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Corporate Astroturf and Manipulation of Media Messages by @SharylAttkisson at TEDxUniversityofNevada

February 7, 2015 Comments off

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Uncle Sugar Shows Us a Regular Guy on a Lobbying Trip

As we enter the a new session of Congress, we can anticipate being assaulted by the combined forces of Google, Facebook, Pandora and SiriusXM, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge, the Digital Media Association, the Computer & Communications Industry Association and its host of “studies”, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Stanford Institute for Internet and Society, the Berkman Center, the Consumer Electronics Association, the Internet Association and of course, the National Association of Broadcasters.

What’s different about the current state of play for artists, songwriters, producers is that our side really doesn’t have anything like the complex and systematized network of 501(c)(3)s, cy pres awards, special interest groups and academics that are on Google’s payroll and increasingly on the payroll of Facebook and the new Internet Association (which itself spends approximately $400,000 a quarter on lobbying alone).

I highly recommend you read this article by Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold from the Washington Post, “Google, once disdainful of lobbying, now a master of Washington influence.”  You’ll begin to get the idea that Google spends so much money on “astroturf and manipulation of media messages” that it had to start finding ways to create other ways to spend the money.  Hamburger and Gold lead their reporting with this example:

In May 2012, the law school at George Mason University hosted a forum billed as a “vibrant discussion” about Internet search competition. Many of the major players in the field were there — regulators from the Federal Trade Commission, federal and state prosecutors, top congressional staffers.

What the guests had not been told was that the day-long academic conference was in large part the work of Google, which maneuvered behind the scenes with GMU’s Law & Economics Center to put on the event. At the time, the company was under FTC investigation over concerns about the dominance of its famed search engine, a case that threatened Google’s core business.

Indeed, this manipulation has gotten so bad, the judge in Oracle v. Google required the parties to make court filings listing all the public commenters on the case which has come to be called the “Google Shill List” which you can read here.  The Trichordist has an excellent “connect the dots” post showing Google’s history of financing those filing “friends of the court” briefs in Google’s efforts to stop Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood’s investigation into Google’s violation of various laws.  All this in the aid of what the EFF might call “obfuscation”–Google and its “amici” would have you believe that Hood’s case is just about the acts of people using Google or its products, for which Google has a variety of statutory protections.  Nothing to see here, move along.

But as Hood points out, the four-year sting operation run against Google by a combination of federal agencies before a federal grand jury in Rhode Island showed that Google and its senior management team right up to Google’s CEO Larry Page was complicit in violating the Controlled Substances Act to the point of helping the bad guys get around Google’s own filters.  Google paid a $500,000,000 forfeiture for those drug violations for advertising the sale of prescription drugs–not for what the advertisers did, but for what Google did.

Sorting through more than four million documents, prosecutors found internal emails and documents that, they say, show Mr. Page was aware of the allegedly illicit ad sales. Under this week’s $500 million settlement, those emails won’t be released, avoiding the possibility of disclosure at trial.

“Larry Page knew what was going on,” Peter Neronha, the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney who led the probe, said in an interview. “We know it from the investigation. We simply know it from the documents we reviewed, witnesses that we interviewed, that Larry Page knew what was going on.”

Subsequently, Google’s lawyer said in open court that the Department of Justice apologized to Google for the statement by Mr. Neronha (Transcript of hearing at pp 11-12):

“The U.S. attorney in Rhode Island went off the reservation and gave a long interview about all the evidence and why it was he was so excited about the case,” lawyer Boris Feldman told the judge at a Delaware state court. “It ended up being so far off the reservation that the Justice Department apologized to Google for it and muzzled him.” (emphasis mine)

So when Hood served his subpoena, you could easily imagine Larry Page telling Google’s lawyers to MAKE IT STOP!  I’M RICH, I’M ENTITLED, HE CAN’T DO THIS TO ME!

MUZZLE HIM!

Because, the U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island told the Wall Street Journal that Page was implicated.  Google is now settling shareholder class action cases against Larry Page and the Google senior management team and board members alleging that Page is implicated.  There is a potential for a host of criminal violations at the State and federal level from consumer fraud, to RICO, to Sarbanes Oxley.  And the best Google can come up with for friends of the Court are the usual suspects and trade groups?  When the federal Justice Department is issuing apologies to multinational corporations, it’s left to state law enforcement officials to seek justice.

Just like the copyright battle in the Congress yet to come this year, Attorney General Hood’s investigation is a significant upping of the ante in these cases.  Hood’s case is one of the few times that an American multinational corporation tried to muzzle a criminal investigation into its own practices before it ever started.

And that’s worth bringing to bear a whole lot of astroturf just the copyright law–that in Google’s case presents a host of loopholes on which it’s built its business.

