Is Google funding academics to protect its business interests?
Google logo adorns entrance of Google Germany headquarters in Hamburg. Photograph: (Reuters)
It seems that the dark clouds of controversies are hovering over Google relentlessly. After recently being slapped with a fine of record 2.7 billion US dollars by European antitrust regulators for favouring its own shopping service, Google has now been accused of funding academic research in the US and Europe - with the intention to influence decisions on matters of public policy.
US-based Campaign for Accountability (CfA) has come out with a report called “Google Academics”, alleging the US tech giant of funding 329 research papers (with 179 directly-funded and 150 indirectly-funded) since 2005 on issues related to antitrust, net neutrality, copyright and anti-piracy, to protect its business interests.
CfA executive director Daniel Stevens has even gone on to state that the company has used its position and wealth to influence policy makers. “Google uses its immense wealth and power to attempt to influence policy makers at every level.” Because the fact of the matter is that policy makers and regulators often rely on research papers and academic work for a lot of policy decisions. And if the report was true - in entirety or in parts, this could mean that most of the decisions by policy makers must have inadvertently been taken in favour of Google.
Calling the report “highly misleading”, Google, however, has outrightly rejected all the allegations, but there are a few observations that can’t go unnoticed. Take a look at the graph below to understand some interesting insights.
Year-wise representation of Google-funded studies on antitrust issues. (Others)
This is an year-wise representation of Google-funded studies on antitrust cases. As you see, the largest number of Google-funded studies were published in 2012, which coincided with the time when a plethora of antitrust investigations were made to scrutinise the company’s practices by the Federal Trade Commission and European regulators. And as the CfA’s report claims, 50 Google-funded studies on antitrust issues were published between 2011 and 2013.
But that spike came down by 2013 - which happened to be the same time during which the Federal Trade Commission shut its investigation. But interestingly, the studies on antitrust issues saw an upward shift in 2015. And it was the time when the European Commission pressed Google with formal antitrust charges. If the data is to be believed, more than a third (113) of the Google-funded studies centre around antitrust issues.
Another graph here highlights that it was just not antitrust, but research papers around copyright issues were also properly timed by Google.
Google-funded copyright papers surged as the company battled anti-piracy bills. (Reuters)
"Google-funded studies on copyright issues also surged in 2012, as the company fought anti-piracy bills in Congress. They peaked the following year amid continuing battles over whether it could be held responsible for distributing pirated books, music or movies," says the report.
And as the data from the report highlights, 329 Google-funded research papers identified have been cited nearly 6,000 times in over 4,700 unique articles.
It has been further reported that all these Google-funded studies in question were authored by academics and economic consultants from some of the prominent schools and universities, including Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and University of California Berkeley.
While Google may not be the only company to have engaged in such unfair practices to advance policy goals, but insights from the report and antitrust charges slapped in the past hint at the company’s involvement in unscrupulous business practices.
Google retorts to CfA’s report
Responding to allegations made by the CfA, Google has called the report “highly misleading.” Expressing disappointment, Google mentions that the CfA has even attributed Google for the work supported by organisations to which Google donated money to.
Google further points out that many of the academics listed by the Campaign for Accountability have condemned the company, their approach and policy positions on a wide range of topics.
But what is ironic here is that Google in return goes on to ask the CfA to reveal their funders. Taking potshots at the CfA in its snooty blog post, Google highlights that this group has consistently refused to name its corporate funders. And without mincing its words, Google has directly named Oracle as one of the CfA’s funders - something it says the world already knows about.
As Google claims, Oracle "is running a well-documented lobbying campaign against us. In its own name and through proxies, Oracle has funded many hundreds of articles, research papers, symposia and reports."
While Google has clearly dismissed the report, the data and statistics listed in the CfA report put forth a scenario, which, if proven true, could be damaging to the industry and the academic world at large.