Google, Trump and the arrogance of power
BERKELEY — Google’s search engine runs about two-thirds of all searches in the United States and 90 percent in Europe. “Platform monopolies” like this can squelch innovation. Google could favor its own services, such as Google Maps and Google Shopping, for example.
This is one reason that the European Commission hit Google with a fine of 2.42 billion euros 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 FTC sue Google for conduct that “has resulted — and will result — in real harm to consumers and to innovation in the online search and advertising markets.”
But the commissioners didn’t pursue the case, which is unusual when staff recommend it. They gave no explanation for this, 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. We now know 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 about 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, who then accused Lynn of “imperiling the institution as a whole,” and fired him and his staff.
Few powerful institutions or people like to be criticized. But it’s never smart to use power to try to stop critics.
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. 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 being criticized.
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 that “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.
To support his ambitions, Trump has also paid for, shall we say, fake news. Apparently his campaign financed a lot of fictionalized dirt on Hillary.
Google doesn’t pay for fake news, but it does pay academics to do research that sways the public and policymakers in its direction.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Google has financed hundreds of professors, including professors at 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 even 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 don’t reveal in their published research that Google solicited the work, nor do they necessarily disclose that Google paid for it.
I’m not suggesting the research has been faked. But Google’s financial connection to it and the failure to fully disclose that connection raise questions about its objectivity.
Google and Trump are wildly different, of course, but they’ve been playing the same game. They’ve used their clout to stifle criticism, they’ve paid public officials to pull their punches, and they’ve bought fake (or at least questionable) facts to support their public policy goals.
Whether it’s a giant left-leaning corporation or an unhinged alt-right president, the underlying problem is the same.
The use of power in these ways imperils our democratic system. It’s morally wrong.
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Robert Reich, a former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few,” now available in paperback. His new film, “Inequality for All,” is now out on Amazon, DVD and On Demand. His daily blog is at www.facebook.com/RBReich/.