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    Google Spends Billions on Academic Research to Influence Policy and Regulation

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    Google has spent millions funding academic research in the US and Europe to influence public opinion and policymakers, a report issued by US-based Campaign for Accountability has claimed. The search giant's record of academic "astroturfing" is said to put it in the same league as big oil and tobacco.

    The report's findings are unambiguous — Google uses its immense wealth and power to attempt to influence policymakers at every level. Google-funded studies are published by a wide variety of sources, and often blur the line between academic research and paid advocacy.

    It identified 329 academic research papers published between 2005 and 2017 on public policy the company funded, many of which have been ostensibly authored by academics and economists hailing from some of the US' leading law schools and universities — including Stanford, Harvard and MIT — as well as some of the most prestigious universities in Europe, including Oxford, Edinburgh, and the Berlin School of Economics.

    While some individual papers offered criticisms of Google, the overwhelming majority supported the company's policy or legal positions. Many were not published in peer-reviewed journals — and in extreme cases, some were little more than thinly-veiled opinion pieces, outlining the beliefs of an author on Google's payroll with little or no supporting evidence.

    Google-funded studies even routinely cited each other, helping further obscure the company's role and creating the impression of a large and growing body of academic research supporting the company's policy positions.

    The papers encompassed a wide range of policy and legal issues of critical importance to Google's commercial interests, including antitrust, privacy, net neutrality, search neutrality, patents and copyright. Some were also tied to specific issues Google has sought to influence.

    Underlining this, the volume of Google-funded studies tended to surge during moments when its business model was under threat from regulators, or the company had opportunities to push for regulations on competitors.

    For example, Google funded a cavalcade of studies on antitrust issues in 2011, when US antitrust enforcers were scrutinizing the company's practices — and the largest number of Google-funded studies was published in 2012, concurrently with major antitrust investigations into its conduct by the US Federal Trade Commission and European regulators. The spike in competition-themed papers subsided after the Federal Trade Commission closed its investigation in early 2013. 

    Academics were directly funded by Google in over half the papers, while the rest were bankrolled indirectly by groups or institutions supported by Google. Authors, who were paid between US$5,000 and US$400,000 (£3,900-£310,000) by Google, did not disclose the source of their funding in 66 percent of all cases, and in 26 percent of papers directly funded by Google.

    As a result, CFA fear policymakers unaware of the company's role may have been influenced by ostensibly independent academic papers. Google's anonymously funded research has spread far and wide, to mainstream journalists, the heads of government, national legislatures and regulators the world over.

    For instance, in 2011, Eric Schmidt, Google's then-Chief Executive, cited a Google-funded author in written answers to Congress to support his contention the company wasn't a monopoly. He neglected to mention Google paid for the paper.

    "What's good for Google is not necessarily good for the country. Google-funded academics should disclose the source of their funding. At a minimum, regulators should be aware allegedly independent legal and academic work on which they rely has been brought to them by Google," said CFA Chief Executive Daniel Stevens.

    The search engine was quick to respond to the "highly misleading" report.

    "The report attributes to Google any work that was supported by any organization to which we belong or have ever donated. Our support for the principles underlying an open internet is shared by many academics and institutions. We provide support to help them undertake further research, and to raise awareness of their ideas," said Leslie Miller, Google's Director of Public Policy.

    She added the report was "ironic" given the CFA "consistently refuses" to name its corporate funders, and the one funder publicly known about is computer technology firm Oracle, which is running a "well-documented" lobbying campaign against Google. Miller claimed Oracle has funded many hundreds of articles, research papers, symposia and reports to attack the firm.

    In turn, Stevens responded that Google "invariably" pointed the finger at someone else when their own questionable conduct was exposed.

    "We think our work speaks for itself. Over the past 18 months, the Google Transparency Project has documented more than 425 White House meetings by Google lobbyists, 250 revolving door hires between Google and government and more than 325 academic papers paid for by the company to help advance its policy interests. All of the underlying data is published on the site, along with more than 40,000 pages of Google emails with US government officials," Stevens added.

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    Tags:
    tech giant, lobbying, transparency, research, funding, policy, Google Transparency Project, Campaign for Accountability, Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Google, United States
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