By Robert Reich
Google’s search engine runs two-thirds of all searches in the United States and 90 percent in Europe.
“Platform monopolies” like this can squelch innovation. Google might favor its own services, such as Google Maps and Google Product Search, for example. This is one reason why the European Commission hit Google with a record 2.42 billion-euro fine in June.
Why hasn’t Google run into similar problems with antitrust authorities in the United States?
It almost did in 2012. The Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Competition recommended that the Commission sue Google for conduct that “has resulted — and will result — in real harm to … innovation.”
But the commissioners decided not to pursue the case, which was unusual. They didn’t explain their decision, but it may have had to do with Google’s political clout.
Google is among the largest corporate lobbyists in the United States, and a major campaign donor.
Google also has enough financial power to stifle criticism coming from independent researchers.
Last week the New York Times reported that the New America Foundation, an influential center-left think tank, fired Barry Lynn, a sharp critic of platform monopolies. Lynn had posted a congratulatory note to European officials on their Google decision, and called for American antitrust officials to follow suit.
Since its founding in 1999, the New America Foundation has received more than $21 million from Google (and its parent company, Alphabet) and from the family foundation of Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet who previously served as chairman of New America’s board.
According to the Times, Schmidt didn’t like Lynn’s comments, and communicated his displeasure to the president of the New America Foundation. She then accused Lynn of “imperiling the institution as a whole,” and fired him and his staff.
Few powerful institutions or people like criticism. But it’s never smart to use power to try to stop it.
Consider Donald J. Trump. It may seem odd to mention Trump at the same time I’m talking about Google. Google’s executives tend to be on the left. Eric Schmidt was a major backer of Hillary Clinton.
But power is power, and Trump has demonstrated a similar tendency to throw his ever-expanding weight around. Like Google, he doesn’t particularly like to be criticized, if you hadn’t noticed.
Trump also has a record of paying off politicians. During the 2016 Republican primaries, when attacked by his GOP rivals for having once donated money to Hillary Clinton, Trump explained “as a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”
After Trump’s charitable foundation made a $25,000 contribution to a campaign organization linked to Florida’s Attorney General, she decided not to open a fraud investigation of Trump University that her office had been considering. Not quite the Federal Trade Commission, but a similar transaction.
To support his ambitions, Trump has also paid for, shall we say, fake news. His presidential campaign seems to have financed a lot of fictional dirt on Hillary.
Google doesn’t pay for fake news, but it does pay off academics to help sway public opinion and policymakers in its favor.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Google has financed hundreds of professors at places like Harvard and Berkeley to write research papers that help Google defend itself against regulatory challenges of its market dominance. Google’s payments range from $5,000 to $400,000.
This research has been used by Google in courtrooms, regulatory hearings, and congressional hearings.
Some professors have allowed Google to see the papers before they’re published, enabling Google to give them “suggestions,” according to emails obtained by the Journal.
The professors’ research papers don’t disclose that Google sought them out, and don’t necessarily reveal Google’s backing.
I’m not suggesting their research has been faked. But the failure to fully disclose Google’s connection with it does raise questions about its objectivity.
Google and Trump are wildly different, of course, but they’ve been playing much the same game. They’ve used their clout to stifle criticism, paid members of Congress to pull their punches, and bought fake or at least questionable facts to support of their goals.
Whether it’s a giant left-leaning corporation or an unhinged alt-right president, the underlying problem is the same. It imperils our democracy and breeds distrust in our system. Such abuse of power is morally wrong.