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Google Critic Ousted From Google-Funded Think Tank

Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman and former chair of the New America Foundation think tank, at a White House meeting in June. (Susan Walsh/AP)

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the New America Foundation, an influential Washington think tank that has received $21 million from Google, fired a scholar, Barry Lynn, over criticism of the tech giant, in the form of a blog post praising the European Union’s penalty against Google:

Mr. Schmidt, who had been chairman of New America until 2016, communicated his displeasure with the statement to the group’s president, Anne-Marie Slaughter, according to the scholar.

The statement disappeared from New America’s website, only to be reposted without explanation a few hours later. But word of Mr. Schmidt’s displeasure rippled through New America, which employs more than 200 people, including dozens of researchers, writers and scholars, most of whom work in sleek Washington offices where the main conference room is called the “Eric Schmidt Ideas Lab.” The episode left some people concerned that Google intended to discontinue funding, while others worried whether the think tank could truly be independent if it had to worry about offending its donors.

A few days later, Slaughter called Lynn to her office and told him that Open Markets, a New America initiative run by Lynn to lead a liberal critique of tech giant market dominance, must “part ways” with New America. The Times notes that an email sent from Slaughter to Lynn suggested that the entire Open Markets team of nearly 10 full-time employees would be fired from New America. Slaughter said the decision was “in no way based on the content of your work” but accused Lynn of “imperiling the institution as a whole.”

Lynn and his Open Markets team have now set up a website named Citizens Against Monopoly. “Is Google trying to censor journalists and researchers who fight dangerous monopolies?” the website asks. “Sadly, the answer is: YES.” But Google denies that it played any role in New America’s split with Open Markets:

Riva Sciuto, a Google spokeswoman, pointed out that the company supports a wide range of think tanks and other nonprofits focused on information access and internet regulation. “We don’t agree with every group 100 percent of the time, and while we sometimes respectfully disagree, we respect each group’s independence, personnel decisions and policy perspectives.”

Hours after the Times article was posted on Wednesday morning, Slaughter announced that New America had fired Lynn for “his repeated refusal to adhere to New America’s standards of openness and institutional collegiality.” The New York Post notes that this does not appear to be the case:

But it sure looks like she put her funding ahead of principle. Other donors should take note, and stop giving. New America can be an open arm of Google’s parent, Alphabet.

As for Google itself: What a long way it’s come from its “don’t be evil” days. The company has grown huge by distributing content it never created or paid for — and now seems to be suppressing content it doesn’t like.

This when all Silicon Valley is moving to not just share content, but “curate” it — that is, to decide what you’re likely to see on the web.

The Times also reports on the influence Google has on think tanks, thus controlling dialogue around the issue:

Google’s willingness to spread cash around the think tanks and advocacy groups focused on internet and telecommunications policy has effectively muted, if not silenced, criticism of the company over the past several years, said Marc Rotenberg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. His group, which does not accept corporate funding, has played a leading role in calling out Google and other tech companies for alleged privacy violations. But Mr. Rotenberg said it is become increasingly difficult to find partners in that effort as more groups accept Google funding.

Emily Wells
​Emily Wells is an Ear to the Ground blogger at Truthdig. As a journalist, she began as a crime reporter at the Pulitzer-winning daily newspaper, The Press-Enterprise...
Emily Wells

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