Google accused of paying millions for research backing

Google has influenced academic research by paying millions of dollars each year to academics and scholars who produce papers that support its business and policy goals, according to report published by the Campaign for Accountability or CfA, a non-profit watchdog, which has published a database of alleged beneficiaries.

An in-depth examination by CfA’s Google Transparency Project identified 330 research papers published between 2005 and 2017 on public policy matters of interest to Google that were in some way funded by the company.

In more than half of those cases (54%), academics were directly funded by Google. The remainder worked for, or were affiliated with, groups or institutions that were funded by Google, CfA said.

In the majority of cases, readers of the papers would not have been aware of the corporate funding: Academics did not disclose the Google funding in nearly two-thirds of cases (65%). Authors failed to disclose funding even when they were directly funded by Google in more than a quarter (26%) of cases, the CfA report said.

CfA Executive Director, Daniel Stevens, in a statement said: “Google uses its immense wealth and power to attempt to influence policy-makers at every level. At a minimum, regulators should be aware that the allegedly independent legal and academic work on which they rely has been brought to them by Google.”

But Leslie Miller, Google’s director of public policy, said in a blog that the CfA report is “highly misleading” and denied that Google seeks to shape academics’ scholarship. He said Google requires grantees to disclose Google’s funding.

According to the Wall Street Journal, CfA has campaigned against Google and receives funds from Google’s rivals, including Oracle Corporation.

After publication of its list on 11 July, CfA was pressed into updating its database after being criticised by professors who said they did not belong to its list.

However, the Wall Street Journal, in its own investigation, also concluded that Google is operating a programme to “harness the brain power of university researchers to help sway opinion and public policy, cultivating financial relationships with professors at campuses from Harvard University to the University of California, Berkeley”.

“Over the past decade, Google has helped finance hundreds of research papers to defend against regulatory challenges of its market dominance, paying US$5,000 to US$400,000 for the work,” the Wall Street Journal or WSJ found.

It said some researchers share their papers before publication and let Google give suggestions, according to thousands of pages of emails obtained by the WSJ in public-records requests of 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, the WSJ found.

The WSJ said Google promotes the research papers to government officials, and sometimes pays travel expenses for professors to meet with congressional aides and administration officials, according to the former lobbyist. The research has been used, for instance, to deflect antitrust accusations against Google by the Federal Trade Commission in 2012, according to a letter Google attorneys sent to the Federal Trade Commission chairman and viewed by the WSJ.

The WSJ said: “The funding of favourable campus research to support Google’s Washington DC-based lobbying operation is part of a behind-the-scenes push in Silicon Valley to influence decision-makers. The operation is an example of how lobbying has escaped the confines of Washington’s regulated environment and is increasingly difficult to spot.”

It pointed out that Google receives nearly US$80 billion a year in ad sales drawn mostly from seven products that each attract more than a billion global users a month, including Gmail, YouTube and Google Maps. Its search engine handles more than 90% of online searches globally, according to StatCounter; its Android software will run roughly 1.3 billion of the 1.5 billion smartphones expected to be sold this year, according to Strategy Analytics.

Through its various enterprises, Google collects information that reaches deep into daily life – recording everything from users’ search history to whom they know to where they are – consumer profiles so rich that not even Google knows their full potential, WSJ said.

Critical importance

The academic papers examined by CfA encompassed a wide range of policy and legal issues of critical importance to Google’s bottom line, including antitrust, privacy, net neutrality, search neutrality, patents and copyright. They were also tied to specific issues that Google sought to influence.

The number of Google-funded studies tended to spike during moments when its business model came under threat from regulators – or when the company had opportunities to push for regulations on its competitors, the report said.

It cites as an example that Google began to fund a barrage of academic studies on antitrust issues in 2011, a time when US antitrust enforcers began to scrutinise the company’s practices. Overall, more than a third (113) of the Google-funded studies in the dataset focused on antitrust issues – the largest single category.

The largest number of studies were published in 2012, coinciding with major antitrust investigations into Google’s conduct by the Federal Trade Commission and European regulators, the report said.

Between 2011 and 2013, Google-funded academics authored at least 50 studies on antitrust issues.

Among others, studies included "Google and the Limits of Antitrust: The case against the antitrust case against Google", authored by Geoffrey Manne with the International Center for Law and Economics and Joshua Wright from George Mason University, and "Search, Essential Facilities, and the Antitrust Duty to Deal", by Marina Lao at Seton Hall University.

The Google Transparency Project’s investigation included Google-funded scholarship regardless of whether it advanced Google’s policy agenda or not. It said that, although some individual papers offered criticisms of Google, the overwhelming majority tended to support the company’s policy or legal positions.

“Some studies were authored by serious academics and appeared to employ reasonable methodologies, but many others lacked basic standards of academic rigour. Many of the Google-funded policy research papers examined were not published in peer-reviewed journals. Some were self-published on the Social Science Research Network, and many more appeared in publications that lack peer-review requirements.

“At the extreme, some were little more than thinly veiled opinion articles dressed up as academic papers, outlining the beliefs of an author on Google’s payroll with little or no supporting evidence,” the report said.

Stevens said: “What’s good for Google is not necessarily good for the country. Google-funded academics should disclose the source of their funding to ensure their work is evaluated in context and the government makes decisions that benefit all Americans, not just Google employees and stakeholders.”

‘Highly misleading’

But Google’s Leslie Miller said the CfA report is “highly misleading”.

“For example, the report attributes to Google any work that was supported by any organisation to which we belong or have ever donated (such as the Computer and Communications Industry Association).”

He said Google runs many research programmes that provide funding and resources to the external research community.

“This helps public and private institutions pursue research on important topics in computer science, technology and a wide range of public policy and legal issues.

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

He said Google lists its policy fellowship programmes on its policy website and Google requires grantees to “properly disclose our funding” and values “academic independence and integrity”.

He said: “We offer grants for discrete pieces of research, not to shape academics’ subsequent scholarship. The researchers and institutions to whom we award research grants will often publish research with which we disagree.”

He went on to point out that many academics listed by the CfA had criticised Google and its policy positions heavily on a number of topics and provided links to three examples related to antitrust, net neutrality (written by Geoffrey Manne, cited by CfA above) and privacy.

CfA’s Daniel Stevens, responding to Miller’s comments, said: “We think our work speaks for itself. Over the past 18 months, the Google Transparency Project has documented more than 425 White House meetings by Google lobbyists, 250 revolving door hires between Google and government and more than 325 academic papers paid for by the company to help advance its policy interests.

“All of the underlying data is published on the site, along with more than 40,000 pages of Google emails with US government officials.”

Professors protest against listing

CfA describes itself as a “non-profit watchdog organisation that uses research, litigation and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions”.

However, last week it was forced to defend or clarify why it had included some professors on its list who said they did not belong there and to remove others.

The US-based Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed several professors who objected to being listed, including Annemarie Bridy, a law professor at the University of Idaho, who she said she had been listed because she is an affiliated scholar with the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University’s law school, to which Google is a donor. She said she receives no money for that position and therefore doesn’t have a financial connection to Google.

The CfA noted that the centre does receive funding from Google but since Bridy wrote to the CfA saying she receives no compensation from the Stanford centre for her “affiliate position” they have removed her papers from the database, The Chronicle reported.