Googletopia

EPA-EFE/WALTER BIERI

Google's Office in the Sihlpost Building in Zurich, Switzerland, January 17, 2017

Googletopia


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According to a new report by Campaign for Accountability (CfA), tech giant Google has apparently spent millions of euros funding think tanks that push the company’s policy interests with financial and political backers in Britain and Europe.

Google, which has already come under fire in recent years for its controversial policies regarding issues such as copyright infringements, data compilation, and the company’s agreement with the government of China to adhere to Beijing’s strict censorship policies, has now apparently become one of the world’s highest spending lobbyists.

According to the report, Google’s lobbyists pressed lawmakers in the UK, Europe, and the United States on several issues pertinent to the tech world, including advertising regulations, cybersecurity, free trade and immigration.

Google has made major investments with links to European academic institutions in an effort to curry favour with and cultivate several members of academia who would churn out research papers supporting it business and economic interests around the world.

The Times reported that Google engaged in a concerted and likely unethical campaign to funnel tens of millions of euros to think tanks, universities, and professors that would then write research papers that would shed a positive light on Google’s business practices and vested interests across Europe. Many of these individuals were scatted across the EU, in countries such as France, Germany, and Poland – Member States who carry a major influence on European Union policymaking and who make up the core of the EU’s economic base.

European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager speaks during a press conference on an antitrust case against Google Shopping in Brussels, June 27, 2017. The European Commission fined Google €2.4 billion euros for abusing its dominance as a search engine. EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET

European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager speaks during a press conference on an antitrust case against Google Shopping in Brussels, June 27, 2017. The European Commission fined Google €2.4 billion euros for abusing its dominance as a search engine. EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET

US-based watchdog CfA complied the report detailing how Google’s reach went far beyond the funding of academic institutions in the US, to creating new think tanks in Europe – with the backing of top thinkers in the policy world – that could have enough reach to influence lawmakers in Brussels and in the national governments of the Member States.

These academic institutions have, over a decade, published hundreds of papers on issues that are vital to maintaining the company’s image as a model multi-million-euro tech company. The think tanks also went the extra mile to brandish the company ’s image by organising events at Google-funded institutions that have attracted a countless number of European policymakers who were in a position to create and enforce internet and market regulations that would severely affect the company.

One of the institutions singled out by CfA is the Research Alliance for a Digital Economy (Readie), which the watchdog said regularly published material that “appears favourable to Google in some way”.

Readie has also hosted several policy conferences with European Commission officials and published dozens of articles and publications on issues that are important to Google.

This incident was not an isolated case where a possible conflict of interest could arise between Google, policymakers in Europe, and the lobbyists who have been hired to push the company’s agenda with heavy-hitters in Brussels. The report noted that the European Commission commissioned academics from a Google-funded think-tank to make policy recommendations on whether regulation helps or hampers innovation. The research was cited in a subsequent European Commission policy paper.

At a time when the Commission’s antitrust investigation into Google’s practices gained momentum in 2014, the company began funding one of Brussels’ most influential think-tanks. According to the report, the think tank’s scholars subsequently began participating in conferences and publishing policy papers that opposed the European Commission’s investigations of the company.

The report by CfA was blunt in its assessment that Google’s European lobbying activities were critical to its development.

“Google’s European academic network helps the company exert a subtle and insidious form of influence on the region’s policymakers, which often goes unnoticed by those who are being influenced,” CfA wrote in its blistering report, adding, ”Europe’s importance for Google cannot be overstated. It is both a key market, with usage rates above 80 percent in many countries, and the most organized source of opposition to its expansion plans.”

The company’s efforts to remain on good terms with congressional oversight in the US and strict censors in China have led arguable let it to conclude that the European Commission is the world’s most powerful regulator outside of the United States and with sufficient clout to cause Google to alter its conduct.

European officials have levied billions of euros in fines for antitrust violations and have enacted some of the most stringent laws in the world to protect consumer privacy. Last year, the Commission slapped Google with a €2.4 billion fine for the abuse of market dominance in shopping search results.It seems that Google had outspent other technology firms by millions of euros to carry out lobbying activities.

One of Google’s most ambitious projects to involve EU policy appears to have been carried out at Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, an “independent research institute” that Google helped to set up with €9 million in funding.

The Institute published more than 240 scholarly reports on internet policy issues that were critical to Google’s business practices. It also ran a Google-funded journal that is distributed to a global network of internet and research centres, which ran articles highly favourable to the company.

A year before it was fined by the Commission, Google signed on with the most powerful ally it could have in the academic world when it comes to the EU Institutions – the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium. This led to the creation of the “Google Chair in Digital Innovation.”

A Brussels insider who New Europe talked to about this story was not concerned. “Everyone in Brussels who is remotely relevant knows that Google is throwing money around. From think tanks to media campaigns, the reality is that most of it goes down the drain. But despite that Google might not be getting cost-efficient bang for their buck, it is definitely getting as much bang as Brussels has to offer. Let’s see what the Commission does next.”

The task ahead for the Commission will be to ensure that not only will companies like Google be fined for abusing their dominant position on the market, but to take into account whether and how the wealthiest stakeholders in the policy making process have sought to affect outcomes on such competition (and other) cases.

Google also spends hundreds of millions supporting media through it’s Digital News Initiative. While any programme to help the struggling media industry should be commended, critics suggest that the programme may lead to newsrooms exercising self-censorship when it comes to the technology behemoth.

If anyone would ask what organization has the most lobby power in the USA, most would answer that it is the National Rifle Association. They have become a policy and politics powerbroker. If Google wants to live up to Alphabet’s “Do the right thing” motto, which by far exceeds the ambition of Google’s original “Don’t be evil”, it needs to reassess not only its slogans, but its lobbying strategy.

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