As the Trichordist points out, the venerable public interest watchdog “Public Citizen has released a study called Mission Creepy a great guide to Google’s labyrinthine influence buying.”  Even if you skim that report, I think you’ll agree we haven’t seen as comprehensive a takeover of the federal government, tax exempt organizations and the academy since the days of John D. Rockefeller, maybe not ever.  No wonder the Department of Justice is apologizing to Google.

But it’s not just controlling government officials that’s the problem.  It’s the combined work product of all this influence buying that is truly insidious.

How does this work?  This video by award wining investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson is an excellent discussion by the former CBS news reporter about the new media world we live in.  Ms. Attkisson uses the example of pharmaceutical companies doing a variety of things like manipulating search results and controlling Wikipedia.  Ahem….

Here is a link to the Columbia Journalism Review article that Ms. Attkisson references:  Bitter Pill: How the press helps push deadly prescription drugs, sometimes with deadly consequences.

Silicon Valley “Nonprofits” are Back at the Class Action Trough

January 6, 2013 Comments off

The Facebook “Sponsored Stories” class action settlement has been finalized.  Silicon Valley watchers will  immediately look for the “cy pres” award, which is cash money paid out of the class action settlement to certain “nonprofits” approved by the court.  What we have come to know is that if there is a class action involving a tech company, especially in the Northern District of California (San Francisco), you can bet that the same names will appear to further “outreach” (is that what it’s called?).  The “Sponsored Stories” settlement tells us:

The not-for-profit entities that might receive payment under the Settlement are involved in educational outreach that teaches adults and children how to use social media technologies safely, or are involved in research of social media, with a focus on critical thinking around advertising and commercialization, and particularly with protecting the interests of children. They are: Center for Democracy and Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Joan Ganz Cooney Center, Berkman Center for Internet and Society (Harvard Law School), Information Law Institute (NYU Law School), Berkeley Center for Law and Technology (Berkeley Law School), Center for Internet and Society (Stanford Law School), High Tech Law Institute (Santa Clara University School of Law), Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, Consumers Federation of America, Consumer Privacy Rights Fund, ConnectSafely.org, and WiredSafety.org.

As Fortune‘s Roger Parloff noted in his prescient article, “Google and Facebook’s New Tactic in Tech Wars“,  Google was called out for this practice in the Google Buzz class action in which it gave money to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, and Santa Clara University:

[The Electronic Privacy Information Center] and seven other privacy-focused nonprofits objected to their exclusion from the [Court’s initial award order] protesting that the plaintiffs lawyers and Google had, in effect, arranged to give the majority of those funds “to organizations that are currently paid by Google to lobby for or to consult for the company.” (The EFF, CDT, and CIS all reject that characterization of their relationship to Google. They aver, rather, their complete independence, and stress that any corporate donations they accept are “unrestricted” in nature — meaning that they come with no strings attached. [However, none of these groups objected to being characterized as lobbyists for Google at the time they got the Google money, or ever since to my knowledge.]) [My emphasis.]

[The Google Buzz judge] granted EPIC’s request, carving out a $500,000 tranche for it. (At the same time he spontaneously — without prompting from anyone — sliced off another $500,000 piece for an ethics center at Santa Clara University[.])

So as Mr. Parloff noted, certain policy shops get money directly from Big Tech and then they get even more in directed class action settlement payments (none of which was disclosed in the court ordered disclosure in the Oracle v. Google case:

[A]t least half of the [award] recipients in [the Google Buzz and Facebook class action] cases would very likely be getting at least some donations from Google or Facebook this year, whether or not any suit had ever been lodged against them. For instance, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), which got $500,000 from the Google Buzz cy pres award in 2011, received $340,000 in voluntary contributions from Google the year before. It’s now slated to receive $1 million from the proposed Facebook award, though Facebook has been listed as one of CDT’s leading e-commerce benefactors since at least 2009. Similarly, the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford (CIS), which received $500,000 from the Google Buzz award, had collected $400,000 in voluntary contributions from Google the year before (which amounted to 51 percent of CIS’s total revenue that year). This year CIS will collect $600,000 from Facebook’s Sponsored Stories settlement, if approved. [Not to mention the $2 million that CIS got from Google during Professor Lessig’s tenure at CIS.]

As Andrew Orlowski asked after the Google Buzz payouts: “What do you do when a global corporation pays out millions to the watchdogs that we expect to protect us against it?”

If you are settling into your individual role in the Big Tech oligarchy (or what Eric Schmidt calls the “Gang of Four”) remember that the way the British established the Empire was through a series of steps.  First, they sent in the missionaries.

UPDATE:  Andrew Orlowski made an excellent point about a perversity in the payout structure of the “Sponsored Stories” settlement:

In an annoying loophole, even if all the class-action litigants claim their 10 bucks they still might not stop the payout to the cy-près beneficiaries… If TOO MANY people submit a claim form, and the “number of claims made renders it economically infeasible to pay money to persons who make a timely and valid claim”… then “payment will be made to the not-for-profit organizations identified in Section 7 of this Notice”.

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