Competition cut its investigation of Google short in 2015 despite staff recommendations. The report further cements Google’s position as a corporate leviathan in Washington, DC’s lobbying scene as the company’s tree of influence continues to grow.
As Google continues to accumulate power and market dominance, its control over the flow of information and its readiness to maneuver that information in its own favor are matters of national concern. In their book Virtual Competition, Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke discuss dominant firms’ readiness to manipulate the many levers available to them to affect public opinion as “intellectual capture.” “We cannot help but wonder,” they write, “whether competition enforcers and regulators can resist the intellectual capture skillfully propagated by these giants—through media, lobbying, political power, and funding.”
We look forward to continuing to work with Lynn and his team. We’re hopeful that the attention that incidents like these bring to Internet monopolies’ control of our information infrastructure and the related harm they bring to the creative industries is part of a growing recognition that the regulation of Internet giants like Google and Amazon may be required to keep intact the free flow of information in this country.
Photo credit: Monopoly Roadster by Rich Brooks under CC 2.0