Scholar says Google criticism cost him job: 'People are waking up to its power'

Barry Lynn has spent years studying the growing power of tech giants such as Google, and asking if they are monopolies. He believes the answer is yes

Every second of every day Google processes over 40,000 search queries – that’s about 3.5bn questions a day or 1.2tn a year. But there’s one question that Google apparently doesn’t want answered: is Google a monopoly?

Barry Lynn, until this week a senior fellow at Washington thinktank the New America Foundation, has spent years studying the growing power of tech giants like Google and Facebook. He believes the answer is yes. And that opinion, he argues, has cost him his job.

This week Lynn and his team were ousted from New America after the New York Times published emails that suggested Google was unhappy with his research. The tech giant, along with executive chairman Eric Schmidt, have donated $21m to New America since 1999. Schmidt chaired the organisation for years and its main conference room is called the “Eric Schmidt Ideas Lab”.

“I’ve been there for 15 years,” Lynn told the Guardian. “And for 14 everything was great. In the last year or so it has got more difficult. And from every piece of evidence that we are seeing that has to do with pressure from Google.

“Every day I see people waking up to the power of Google, Facebook and Amazon. We have to do something as a people, we have to do something through our government and address the power of these companies. The number of congressmen and others making statements on Capitol Hill about this is growing very rapidly. The number of businesses who are saying that something must be done about the power of these companies and the way they use their power.”

Google enjoyed a long honeymoon where it was seen as a force for good. But as fears over tech oligopolies grow, industry giants such as Amazon, Google and Facebook have found themselves the subject of greater scrutiny from governments and skeptics in academia.

Lynn, who ran New America’s Open Markets Initiative, said his problems began last June when the European Union fined Google a record €2.42bn ($2.7bn) for breaching antitrust rules and abusing its market dominance.

Lynn posted a brief note applauding the decision and calling on US regulators “to build upon this important precedent”. The post effectively ended his 15-year career at New America, he claims.

In a statement New America’s chief executive Anne-Marie Slaughter called the claims “absolutely false” and blamed Lynn’s “repeated refusal to adhere to New America’s standards of openness and institutional collegiality” for the decision.

Google said it would “not be a fair characterization at all” to blame Google for the decision. “I can confirm that our funding levels for 2017 have not changed as a result of NAF’s June post, nor did Eric Schmidt ever threaten to cut off funding because of it,” a spokeswoman said via email.

But for Lynn and others, this was more than just an office spat with a thinktank backer or office politics gone wrong . It represents a threat to independent research at a time when companies like Google are consolidating their enormous power.

“Things started going wrong last summer,” Lynn told the Guardian. Open Markets began working with senator Elizabeth Warren to help her prepare a speech on America’s monopolies and what to do about them.

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. The conference room at New America Foundation is called the ‘Eric Schmidt Ideas Lab’.
Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. The conference room at New America Foundation is called the ‘Eric Schmidt Ideas Lab’. Photograph: Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty Images

Google, Amazon and Facebook were platforms that could become tools “to snuff out competition,” Warren warned. “Anyone who loves markets knows that for markets to work, there has to be competition. But today, in America, competition is dying. Consolidation and concentration are on the rise in sector after sector. Concentration threatens our markets, threatens our economy, and threatens our democracy.”

Before the conference Slaughter’s response was to email Lynn, a correspondence which the New York Times obtained. “We are in the process of trying to expand our relationship with Google on some absolutely key points … just think about how you are imperiling funding for others.”

Shortly after the Times story was published earlier this week, Lynn and his team were out.

New America had traditionally given its experts autonomy. “They could say what they wanted to say,” said Lynn. “We had these units of expertise and the tradition at New America was that you trusted these experts.”

Lynn said he would guess that Google’s attitude had changed for two reasons. First, Open Markets had been gained greater weight in the eyes of policymakers and enforcers. Second, regulators, especially in Europe, have clearly moved towards taking more action.

“Google is a very sophisticated team of people. They know how to spend their money and wield their influence in ways that usually get them what they want,” Lynn said. “In terms of researchers, the danger is that research and work writing about Google, about platform monopoly in general, work that should be be doing for the good of the American public will not be done.”

Marshall Steinbaum, research director and fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, agrees. “On one level it is completely shocking that something like this has taken place, but it is also not surprising given the degree of market power these companies have.

“This is a huge issue in higher education policy. Given the diminished financing from state and federal sources, independent research has become more reliant on corporate sources,” he said. And with that comes strings.

Pressure for change is mounting. Luigi Zingalesm, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School, recently told the Financial Times that he and others believe antitrust laws should be reverted back to old laws that also limited political power – and in particular, continued the FT article, “the ability of rich companies and people in coastal areas to control everyone and everything else”.

Lynn has incorporated Open Markets Initiative as a separate entity and is working on launching a new thinktank. He said he hopes his new group will provide a platform for independent research into the power of companies like Google and Facebook.

“These effects are in so many corners of the political economy,” said Lynn.


Dominic Rushe

The GuardianTramp

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