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Google’s University Astroturfing Leads to FTC

November 24, 2015

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Salon posted an eye-popping expose on Google’s influence peddling at major American universities (“Google’s insidious shadow lobbying: How the Internet giant is bankrolling friendly academics—and skirting federal investigations” by David Dayen).  Of course, we’ve been watching this space since 2006 when Google funded Lawrence Lessig’s Center for the Internet and Society at Stanford with $2 million (not to mention the $1.5 million Google gave to Lessig’s pet project, Creative Commons).

Salon uncovered hundreds of thousands going to George Mason University to help Google fight an FTC antitrust investigation:

In June 2011, Google had a problem. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had opened multiple investigations into whether the tech giant illegally favored its own shopping and travel sites in search engine queries; restricted advertisers from running ads on competing sites; and copied rival search engines’ results.

To fight this threat, Google turned to a key third-party validator: academia, and in particular one university with a long history as an advocate for corporate interests.

From the beginning of the FTC investigation through the end of 2013, Google gave George Mason University’s Law and Economics Center (LEC) $762,000 in donations, confirmed by cancelled checks obtained in a public records request. In exchange, the LEC issued numerous studies supporting Google’s position that they committed no legal violations, and hosted conferences on the same issues where Google representatives suggested speakers and invitees….

Google’s actions between 2011 and 2013 show how they dodge legal bullets: by molding elite opinion, using the support of experts and academics as a firewall against criticism. The donations to George Mason and professors at other universities reveal that Google purchases that privilege.

Not surprisingly, one of George Mason University’s leading professors authored a paper supporting Google–this is pretty standard stuff with corporate funded academic research.  The difference this time is that the academic was attempting to influence the FTC and was himself later appointed to the FTC by President Obama who has clearly become Google’s best friend in Washington.

In November 2011, future FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright, then still a law professor at George Mason, wrote “Defining and Measuring Search Bias: Some Preliminary Evidence,” where he discounted Google’s “alleged bias” toward its own subsidiaries in searches.

“From an antitrust perspective,” Wright wrote, “differences in own-content references across engines fail to indicate consumer harm,” but instead “imply the existence of intense competition among engines.” This is one of over 70 PowerPoint presentations and white papers featuring Google that can be found at the LEC website, most of which align with the company’s policy preferences….

A professor at George Mason and author of many pro-Google studies, Joshua Wright, even later became an FTC Commissioner [appointed by President Obama]. He had to vow to recuse himself from Google-related matters for two years to deflect concerns about conflict of interest. But before Wright’s confirmation, the FTC already decided against filing charges against Google, overriding its own staff’s recommendations. Google only had to voluntarily agree to alter some of its business practices to resolve the case.

So remember–if Google starts telling you about…ahem…academic studies, you can almost bet they paid for them.

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